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The Association of British Counties

Gazetteer of
British Place Names

The definitive reference source to Great Britain. Explore over 280,000 places.

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1. Main Features of the Gazetteer

The Gazetteer has three main functions:

  • it provides an exhaustive index to the place names of Great Britain;
  • it relates each place name to its historic county;
  • it relates each place name to a set of administrative areas.

In Sections 1.1-1.4 of this introduction we discuss each of these aspects. In Section 1.5, we discuss the need for a fixed general-purpose geographical reference frame for Great Britain and propose that the historic counties are the only sensible choice for such a reference frame.

1.1 Place Name Index

Over 250,000 place names are included alongside their National Grid reference and their longitude and latitude. The aim is to include every settlement (above isolated houses and farmsteads) which has a distinct name and identity. This includes hamlets, villages, towns and cities. Each district within an urban area which has a distinct name and identity has been included as a separate entry. The communities of Wales and the civil parishses of England also have separate entries. Landscape features are also featured, including bays, beaches, lakes, ponds, marshes, islands, hills, mountains, valleys, woods and coastal features (headlands and points). Places whose names have more than one standard spelling are included under each spelling. Similarly, places with Welsh and English or Gaelic and English names are listed under both, with cross-referencing.

The Place Name Index can be searched via a search box which enables full, partial and "sounds like" names to be searched. Matching places are returned as a list from which an individual place can be selected and full details of the Gazetteer record for that place displayed. This record contains a small map and a satellite view around the selected place, along with a link to the full Gazetteer Map. A brief description of each settlement is also included. Some examples are below.

Whitchurch, Herefordshire Whitchurch is a village in Herefordshire. St Dubricius parish church dates from the 13th century. The village is within the council area of County of Herefordshire.
Whitchurch, Warwickshire Whitchurch is a hamlet in Warwickshire. Lying on the left bank of the River Stour, it occupies the site of an earlier village which was depopulated in the 15th and 16th centuries. The village is within the council area of Stratford-on-Avon (Warwickshire).
Whitchurch, Pembrokeshire Whitchurch is a hamlet in Pembrokeshire, comprising the parish church (dedicated to St David) and a few houses. The standing stone Maen Dewi is believed to be the lower part of a large Celtic cross. The hamlet is within the council area of Pembrokeshire.

1.2 Gazetteer Map

The Gazetteer can also be searched directly from a search box on the Gazetteer Map. This returns a list of places which match the search criteria, from which an individual place can be selected. The Gazetteer Map will then zoom in to the selected place and a pop-up will display a summary of the Gazetteer information for that place. The full Gazetteer entry can be accessed from the pop-up by clicking on the place name hyperlink.

The Gazetteer Map is fully scrollable and zoomable. All places included in the Gazetteer are marked on the map by location pins, with each type of feature being coded by colour and icon - see the Map Key. This enables the Gazetteer to be investigated by clicking on any location pin. This will display a pop-up containing a summary of the information held in the Gazetteer relating to that place, the full entry being accessible by clicking the place name hyperlink.

Some examples map entries are below.
Abbess Roding, Essex
Abbotts Bickington, Devon

1.3 The Historic Counties of Great Britain

Full details of the historic county within which each place lies are included.

The historic counties of Great Britain are geographical entities whose ages and origins vary. Most of those of England pre-date the Norman conquest. The thirteen historic counties of Wales were fixed by Statute in 1535 and most of those of Scotland are of at least this age. Whilst each county was probably created with some kind of administrative purpose in mind, the counties have long since come to represent something much more than this. They have become bedrocks of the history, culture and geography of Britain. They provide an instant means of reference to different parts of the country, to a set of cities, towns and villages; to distinctive scenery, architecture and wildlife; to particular industries and pastimes, accents and dialects, tourist attractions, weather and so on. A large literature focuses on each of the counties; they give their names to clubs and societies, to teams people play for. Above all else, they are places - places where people live and "come from", where they "belong".

In previous centuries the counties were directly utilised by Parliament for various administrative purposes (e.g. sheriffs, lieutenants, justices, parliamentary seats). However, no single administrative function has ever defined them. Their geographical identity has always been paramount. Whilst the counties are no longer directly used as the basis for any major administrative purpose, they remain important geographical and cultural entities.

Because various other types of statutorily created administrative areas have used (and still do) the word "county", there has long been a need for a terminology which distinguishes between the counties themselves and each of these sets of administrative areas. Such administrative areas have always been understood to be separate entities to the counties themselves, although based to a greater or lesser extent upon their areas. Between 1851 and 1881, the Census Reports used the phrase "Counties Proper" to distinguish between the historic counties and the Registrar-General's "registration counties" (these latter were entirely artificial creations intended to help the enumeration and analysis of the Censuses). After 1891 the Census Reports used the phrase "Ancient or Geographical Counties"" or simply "Ancient Counties" to distinguish the Counties themselves from the "administrative counties" (top tier local government areas) created in 1889. The need for a distinguishing terminology still exists since there are presently two different sets of administrative areas each of which has been given the unqualified label "county" (i.e. those of the Local Government Act 1972 and those of the Lieutenancies Act 1997).

Within the gazetteer we use the term "historic counties" to refer to the counties themselves, following the approach of the Historic Counties Standard, published by the Historic Counties Trust. This terminology is also used by the Office for National Statistics in its Index of Place Names of Great Britain. The Encyclopaedia Britannica also uses the phrase "historic county" to refer to one of the ancient or geographical counties.

A Map of the Historic Counties is included as part of the gazetteer.

Despite the continued prominence of the historic counties in the cultural life of Britain and in common geographical parlance, some modern works of reference tend to overlook them. Often such works attempt to use local government areas as a basis for descriptions of geographical location. The problems and pitfalls of this approach are discussed in Section 1.4. The historic counties provide a far more sensible, fixed, reference frame to base such descriptions upon.

1.4 Administrative areas

The gazetteer provides details of the main types of administrative area associated with each place name. Those included are local government areas and police areas. These areas were chosen because they are those which the public or the media most commonly encounter. Other arguably important administrative areas currently not included in the gazetteer include the registration districts of births, deaths and marriages, the fire service areas, the commission of the peace areas (i.e. of magistrates courts) and the complex geographical areas of the National Health Service.

Each of the sets of administrative areas included in the gazetteer has been created in the recent past by an Act of Parliament for a specified administrative purpose. Each of them has no existence beyond its particular administrative remit. In particular, Parliament has never imposed any wider geographical or cultural role of any of them. The explanatory notes of Section 2 detail the relevant Act which governs the existence of each of these sets of areas. Brief notes are also given of the administrative purposes for which these areas exist.

1.5 The need for a fixed geographical reference frame

Each of the sets of administrative areas included in this gazetteer forms its own "administrative geography". Each particular "administrative geography" is important within its own field and clearly a general understanding of the geographical organisation of the major forms of public administration is important. However, there has been an increasing trend in recent years (i.e. by publishers and the media in general) to try to use administrative areas as a basis for general descriptions of geographical location. There are major drawbacks to such an approach:

(i) Such administrative areas were created to facilitate the provision of particular specified public services. They were not created to fulfill a general popular geographical or cultural role. To use them as such is to assign to them a function and status not given them by Parliament.

(ii) The names and areas of administrative units change frequently. Many of the current set are unfamiliar to many people and are unlikely ever to become familiar. It is unrealistic to expect people to re-learn their whole notion of "where places are" every 20 years or so.

(iii) There are several types of important administrative areas. There is no obvious reason to choose one type of "administrative geography" over another as a basis for general-purpose geography.

(iv) Many modern administrative units have names which are borrowed from a town or city within their area. This renders them useless as a basis for popular geography. Clearly, for example, one can't describe Swindon as being "in Swindon" or Telford as being "in Telford and Wrekin".

(v) Many administrative areas do not conform to commonly held ideas of cultural identity. Surely no-one can be expected to say "I come from Rhondda Cynon Taff" !

The interests of general-purpose geography require a geographical framework which is fixed, popularly understood and firmly rooted in history, tradition and commonly held concepts of community and identity. The historic counties are the natural choice for this framework because:

(i) They are fixed in name and area.

(ii) They have provided the standard geographical framework of Britain for centuries. They are the only geographical framework which can logically be used for the description of past events. The relation of present and future events to the past requires their use. Imagine trying to write a history of Britain based upon sets of areas which radically changed every 20 years or so.

(iii) Their names and areas are still generally familiar to most people and are commonly used as a basis for general-purpose geography.

(iv) They are important cultural entities. Many people have a strong sense of loyalty to and identify with their county. Innumerable sporting, social and cultural activities are based upon them.

(v) The names of all of the historic counties are an acceptable part of Royal Mail postal addresses. (In contrast many modern local government area names are not acceptable since they clash with Post Town names).

The six counties of Northern Ireland, like those of Great Britain, are no longer used as the basis for any major form of public administration. Yet they are almost universally used as the standard geographical framework for Northern Ireland. The administrative areas of Northern Ireland are not used in any general-purpose geographical context. The case for the adoption of this convention within Great Britain is overwhelming.

1.6 Disclaimer

Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information within this gazetteer, the huge nature of such a publication means that errors must inevitably occur. We can do no better than to quote from the introduction to the 1848 edition of Lewes's Topographical Dictionary of England:

"The proprietors cannot entertain the hope that, in a work compiled from such a variety of sources, and containing notices so numerous and diversified, errors have not occurred. They have, however, regardless of expense, used the most indefatigable exertions to attain correctness, and to render the work as complete as possible; and they, therefore, trust that any occasional inaccuracy will receive the indulgence of the subscribers."

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