Association of British Counties (ABC)

The Royal Mail (see Sherds, p.64) no longer regards county names as part of your postal address, a fact that the Association of British Counties – set up ‘to promote awareness of the continuing importance of the 92 historic (or traditional) counties of the United Kingdom’ – regards as a matter of regret: hence they advocate the continued use of historic county names within postal addresses ‘as a simple but effective way of expressing pride and affection for one’s county’. So do carry on using Rutland, Banffshire, or Radnorshire on your letterhead if it pleases you.

The ABC believes that the historic counties are an important part of our national heritage, a geographical framework dating from the Middle Ages that had been (until the local authority reorganisation of 1974) fixed and stable, a key to unlocking the information held in archives and databases, and rooted in ‘public understanding and commonly held notions of community and identity.’ The ABC seeks to encourage their continued use – for example, as the basis for social, sporting, and cultural activities (Middlesex still has a County Cricket Club, while the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust and the Brecknockshire Agricultural Society are both thriving institutions whose names denote a more compact region than the modern county name of Powys). The monarch still recognises historic counties by appointing representatives, called Lords-Lieutenant, to what the Crown calls ‘ceremonial’ counties.

TEXT & images: Wikimedia Commons, Tango22 / Greentubing / Vexilo.
Have you ever seen any of these? A selection of historic county flags registered with the Flag Institute: Merioneth’s flag shows three goats dancing and a rising sun, based on the banner borne by the men of Merioneth at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
TEXT & images: Wikimedia Commons, Tango22 / Greentubing / Vexilo
Northumberland’s flag is inspired by Bede’s description of a flag used on the tomb of St Oswald in the 7th century.
TEXT & images: Wikimedia Commons, Tango22 / Greentubing / Vexilo.
Wiltshire’s has a golden bustard in a circle representing Stonehenge and Avebury, and green and white stripes to stand for the chalk downs.

For the increasing number of people who grew up in the post-1974 era, and for whom historic county names are not part of their culture, the ABC provides a valuable service with its County-Wise database, intended to help those undertaking family history research, or using deeds and inventories to study old buildings. Simply pop the name of a town or village into their Gazetteer of British Place Names and you will discover what county it was in, along with a map and a profile of the county (for example, the earliest reference to the county name – in the case of Rutland, in 1159). Here, too, you can explore intriguing facts such as that while the border between Middlesex and Essex (running through the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park) looks arbitrary, it in fact follows a long-lost watercourse (see CA 354). Once you know that, many other features of the map fall into place.

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