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Gazetteer of
British Place Names

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4. Notes for Historians and Genealogists

4.1. Introduction

The Gazetteer of British Place Names, whilst intended primarily as a contemporary gazetteer, is also a valuable resource to historians and genealogists. These notes are intended to enable historians and genealogists to get the most from the information contained in the Gazetteer.

Firstly, in Section 4.2, we describe the three main purposes to which the historian or genealogist may wish to use the Gazetteer: to determine the location of places from references listing place name and county; to locate the current repository of historical records; and to determine the present-day Registration District within which a particular town or village lies.

Secondly, in Section 4.3, we explain in some detail the important differences, in type and area, between the historic counties of Britain, the "registration counties" upon which the Censuses of England and Wales were conducted from 1851-1921 and the "administrative counties" and "county boroughs" which were the principal local government areas from 1889 until 1974. An understanding of the nature of each of these sets of areas and the uses to which each was put is vital if one is to understand the geographical frameworks on which historical records are based and if one is to be clear about the meaning of a reference to "county" in any particular historical document. Sadly, most genealogical reference sources totally fail to draw any distinction at all between these three quite distinct set of areas. This can lead to great confusion.

Thirdly, in Section 4.4, we discuss some of the most common sets of records used by genealogists and local historians. We point out whether it is the historic counties, the registration counties or the administrative counties which are the relevant areas for each set of records. We also discuss several of the main reference sources for genealogists available on the web and examine whether these sources are arranged using the historic counties, the registration counties or the administrative counties. This is often not made clear within the reference source itself.

4.2. Main uses of the Gazetteer for the historian or genealogist

4.2.1 To determine the location of a place from an historical reference

Column 3 of the Gazetteer lists the historic county of more than 50,000 places in England, Wales and Scotland. Since the counties have undergone little change in the last few centuries, the Gazetteer can be used to determine the location of places found in historical records which list place name and county (e.g. the "Where Born" column of Census returns).

In this respect the Gazetteer has several advantages over other on-line gazetteers. Firstly, it has the most comprehensive coverage of any on-line gazetteer in that it covers the whole of Great Britain and contains over 50,000 place-name entries. It contains commonly accepted spelling variations of place names including an exhaustive coverage of Welsh and Gaelic spellings. It provides full details of the correct county for places both prior to and following the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844.

An important feature of the Gazetteer is that the places it lists are settlements (e.g. villages, hamlets, towns, localities) rather than administrative areas (i.e. parishes, townships, tythings etc.). Many gazetteers aimed at genealogists only include the names of these latter types of administrative areas. Within a parish there can be several separate settlements each with its own distinct name and identity. In some cases these would be recognised on Census Reports as "townships", "tythings" etc. and they may appear in gazetteers in this guise. However, large numbers of identifiable "places" do not fall into these categories and usually do not appear in Census Reports (or in the various on-line gazetteers based upon these). This is particularly true in the case of the large number of new towns and villages which developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of these never gave their names to parishes. However, most parishes did give their name to the main settlement within them. Hence, these parish names do appear in the Gazetteer.

4.2.2 To determine the present repository of historical records relating to a place

The Gazetteer list the full local government information (administrative county, district, unitary authority area) for each place name. Since the keeping of local historical records is a responsibility of local authorities, the Gazetteer provides a good general guide to where records related to a particular place are likely to be found.

Following the continual re-organisation of local government of the last 120 years, few local authorities now cover an area anything like that of any historic county. And yet it is within record offices maintained by the local authorities that records relating to the counties are to be found. The approach of local authorities to this problem varies. Some try only to keep records of places which lie within their area, others try to keep records of the whole of the historic county which shares the name of their area. This leads to absurd complications. For example, the parish registers for the historic county of Warwick can be found scattered between record offices in Birmingham, Warwick, Gloucester, Coventry and Worcester.

Consequently, a little research is usually needed to determine the correct repository of a particular set of records. With regard to parish registers, an excellent starting point is The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers. The Genuki ( county pages provide full details of the record offices of the UK under the heading "Archives and Libraries". For example, on finding from the Gazetteer that a place lies in the historic county of Gloucester but in the Warwickshire administrative county, one can, using the Genuki county pages, easily find contact details and links to the Gloucester Record Office and the Warwickshire Record Office. A brief enquiry should then reveal which office contains the records for the place of interest.

4.2.3 To determine the present-day Registration District of a place

Copies of birth, death and marriage certificates in England and Wales can be obtained by post directly from the local register office at which the registration was originally made (or, more often, from that office to which the registers have been moved by subsequent reorganisation). This process is cheaper than applying by post direct to the General Register Office (GRO). Full details of how to do this as well as contact details for all the present-day register offices in England and Wales can found on

The Gazetteer can provide a useful first step in locating the correct local register office to which to direct your request. Within England and Wales the present-day Registration Districts are subdivisions of the administrative counties and the unitary authority areas. In Appendix A we present a list of the Registration Districts associated with each administrative county and each unitary authority area. Using this, along with the local government information from the Gazetteer, in many cases one can unambiguously determine the correct Registration District. In other cases, it is possible to narrow the possible Registration Districts down to several possibilities. Consulting a map will usually narrow the search down to only one or two possibilities.

For example, according to the Gazetteer the village of Middle Stoford lies in the administrative county of Somerset. Appendix A lists five possible Registration Districts in this administrative county (Mendip, Sedgemoor, Taunton Deane, West Somerset and Yeovil). A quick look at a map shows that Middle Stoford most probably lies in the Registration District of Taunton Deane. The address and phone number of the register office for this Registration District can be found from A brief enquiry will then either confirm that this is the correct register office or will determine which of the other neighbouring Registration Districts is correct.

Note that, whilst in administrative county areas the Registration Districts are sub-divisions of the administrative county, they are generally completely different sub-divisions to the local government districts. Many Registration Districts have the same name as a local government district but a different area. In determining the Registration District it is therefore wise to ignore the local government district information altogether.

Copies of birth, death and marriage certificates can also be obtained directly from register offices in Scotland. However, the Registration Districts of Scotland are not exact sub-divisions of the unitary authority areas. Furthermore, there are more than 300 Registration Districts in Scotland compared to 22 unitary authority areas. Consequently the local government information in the Gazetteer won't be of much help in finding which present-day register office holds the records for a particular place. A list of the names and addresses of the current Scottish register offices can be obtained from the Scottish Association of Family History Societies.

4.3. Historic counties, registration counties, administrative counties and the 1974 myth

Most standard genealogy text books or web sites present a simple view of the counties of Britain. One might get the impression that there existed in Britain from ancient times a set of counties and that there was little by way of change to these counties until 1974. In 1974, so one might be led to believe, these counties were radically altered. Hence, one might imagine, one needs to be aware of two types of county, "pre-1974" and "post-1974". The most charitable thing which could be said of this oft-repeated view is that it is a gross simplification of the truth. In fact, it is just plain incorrect. The problem for historians and genealogists is that an unquestioning belief in this 1974-myth will lead them to an incorrect understanding of the geographical frameworks on which historical records are based. This could also potentially lead them to misunderstand the meaning of a reference to "county" in any particular historical document.

There are three distinct sets of areas which historians and genealogists need to be aware of, each of which can be described by the word "county", with or without further qualification. These are the historic counties, the "registration counties" and the "administrative counties". A reference to "county" in an historical document might to any one of these three (depending on the date and the type of document). There are also the "parliamentary counties", but these tend not to crop up in documents of genealogical interest.

In this section we explain the nature of each of these three distinct sets of areas. We describe the the relationship between them and outline the contexts in which each is likely to be encountered in historical documents.

4.3.1 The historic counties

First and foremost the unqualified word "county" should be used to refer to one of the 86 historic counties of Britain. These are the counties referred to in Column 3 of the Gazetteer of British Place Names.

The ages and the origins of the counties of Britain vary. Most of those of England pre-date the Norman conquest. The thirteen counties of Wales were fixed by Statute in 1539 and most of those of Scotland are of at least this age. While each county may have originally been set up for some public purpose or other, long before the beginning of the nineteenth century it was their geographical identity that was paramount. No single administrative function defined them. Rather, the counties were considered to be territorial divisions of the Country whose names and areas had been fixed for many centuries and were universally known and accepted. The counties were clearly recognised legal entities. This is witnessed by the fact that innumerable Acts of Parliament made reference to them and used them as the basic geographical framework for various administrative functions.

However, the counties were, and are, much more than convenient geographical areas. They are also important cultural entities. Many people have a strong sense of identity with and allegiance to their county. The counties are the basis of innumerable sporting, social and cultural organisations and activities. Above all else, unlike administrative areas, the counties are places - places where people live and "come from", where they "belong".

Prior to 1837, there was little by way of ambiguity as to what the word "county" in any context meant. It meant one of the historic counties. For example, the Censuses of 1801-1831 were all enumerated and published using the historic counties as their basic geographical framework. References to "county" on parish registers and non-conformist registers are to the historic county.

The only (small) area of ambiguity concerns the effect of the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844 in England and Wales. Prior to this Act, there were many small parts of one county which lay detached from the main body of that county and entirely within another county. The 1844 Act deemed that from 20th Oct 1844 most of these detached parts were to be considered "for all purposes" to form part of the county within which they were locally situate. Whether this was meant to be a real territorial change or an administrative convenience is debatable. Nonetheless, it was generally taken as such, for example by the GRO in the Census Reports from 1851 onwards.

For those places affected by the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844, the Gazetteer of British Place Names lists both the post-1844 and the pre-1844 county. In Appendix B of these notes we present an alphabetical list of the parishes, hamlets, and townships affected by the Act. Those seeking records (in particular parish registers) from places within this list need to take extra care that they have found the correct repository for these records.

4.3.2 The registration counties

The "registration counties" of England and Wales were artificial entities created by the Registrar-General in the mid-nineteenth century to facilitate the enumeration and analysis of the Censuses. They ceased to be used by the General Register Office (GRO) following the 1921 Census. An understanding of what they were is important for anyone seeking to use Census returns for studying family history or using the actual published Census Reports for historical studies.

The origins of the registration counties lay in the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. For the purposes of the provision of relief to the poor this Act divided the whole of England and Wales into "Poor-Law Unions". Within each Union the relief of the poor was made the responsibility of an elected Board of Guardians. The Unions were formed by grouping parishes together. The prime concern in doing this was the efficiency of administration of poor relief. Hence, in many cases a particular Union would contain parishes from two or more different historic counties.

The process of civil registration in England and Wales was first established by the Act for the Registering of Births, Deaths and Marriages 1836. A Registrar General was appointed as head of the national system of civil registration. This officer had a central staff in the GRO. The whole of England and Wales was divided into Registration Districts. In most cases the Registration Districts were coterminous with the existing Poor-Law Unions. A Superintendent Registrar, responsible for the registration of births, deaths and marriages, was appointed to each Registration District. The Registration Districts were further subdivided into sub-districts. To each sub-district was appointed a registrar of births and deaths. Each Registration District comprised typically 3 or 4 sub-districts and each sub-district comprised several parishes. The important point to note is that because the Registration Districts were usually identical to the Poor-Law Unions and these Unions often crossed historic county boundaries, then many of the new Registration Districts, and some sub-districts, also crossed county boundaries.

The new civil registration system was henceforward made use of by the GRO for the enumeration of the Censuses of England and Wales. This was done by dividing each registration sub-district into several enumeration areas. An enumerator was appointed to each enumeration area. He was responsible for distributing the household forms to each household in his area and for collecting the completed forms. He then had to copy the information on these forms into his "enumerators' books". The registrar of each registration sub-district then received copies of the enumerators' books from all the enumeration areas in his sub-district. He checked these and forwarded them to the Superintendent Registrar of his Registration District. He then checked all the books from his Registration District and forwarded these to the Registrar-General.

The 1841 Census was the first to make use of the new civil registration areas in this way. However, once all the enumeration books were assembled at the GRO, the records were then re-ordered into historic county order (i.e. the returns for all parishes in a single county were collected together even though this involved splitting records from some Registration Districts). This means that the published reports from the 1841 Census and the filmed copies of the enumerators' books are based on the historic counties, despite having been enumerated on the basis of the Registration Districts.

However, the returns for the 1851 Census (and all those up to and including 1921) were treated in a different way. For this Census the Registrar General defined a set of "registration counties". Each registration county was formed by grouping together all those Registration Districts which lay predominantly in a particular historic county. So, for example, if 70% of a Registration District lay in the historic county of Berks then the whole of that Registration District was deemed to lie in the "registration county" of Berks. Hence whilst the registration counties shared the names of the historic counties there were often significant differences in area between them.

The Registrar-General also defined 11 registration "Divisions" (e.g. North Western, West Midland, South Eastern etc.). These divisions were made by grouping together the registration counties. A "London" division comprised the parts of the registration counties of Middlesex, Surrey and Kent within the limits of the Registrar-General's bills of mortality. The published Census Reports presented extensive statistical analysis for each division and of each registration county. However, these reports also presented similar statistics for the "counties proper" (i.e. the historic counties). Students of these Census Reports should be clear which type of county is being discussed.

From the 1851 Census onwards, the actual enumerators' books were not re-ordered into historic county order (as the 1841 returns had been). They were stored in division order and, within each division, in registration county order. Subsequently these records have been filmed and indexed in this order. Genealogists need to be aware that the references to "county" in the Place Name Indexes to the Census returns from 1851 onwards are to registration county and NOT to historic county. This matter is discussed in more detail in Section 4.4 below. Appendix C provides a list of those parishes, townships etc. which lay in a registration county of a different name to their historic county at the time of the 1851 Census. Appendix D presents a similar list for the time of the 1881 Census.

Like all administrative areas, the names and areas of the Registration Districts have frequently been altered in the interests of efficient administration. Such changes, of course, led to changes in the areas of the registration counties between each Census. However, the areas of the registration service were not generally altered following the creation of the administrative counties and county boroughs by the Local Government Act 1888 (LGA 1888). The only change was that the Registrar-General created a new registration county of "London" almost coterminous with the newly created administrative county of London. This new registration county formed the whole of the London division. Since the metropolitan parts of Kent, Surrey and Middlesex had been enumerated and indexed separately from the rest of the registration counties since 1851, this made little difference to the way in which the Census was conducted or ordered.

The Local Government Act 1929 abolished the Poor-Law Unions and assigned their functions to the administrative county and county borough authorities. The Act also facilitated the re-arrangement of the Registration Districts so as to lie within administrative county and county borough boundaries. From this time, the GRO gave up on the idea of registration counties. Censuses were henceforward enumerated and reported on the basis of the administrative counties and county boroughs (within which the Registration Districts now lay). The Local Government Act 1972 continued this practice and today Registration Districts in England and Wales are sub-divisions of either administrative counties or unitary authority areas (see Appendix A).

Civil registration in Scotland began with the passing of the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act 1854. This Act established the General Register Office for Scotland headed by the Registrar General (for Scotland). By 1855 Scotland had been divided into 1027 Registration Districts. These Registration Districts generally were either whole parishes or sub-divisions of parishes.

The Scottish Census of 1861 was the first to be conducted by the Registrar General for Scotland. In common with the practice in England and Wales, the Registrar General created artificial "registration counties" to assist in the enumeration and evaluation of the Census. Each registration county was comprised of all those Registration Districts which lay predominantly in one particular county. However, the Scottish Registration Districts were closely based on the parishes. Therefore, it was generally only in places where a parish lay partly in two counties that the registration counties differed from the counties themselves. In such cases the whole of the parish would be deemed to lie in that registration county with the same name as the county within which the greater part of the parish lay. Therefore, there was a much closer correspondence between the counties and the registration counties in Scotland than in England and Wales. A list of those parishes concerned is provided in Appendix E.

4.3.3 The administrative counties and county boroughs

The era of modern local government began with the Local Government Act 1888 (LGA 1888). The LGA 1888 created a whole new set of statutorily defined administrative areas covering the whole of England and Wales, terming them "administrative counties" (two-tier local government areas) and "county boroughs" (single-tier local government areas). The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889 created similar administrative areas in Scotland. The new areas were given elected councils to administer those functions assigned to them.

The areas of the "administrative counties" were initially based upon the historic counties (i.e. NOT on the registration counties). However, the administrative counties and the historic counties never had exactly the same areas for several reasons:

(i) Certain large towns and cities were made "county boroughs", independent of their neighbouring or surrounding administrative county.

(ii) The LGA 1888 specified that each urban sanitary district (forerunners of the Urban Districts) had to lie within a single administrative county. Many of the urban sanitary districts crossed historic county borders and hence, in these areas, the administrative county boundaries differed from those of the historic counties.

(iii) An administrative county of "London" was created covering the metropolitan parts of the historic counties of Middlesex, Kent and Surrey.

It should be understood that the LGA 1888 did not abolish or alter the historic counties. This fact was reflected in the Census Report of 1891. This distinguished between what it dubbed the "ancient or geographical counties" and the new "administrative counties". It made it clear that the two were distinct entities and that the former still existed, providing detailed statistics for both (and for the registration counties). No subsequent Act has ever tried to alter or abolish the historic counties and their continued existence has been reaffirmed consistently by the Government.

Almost immediately after they were created, the areas of the new administrative counties began to be altered both by Orders from the Local Government Board and by Local Acts of Parliament. The main aims of these changes were to iron out inconvenient boundaries and to extend administrative county or county borough boundaries to keep pace with expanding urban areas (e.g. Birmingham county borough was radically expanded into the administrative county of Worcester in 1911).

These generally small changes continued up to the 1960s during which decade much more radical changes took place. The London Government Act 1963 created the local government area of "Greater London" (and within it the London Boroughs). It also abolished the administrative counties of Middlesex and London and greatly curtailed the areas of the administrative counties of Surrey, Kent and Essex. Other major changes saw the creation of the administrative county of "Huntingdon and Peterborough" and the county borough of "Teesside".

Consequently, the pattern of administrative counties and county boroughs which existed immediately prior to 1974 was already radically different in many places to that of the historic counties.

4.3.4 The 1974-myth and the problems it can cause historians and genealogists

The local government reforms of 1974 in England and Wales were the result of the Local Government Act 1972 (LGA 1972). Despite what is often thought, all this Act actually did was to abolish all of the "administrative counties" and "county boroughs" created by the LGA 1888 and create a whole new set of local government areas. To quote from the LGA 1972: "1 (1) For the administration of local government on and after 1st April 1974 England (exclusive of Greater London and the Isles of Scilly) shall be divided into local government areas to be known as counties and in those counties there shall be local government areas to be known as districts."

The unqualified use of the word "counties" by the LGA 1972 (rather than the term "administrative counties") has been the source of much confusion. However, it is clear from this extract that these "counties" are nothing more nor less than "local government areas" which are "to be known as counties" and which only exist "for the administration of local government". The word "county" is a label within the terminology of the Act to refer to those top-tier local government areas defined by it. Such a definition of a word within an Act for a particular purpose should not be taken to have any bearing upon the ordinary, popular meaning of that word. Rather, it is an admission that, within that Act, the word is not being used in its ordinary, popular sense.

Note that the LGA 1972 did not do anything to the historic counties of Britain. It only abolished the administrative counties and county boroughs. The Government was (and still is) happy to confirm that the counties themselves were unaffected: "The new county boundaries are solely for the purpose of defining areas of ... local government. They are administrative areas, and will not alter the traditional boundaries of counties, nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change."(DoE Statement, 1st April 1974).

Whilst the "administrative counties" of the LGA 1888 had initially been closely based upon the historic counties, the LGA 1972's "counties" were, in many areas, radically different, not least in that the majority of the population of England found itself either in "Greater London" or one of six new "metropolitan counties" which bore no relation to any historic county. The LGA 1972 "counties" of Wales were also totally different from either the historic counties or the pre-1974 administrative counties. The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 saw the creation of 9 "regions" the areas of which were generally unrelated to those of the counties.

In truth, the names and areas of administrative units have, since the early 19th century, been subject to frequent and evolving change as the perceived needs of society have altered. The years 1974 and 1975 saw a particularly wide ranging set of such changes. However, such changes were not unique to these years and, in any case, neither these changes nor those previous to them had an effect on the historic counties of Britain. Neither did changes to local government areas stop in 1975. Since then local government has been totally reformed again in Scotland and Wales and in many parts of England (again, however, these changes have not affected the historic counties). To hold up 1974 as a single year to use as a reference by which to describe changes to local government areas would be a wholly inadequate way of describing the complex and continual changes to these areas. To quote 1974 as a year with some special relevance to the historic counties is just plain nonsense.

Despite all this one frequently finds references to "pre-1974 counties" in genealogical reference works. What are usually (though not always) meant by this phrase are actually the historic counties. In fact of the three type of "county" discussed here the historic counties are the only set to which one can't apply the expression "pre-1974". The registration counties ceased to be used by the RGO after 1921. The administrative counties and county boroughs were abolished in 1974. Both of these sets of "county" could therefore be called "pre-1974 counties". However, the historic counties were not abolished before, during or after 1974.

From the point of view of a historian or genealogist, a belief in the simple "pre-1974 counties" idea can lead to confusion in several ways:

(i) It fails to draw a distinction between the historic counties and the registration counties. This distinction needs to be made if one is to understand the basis of the registration of births, deaths and marriages and the conducting of the Censuses until 1931. One can't make effective use of Census Reports or the enumeration returns without understanding this distinction.

(ii) It fails to draw a distinction between the historic counties and the post-1889 administrative counties and county boroughs. These latter were important administrative areas from 1889-1974. From the early 1930s the Registration Districts were also based upon them and the Censuses enumerated and reported on the basis of their areas. The administrative county and county borough authorities have also created their own historical records. A proper comprehension and use of the records based on these areas requires an understanding of how they differ from the historic counties (both in a legal sense and in terms of their areas).

(iii) It fails to reflect the fact that long before 1974 in many areas the administrative counties were radically different from the historic counties. To say that information is based on "pre-1974 counties" when it is actually based on the historic counties is confusing and misleading. The pre-1974 administrative counties included the administrative county of London and in numerous other places parishes were moved to an administrative county with a different name to their historic county. In the 1960s "Greater London" and "Huntingdon and Peterborough" and "Teesside" appeared. It is unclear where one might expect to find information relating to such areas in a reference source which is claimed to be organised on the basis of "pre-1974 counties".

Only by understanding the distinct nature of the historic counties, the registration counties, and the administrative counties and county boroughs can one understand the geographical frameworks on which historical records are based and hence understand the meaning of a particular reference to "county" in a given document. Those who keep historical records or compile reference sources of historical information also need to understand these points and correctly denote which type of "county" is the relevant one in each circumstance.

4.4 The type of "county" used in historical documents and genealogical reference sources

In this section we discuss some of the most common sets of records used by genealogists and local historians. We point out whether it is the historic counties, the registration counties or the administrative counties which are the relevant areas for each set of records. We also discuss several of the main reference sources for genealogists available on the web and examine whether these sources are arranged using the historic counties, the registration counties or the administrative counties.

4.4.1 Parish Registers in England and Wales

Prior to the start of civil registration in England and Wales (in 1837), any reference to "county" has to be to one of the historic counties. Hence, for those wishing to search parish registers from this period it is the historic county (Column 3 in the Gazetteer of British Place Names) which is relevant. However, prior to the Counties (Detached) Parts Act 1844 there were many small detached parts. The relevant county for a particular place can easily be found from the Gazetteer since this includes a note of places affected by the 1844 Act and their pre-1844 county. A full list of places affected by the 1844 Act can also be found in Appendix B.

4.4.2 Non-conformist Registers in England and Wales

Many registers of baptisms, marriages and burials from nonconformist churches (mainly for England and Wales) were collected in by the Government in 1837 (a smaller number were also collected in 1858). However, many records were not collected. Some of these remain with their congregations. Others have found their way into local record offices. For all pre-1858 registers any reference to "county" is to the historic county. As with parish registers one has to remember that the later records (in RG8) may have been affected by the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844.

4.4.3 Old Parish Registers in Scotland

The Church of Scotland's records of baptisms, marriages and burials from the period before civil registration (1854) are held by the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) and are available for public inspection on microfilm at New Register House in Edinburgh. A List of the Old Parochial Registers provides the basic reference guide for identifying the dates for births/baptisms, marriage/proclamations and deaths/burials in the Old Parish Registers held by the GROS. This list is organised on the basis of the historic counties of Scotland. Computerised indexes to the births/baptisms and proclamations/marriages are available on-line at

4.4.4 The International Genealogical Index (IGI)

The I.G.I. is an incomplete index to birth/baptisms and marriages. It has been principally compiled from parish and non-conformist registers. As regards England, the I.G.I. is available as a set of separate "county indexes". The "counties" used are the ancient counties with the exception that Middlesex and the metropolitan parts of Surrey and Kent can be found in a "London" section.

4.4.5 Census Returns for England and Wales

The enumerators' books for the Censuses of England and Wales list all the individuals in each household on Census night along with their ages and relationship to the head of the household. Perhaps of greatest value to the genealogist is the "Where Born" column of these returns. This column lists the town/parish and county of birth. This information is that given by the householder. In general it is safe to assume that the county name included in this column is that of the historic county. The registration counties never entered the public consciousness. Even after the creation of the administrative counties the Census Reports pointed out that it was invariably to the historic county that people referred when asked their place of birth.

Online access to census data

The National Archives provides online access to Census returns for England and Wales from 1841 to 1901 in association with and The 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 census records can also be accessed for free on site at the National Archives in Kew.

On the search forms and returned records for these facilities, prior to the 1891 census, civil parishes are related to their historic county (i.e. NOT to their registration county). For the 1891 and 1901 census, civil parishes are related to their administrative county (i.e. NOT to the historic county nor to the registration county).

For each of the Censuses there is a Place Name Index which enables one to determine the Registration District and sub-district within which a particular place lay at the time of the Census. The first two columns of these place-name indexes are "Place Name" and "county". In the indexes to the 1851-1891 Censuses these "counties" are, in fact, the registration counties. One needs to be aware of this fact in order to avoid confusion (for example if one finds a place listed under what appears to be the "wrong" county, one might hesitate to believe one had found the correct place at all).

In Appendix C we provide a list of those places which lay in a registration county of a different name to their historic county at the time of the 1851 Census. Any confusion from using the Place Name Index to the 1851 Census can be avoided by reference to this list. Appendix D provides a similar list for the 1881 Census.

As discussed in Section 3.2 the returns from the 1841 Census were actually sorted, stored and filmed in historic county order. Hence the "county" column in this Place Name Index refers to the historic counties as unaffected by the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844.

1881 Census Surname Index

A surname index to the 1881 Census has been prepared by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and is widely available as a set of microfiches. With regard to England, these microfiches are organised on a county basis. These are historic counties and NOT registration counties. Users need to be aware of this. It means that the "county" under which a place in the Census Place Name Index for 1881 will sometimes differ from that under which its records have been included in the Surname Index. Appendix D will help avoid any confusion which might result from this.

Genuki's searchable database of places in the 1891 census

This database ( ( works by performing a search on an input place name. Whilst this is an excellent resource, to get the most from it one needs to be aware of certain aspects to it which are not made apparent to the casual user.

Firstly, the "county" column in the returned results is the registration county and NOT the historic county nor the administrative county. For example a search on "Dockenfield" produces:

county   District  Sub-District    Place              PRO Piece number   LDS film
Surrey   Farnham   Farnham         Dockenfield (HAM)  RG12-570           6095680

The parish of Dockenfield was in the registration county of Surrey in 1891 but lies in the historic county of Southampton (Hampshire). Fortunately, the "HAM" after the place name appears to denote the correct historic county. Unfortunately, the difference between the two types of county is not made clear on the search or results pages. To add further confusion, if one clicks on "Surrey" on the results page one is sent to Genuki's county page for Surrey which, since it is concerned with the historic county of Surrey, does not give any information on Dockenfield.

To add even more confusion, the county in brackets turns out not to be the historic county at all but the administrative county. In 1891 the parish of Todmorden and Walsden lay in the historic county of Lancaster but in the registration county of West Riding of Yorkshire and in the administrative county of West Riding. A search on this place returns "West Riding, Yorks" as the "county". It gives no further county information after the place name since the administrative county was also W R Yorks. Hence, from the database one cannot glean that this parish is part of the historic county of Lancaster.

Finally, for places within the London registration county the database returns the phrase "Greater London" as the "county".

Census returns for Scotland

Census returns relating to Scotland for 1841-1901 can be consulted on microfilm at General Register Office for Scotland in Edinburgh. On-line access to the Census data from 1841 - 1901 is available through

Prior to 1861 the Censuses of Scotland were conducted entirely on the basis of the historic counties. From 1861, the Censuses were conducted and reported in terms of the registration counties. However, the differences between the two sets of areas were small (compared to those in England and Wales). Appendix E should clear up any confusion.

4.4.6 Genuki's County Pages

The Genuki county pages contain an extraordinary wealth of information relating to each of the historic counties of Great Britain (and Ireland). The explanatory text on GENUKI generally clearly explains that it is based on the historic counties.

4.4.7 The Family History Library Catalogue

The Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is housed in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. It contains over 2 million roles of microfilm and hundreds of thousands of books and maps of interest to family historians. The catalogue of the Family History Library (which can be searched online at relates places in Great Britain to their historic county as existing at 1866, i.e. as affected by the counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844 in England and Wales (see Appendix B for a list of parishes affected by this Act).