What's the point of counties?

Blank signpost

Official postal addresses may soon no longer have county names on them. So is our link to counties steadily being eroded? And does it matter?

Here of a Sunday morning

My love and I would lie,

And see the coloured counties,

And hear the larks so high

For many, the words of AE Housman's poem A Shropshire Lad epitomise the English tradition of identifying oneself through one's county.

But that link is about to take a bit of a knock.

Royal Mail has announced that county names are to be deleted from its postal database, which is called the Postcode Address File and lists every address in the UK. It's used by businesses and public bodies.

People will still be able to put counties on addresses when they post letters, but are being advised it's not necessary because a house number, street and postcode are all that is needed.

Apply Royal Mail sensibilities to the Housman poem and the title might change from A Shropshire Lad to the rather less romantic An SY8 Lad - SY8 being the postcode for Ludlow, home to Housman's grave.

Ian Beesley, chairman of the board that advises the Royal Mail on running the database, said county names had become "a kind of vanity attachment".

Tampering with history

While many city dwellers may view the Royal Mail proposal as a sensible move - and one or two lines less to write on an envelope - for others this strikes at the heart of who they are.

Start Quote

Russell Grant

It's not just about Middlesex but wherever you grew up and realised from a young age the things that are part of your history and heritage”

End Quote Russell Grant

County-lovers say that by deleting county names from addresses, the postal service is tampering with Britain's history.

"It is not up to Royal Mail to decide whether or not to delete our heritage," says Arnold Bear from Bagshot in Surrey. "As far as I recall, we didn't elect them."

When astrologer Russell Grant was growing up in Hillingdon in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he felt very much a Middlesex boy.

"I used to look at Middlesex Cricket Club scores every morning in the paper. And on my school books, it said 'Middlesex Education Committee' with the shield of Middlesex, so I felt that sense of belonging.

"And so did others, over the smallest things they were brought up with. It's not just about Middlesex but wherever you grew up and realised from a young age the things that are part of your history and heritage."

De-Saxonising

In 1965, the county council was incorporated into Greater London, Hertfordshire and Surrey.

Four ways counties still matter

  • County cricket
  • Regional BBC radio stations
  • Police forces
  • County councils and education authorities

Grant says this removed "daily contact" that local people had with the name because they no longer saw it on, for example, the side of fire engines.

"It didn't really change anything for me because I had a solid identity but for people moving into the area, it changed things and it definitely became more confusing."

The name of Middlesex, a Saxon settlement documented in 704, lives on in many ways, most famously in the county cricket club and the university, and its spirit is still evoked by road signs that proudly announce to drivers when they are entering the old county boundaries.

There was also a recent reminder of its past glories when the former Middlesex Guildhall was preserved as the new Supreme Court in Parliament Square, central London.

What happened to the historical county of Middlesex was repeated across the UK between 1972 and 1975, when a major reorganisation of local government swept aside many old county names. In Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the county councils were no more.

Famous counties, famous people

Denise Van Outen
  • Yorkshire: Michael Parkinson
  • Essex: Denise Van Outen (pictured)
  • Dorset: Thomas Hardy

Grant, who wrote The Real Counties of Britain, says Parliament should have sought to protect the historical counties and he still uses the historic county names when he's writing an address on an envelope.

"People need their counties for their history and their sense of identity."

The erosion of counties by the postal service has been going on for a long time, he says, but the bigger problem is the media getting things wrong.

The picture is especially confusing on the edge of cities which, as they have grown, so their municipal boundaries have encroached on to counties, blurring the identity of those living on the outskirts.

So Croydon-born Kate Moss, for example, could be correctly described as both a Londoner and a Surrey girl, although many people would insist one is right and the other wrong.

Were she still living there, she would pay her council tax to a London borough, created in 1965, but her fan mail may say "Croydon, Surrey" on the envelope because that is the postal address.

Kate Moss Croydon girl or Surrey? It's the same place

It's not just outer London that suffers from this geographical "double-identity". In much the same way, Wigan is in Greater Manchester for municipal reasons but historically, and in most people's minds, it's very much a part of Lancashire.

But people probably identify more with their historical county than with the name of their local council, says David Kett, a retired lecturer in local and central government.

So people in Croydon are more likely to say they live in Surrey than south London. In some areas, like Hampshire, the county council does not even collect the council tax, which is paid to district councils.

But there have been some illogical name changes which have added to the confusion when council boundaries changed, he says.

"The names that have been adopted don't actually reflect the historic counties, " he says.

For example, when Avon disappeared [in 1996], it was replaced by four unitary authorities including South Gloucestershire, even though it's not in Gloucestershire and not part of that county council.

Urban thinking

Postcodes are no reliable indicator either, says Mr Kett. Petersfield, for example, has a Surrey postcode even though it's in Hampshire.

Rutland sign Rutland - recognised by Royal Mail in 2007, only to be derecognised

There is no doubt that some counties have a stronger identity than others. Yorkshire celebrated its annual festival at the weekend, Cornwall has its own language and flag, and the more people make jokes about Essex, the closer it seems to bond.

After Rutland was abolished in 1974 and the villages there became controlled by Leicestershire County Council, the people began a successful, 23-year campaign to have Rutland reinstated.

During the fight, signs that said "Leicestershire" were replaced by Rutland County ones, says Roger Begy, leader of Rutland County Council, and the campaign was vital in persuading the Boundary Commission to act.

The victory in 1997 when it got its own council - the smallest unitary authority in England - was followed 10 years later when Royal Mail officially recognised Rutland as a postal county again. But the municipal change was the more significant triumph, says Mr Begy.

"Having a county council is about being accountable, so people know who they are talking to and who to point the finger at. Whatever Royal Mail say, people will always put Rutland on an address."

The campaign was about resisting what Mr Begy describes as the urbanisation of policy and thinking.

"Rural counties have a strong identity and want to be part of that identity. It's one of the reasons why people come here."

A selection of your comments appears below

If Petersfield inhabitants are confused at having a post code from one county whilst being positioned in another, imagine the cultural schism and muddled identity created when many towns & villages in mid-Wales, in Montogomeryshire (or Powys, if preferred) are given a Shrewsbury ENGLAND postcode. I suspect it's likely something simiar happens in the Scottish Borders as well.

Marion Bulmer, Llanidloes Powys

This is simply to do with efficiency in delivering the mails. That is why we have addresses. People should not view it as anything else. Of course there is sentimental value. That is why people adore steam trains although they no longer run, except on heritage journeys.

Paul T Horgan, Bracknell

I was born in Avon (formerly Somerset, later dissolved altogether) then moved to Berkshire which although still exists as a ceremonial county is now in effect split into about five fairly meaningless local authorities. Some counties have a stronger pull than others. Dorset and Devon have recently adopted flags, there's talk of the Kentish language and Cornwall has long trumpeted its distinctive identity. I think this is really positive as long as it is not taken to the absurd and meaningless lengths of say Cornish Nationalism or having all the road signs in Kent in two languages. Counties are important in terms of our identities. As our national identity dwindles to supra-national and regional government bases, the County provides a positive means of having a relationship with a particular part of the Country. This also helps nullify some of the negative connotations of nationalism that are present in Wales and Scotland and on the rise in England.

Dan, Brighton, Sussex, UK

While it's correct that County has been a optional address line for quite some time, your article omits the Postal Town, which I'm pretty sure is still required by Royal Mail in case the postcode isn't legible. And Mr Bear from Bagshot is getting a little carried away if he thinks the Royal Mail is deleting anything. Counties are artitrary, movable and have little to do with your postal address. They are a pain for customer database professional like me who buy PAF data from Royal Mail. By all means celebrate your county name when you play cricket, but leave it out of your clubhouse's address, thank you.

Neil Benson, Richmond, UK

Remember when you were a kid and wrote 'The World, The Universe' on your addresses? Their lack of necessity didn't mean they don't exist. Addresses are about giving your loyal postie enough information to deliver a letter. Nothing more, nothing less. If you want to leave your County on there, go for your life. They can't arrest you!

Chris Bolam, Newbury, UK

In my experience, this will make no difference whatsoever. I was born in East Yorkshire, and raised mostly in North Humberside, until it was abolished in 1996, from which time I have lived in the City and County of Kingston Upon Hull. I still receive mail (from companies who didn't even exist in 1996) addressed to North Humberside, and many online stores refuse to accept my address (correctly) without a county and generally list Humberside among the options available. I tend to use East Yorkshire in those cases, but it is incorrect. If the Royal Mail abolishes the use of counties in addresses, fine (mine is already like that anyway), but companies will take an age to catch up, so don't expect them to disappear any time soon.

David Cooper, Hull, England

While I have no issue whatsoever with people being proud of their county, removing the county names from official addresses should not diminish that at all. I'd be amazed if people only ever feel that pride when they see their address on a letter, and it's not as if the counties themselves are being dissolved. To use an example local to me, Lincolnshire sausages won't suddenly become just 'sausages' if Lincolnshire isn't on the official address anymore. No one puts 'UK' at the end of addresses if they're sending mail internally, but that shouldn't diminish any national pride that people have - nor should it make people feel any less British.

Tom, Grantham, UK

I was brought up in Liverpool, I have a strong affinity with Huddersfield - where I live, with Yorkshire and the North of England. My father was Scottish and my mother's father was Welsh. My mother's mother was mostly Irish. I therefore feel very British but less "English". Certainly I feel no common identity with the South of England. I feel no affinity with "Kirklees" (my local authority) and even less with Leeds City Region which looks like being the new "county" around here. I cannot imagine us having a Leeds City Region Tourist Board, for instance or a LCR day of Celebration (like Yorkshire day on the 1st August). Counties strike deep into the psyche. Yorkshiremen struggled for decades to get the East Riding of Yorkshire reclaimed from North Humberside. They still celebrate Yorkshire day in Saddleworth which since 1974 has been (allegedly) been part of Greater Manchester. So don't worry about the Counties. They will survive a lot longer than current politicians.

Colin Harrison, Huddersfiled, Yorkshire

I was born in Essex but grew up just over the border in Hertfordshire, the difference in these two counties when you meet people from elsewhere is huge. Tell people you are an essex girl and all sorts of stereotypes - rightly or wrongly - come out, whereas if im from Hertfordshire they then tend to think im posh. Personally, I would never want to get rid of counties for this reason, they do have a cultural identity so unique from each other! Only have to look at the Hairy Biker series.

Liz, London

Will this mean that Essex boys and girls will cease to exist? Surely the white stilletto industry will collapse? In times of such financial woe, it is irresponsible of the Royal Mail to jeopordise such a thriving industry, and a national institution to boot. Shame on you.

Nick, Great Dunmow, Essex

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