This question is related to: Should I use the modern (what it is called now) or historical (what it was called) place name? There is no doubt that the standard is to record the name of the place as it was at the time of the event. However, with counties in the UK, this is not always clear cut.

At various times there were (to name a few):

  • historic counties
  • ceremonial counties
  • registration counties
  • administrative counties
  • county boroughs

Many of these geographies overlap and were in concurrent use, but the boundaries were not the same. Furthermore, the administrative counties and boroughs changed frequently over time. This makes it very difficult to know which geography to use when entering genealogical events into a family history database.

As an example, I was born post-1974 in an area in the historic county of Cheshire, and ceremonial county of Greater Manchester. Locals would have still considered the place Cheshire, even though it is technically no longer in formal use. My birth certificate does not even specify an administrative county, only the "administrative area" that is the Metropolitan Borough.

Which county type is typically used by genealogists to describe events such as my birth – historic county, ceremonial county, or administrative county borough?

3 Answers 3


Which county? I would suggest that deciding to align to what 'typical genealogists' do is not a good idea if it works counter to (a) your software or (b) your immediate intended audience. (Emphasis on 'immediate' audience as our total intended audience should surely be anyone and everyone - however, surely we should prioritise?).

If your software allows standardisation of place-names to (say) current administrative counties, then that gives you flexibility to overcome issues with another choice of county type for data entry.

You should also consider what the software does with the county names - if it simply prints them out again, there are probably no extra issues from that. If, however, it attempts to map them, then some choices of county types may not work as well at locating the places on maps.

Re the immediate intended audience: While I currently use the contemporary historic county for my British place-names, I am acutely aware that in certain areas, the current (today's contemporary) historic county is getting more out of step with what people living there recognise. On another list, the opinion was expressed that inhabitants of (the English) Birmingham would be surprised to be linked to their historic county of Warwickshire instead of their administrative (sort of) county of West Midlands, thinking of Warwickshire as rural. (I know that the question basically accepts that the contemporary place-names are the ones to use, but 'contemporary' needs to cover today's events).

For what it's worth, I think the county types fall into 3 basic types:

  • Historic counties;
  • Administrative counties;
  • Ceremonial counties.

Concepts like registration counties can be classified as a sub-type of administrative county, though please note that the registration county and local government administrative county for a single place might differ.

Other sub-types of administrative counties include county boroughs (where a municipal authority has powers equivalent to those of an administrative county) and their pre-1888 equivalents of counties corporate (a.k.a. 'counties of themselves'). While Unitary Authorities are reminiscent of county boroughs, they have no administrative county above.

After some thought, I came to the conclusion not to use county corporate for place-names - even though that would no doubt upset my Bristolian ancestors, the people of that city being proud of the 'City and County of Bristol'. There are 2 issues with this name. Where to record it - in the slot for town or in the slot for county? And, while Bristol does not cause ambiguities, other counties corporate do - the 'City and County of Gloucester' is a very different thing from the 'County of Gloucester'. The latter is Gloucestershire, the former the administrative unit covering just the city of Gloucester.

This meant that I could then consistently discard the post-1888 county boroughs, which I regard as a desirable result - I cannot believe that replacing "Dewsbury, West Riding, England" by "Dewsbury County Borough, , England" helps the general reader who might, with no clue from the latter name, guess that Dewsbury was once in Lancashire (perish the thought!)

Ceremonial counties seem just plain odd to use - why would we care who the Lord Lieutenant was? The oddness is emphasised by the fact that several of the Lieutenancies seem to have been appointed in groups - from memory, I think that the same person was normally appointed as the Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, the City & County of Bristol and the City & County of Gloucester - so why not have a Lieutenancy for the whole of the traditional county of Gloucestershire?

In the end, I think there are only two viable choices:

  • Historic counties (as seen on pre-1974 maps);
  • Administrative counties, adding back in any enclaves of county boroughs and / or counties corporate;

Neither are wholly satisfactory - the historic counties are getting out of step with current events and were never as unchanging as their supporters pretend, while contemporary administrative counties suffer from one place being in several counties over history. For the latter issue, I usually quote Widnes, which has gone from 'Widnes, Lancashire' to 'Widnes, Cheshire' to 'Widnes, Halton District' - the first two county names serve to define where Widnes is, while I suggest that in the last case, Widnes serves to define where Halton is!

I suspect that your personal preference is the most valid criterion!


To answer this question, I have to ask another one: how can we define "most genealogists"? Another thing to consider is how you are going to make use of the place data when you see it in your family history software.

Finding Materials in Library Catalogs

I did a place search for England in the Family History Library's catalog. For "Places within England" their entry for Greater Manchester says:


The county of Greater Manchester was formed 1 April 1974 from Manchester and the areas of Wigan, Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Trafford, Stockport, Tameside, which includes parts of Cheshire, Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. Abolished admin. in 1986


England, Cheshire
England, Lancashire
England, Lancashire, Manchester
England, Yorkshire

Part of England

And for catalog results it says:

No results found

In order to see the FHL catalog results for the Greater Manchester area, you have to drill down to one of the specific sub-areas listed in the catalog notes. Since you already know you want the area that used to be Cheshire, if you are going to be using the FHL on a regular basis, the practical solution is to use that as your standardized place.

This leads me to the question of "what do other big libraries do?" -- I invite other users to put examples in their answers.

Using Gazetteers, Map Collections, and Mapping Software

Another consideration is how your standardized place name might affect Geocoding. If your software is depending on having the modern name in order for its mapping features to work, there's an advantage to using the most recent name in order to make use of that feature. If your software allows you to drop your own pin, this may not be as much of an issue.

I would love to see software which would allow us to gather and record information about the 'genealogy of places' as well as people, and would allow us to call up the appropriate historical shapefile for an area, but I don't know of any software that does this and also integrates with our family history data.

Some other examples:

  • A Vision of Britain says on their FAQ about the Authority List: "For now, our systematic detailed coverage is limited to the period between 1801 and 1974 in Great Britain" and "Our main source for England is Frederic Youngs' Guide to the Local Administrative Units of England, published in two volumes by the Royal Historical Society in 1979 and 1991."
  • maps.familysearch.org is based on the 1851 Jurisdictions -- an interactive version of The Phillimore atlas and index of parish registers
  • Some websites will state they are following the administrative districts used in the Chapman codes.
  • This help page for Genuki's Gazetteer, which uses "the traditional pre-1974 counties", discusses the difficulties in trying to map the parishes from the start of civil registration to the modern map.



There are policies on this subject in some areas related to genealogy.

The General Register Office have rules for UK civil registration that require all registrations to show place names (and counties) as they are at the time the event is registered, not as they may have been historically (even if that would have been correct at the time)

So as an example, a person born and whose birth was registered 80 years ago in Bolton, Lancashire and whose death is registered now, would have their birth place shown on the death certificate as Bolton, Greater Manchester, even though that place name didn't exist in that form at the time of their birth.

  • How interesting - I will watch out for that - though one of my parents died Feb 2015 and their birthplace on the DC is Cheshire rather than Cheshire East. Still, it emphasises in yet another way that death certificates provide only secondary information about births.
    – AdrianB38
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 10:07

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