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For family historians on both sides of the pond, the term “County” can cause confusion. In Britain a county is the major subdivision of the country while in the US, a county is a subdivision of a state, which is a subdivision of the country. Therefore, a British county is roughly equivalent to a US state.

To add to the confusion in England:

  • we do not include the word “county” as a prefix or any part of the name (with one notable exception – County Durham.)
  • despite the fact that half of English counties use the suffix “-shire,” we don’t use the collective term “Shires” (at least, not today.)
  • “Counties” have several different functions, as described in Wikipedia

“The counties of England are areas used for different purposes, which include administrative, geographical, cultural and political demarcation. The term ‘county’ is not clearly defined and can apply to similar or the same areas used by each of these demarcation structures. These different types of county each have a more formal name but are commonly referred to just as ‘counties’. The current arrangement is the result of incremental reform.

“The original county structure has its origins in the Middle Ages. These counties are often referred to as historic or traditional counties.

“The Local Government Act 1888 created new areas for organising local government that it called administrative counties and county boroughs. These administrative areas adopted the names of, and closely resembled the areas of, the traditional counties. Later legislative changes to the new local government structure led to greater distinction between the traditional and the administrative counties.

“The Local Government Act 1972 abolished the 1888 act, its administrative counties and county boroughs. In their place, the 1972 Act created new areas for handling local government that were also called administrative counties. The 1972 administrative counties differed distinctly in area from the 1888 administrative counties, that had now been abolished, and from the traditional counties, that had still not been abolished. Many of the names of the traditional counties were still being used now for the 1972 administrative counties. Later legislation created yet further area differences between the 1972 administrative counties and the traditional counties. In 2018, for the purpose of administration, England outside Greater London and the Isles of Scilly is divided into 83 metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties.

“The Lieutenancies Act 1997 created areas to be used for the purpose of the Lieutenancies Act. These newly created areas are called ceremonial counties and are based on, but not always the same as, the areas of the 1972 administrative counties.”

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