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County town

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In Great Britain and Ireland, a county town is the most important town or city in a county.[dubiousdiscuss] It is usually the location of administrative or judicial functions within a county, and the place where public representatives are elected to parliament. Following the establishment of county councils in England 1889, the headquarters of the new councils were usually established in the county town of each county; however, the concept of a county town pre-dates these councils.

The concept of a county town is ill-defined and unofficial. Some counties in Great Britain have their administrative bodies housed elsewhere. For example, Lancaster is the county town of Lancashire, but the county council is in Preston. Due to the creation of unitary authorities, some county towns in Great Britain are administratively separate from the county. For example, Nottingham is separated from the rest of Nottinghamshire, and Brighton and Hove is separate from East Sussex. On a ceremonial level, both are in their own respective counties geographically.

Great Britain, historic[edit]


This list shows towns or cities which held county functions at various points in time.

County Named after or of same root Places that held county functions
 Bedfordshire Bedford
 Berkshire N/A Reading or Abingdon[a]
 Buckinghamshire Buckingham Aylesbury[b]
 Cambridgeshire Cambridge Ely
 Cheshire Chester
 Cornwall N/A Truro, Bodmin or Launceston[c]
 Cumberland Carlisle (county later renamed) Cockermouth or Penrith[d]
 Derbyshire Derby
 Devon N/A Exeter
 Dorset Dorchester Poole
 County Durham Durham Bishop Auckland or Sadberge
 Essex N/A Chelmsford
 Gloucestershire Gloucester Bristol
 Hampshire Southampton Winchester[3]
 Herefordshire Hereford
 Hertfordshire Hertford
 Huntingdonshire Huntingdon
 Kent Canterbury (name of same origin) Maidstone[e]
 Lancashire Lancaster Preston[f]
 Leicestershire Leicester
 Lincolnshire Lincoln
 Middlesex N/A Brentford, Clerkenwell, London or Westminster[g]
 Norfolk N/A Norwich
 Northamptonshire Northampton
 Northumberland N/A Alnwick, Newcastle upon Tyne, Morpeth or Berwick upon Tweed[h]
 Nottinghamshire Nottingham[i]
 Oxfordshire Oxford
 Rutland N/A Oakham
 Shropshire Shrewsbury (spellings diverged)
 Somerset Somerton Taunton, Ilchester, Bath or Wells[j]
 Staffordshire Stafford Lichfield
 Suffolk N/A Ipswich
 Surrey N/A Guildford, Newington or Southwark[k]
 Sussex N/A Lewes, Chichester or Horsham[l]
 Warwickshire Warwick Coventry
 Westmorland N/A Appleby or Kendal
 Wiltshire Wilton Trowbridge, Salisbury or Devizes [m]
 Worcestershire Worcester
 Yorkshire York Kingston upon Hull
  1. ^ Lent assizes were held at Reading, where the county gaol and house of correction were situated; summer assizes were held at Abingdon, which was the site of the county bridewell.[1] Knights of the shire were nominated at Reading and elected at Abingdon.[1][2]
  2. ^ Sir John Baldwin, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, caused the county assizes to be moved to Aylesbury. Knights of the shire continued to be elected at Buckingham. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica considered Buckingham to be the county town.
  3. ^ The county assize court sat at Bodmin, and the 1911 Britannica considered Bodmin to be the county town. Prior to 1835, it was Launceston.
  4. ^ Knights of the shire were elected at Cockermouth; the assizes and quarter sessions courts were occasionally held at Penrith.
  5. ^ East Kent and West Kent had separate administrations until 1814, with East Kent sessions meeting at Canterbury, and West Kent at Maidstone, the over-all county town.
  6. ^ In 1787 the Lancashire Quarter Sessions decreed that in future the annual general sessions for transacting all business for the county at large should be held at Preston as it was "a central place in the county." The magistrates of Lonsdale Hundred refused to accept the decision, and would meet only at Lancaster. The matter was settled only when a local act of parliament (38 Geo. 3. c. 58) established that the principal administrative business of the county could be transacted only at Preston.[4]
  7. ^ Knights of the shire were elected at Brentford; sessions presided over by Middlesex Justices of the Peace were held at Clerkenwell; trials for persons accused of the most serious crimes took place in the Old Bailey before the Aldermen of the City prior to the committing of the accused to Newgate Prison (which functioned as the county gaol for Middlesex) if found guilty; while the county council had its headquarters at the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster from its establishment in 1889 until its abolition in 1965.[5]
  8. ^ Alnwick's position as the county town seems to have been based largely on its castle being the seat of the Duke of Northumberland, although knights of the shire were elected at the town too.[6] Assizes for the county however were held mainly or exclusively in Newcastle upon Tyne. Morpeth Castle was used as the prison for Northumberland, and the county gaol was built there in 1824.[7][8]
  9. ^ Nottingham was constituted a county corporate separate from Nottinghamshire in 1449. The area containing the Shire Hall however remained an exclave of Nottinghamshire.[9]
  10. ^ Knights of the shire were elected at Ilchester. Somerton temporarily became the county town in the late thirteenth century, when the shire courts and county gaol were moved from Ilchester.[10]
  11. ^ Under the Surrey Gaol Act 1791 (31 Geo. 3. c. 22) the justices of the peace of the county of Surrey were empowered to build a new sessions house and county gaol at Newington adjacent to the borough of Southwark and in the suburbs of London.[11] By 1799 the buildings were completed and the county administration was based there until 1893.[12] Newington or Southwark (the ecclesiastical centre) were sometimes described as the county town thereafter, for instance in a school textbook of 1828.[13]
  12. ^ Chichester was traditionally described as the capital city of Sussex and Lewes its county town.[14][15][16] Horsham was occasionally described as the county town of Sussex due to the presence of the county gaol and the periodic holding of the county assizes and quarter sessions in the town. The last assizes were held there in 1830, while the gaol was closed in 1845.[17]
  13. ^ Wiltshire County Council note that Wiltshire "never had a well recognised county town".[18] An 1870s gazetteer describes "Salisbury and Devizes" as the "county towns".[19] The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica names only Salisbury.


County County town
 Aberdeenshire Aberdeen[a]
Angus (or Forfarshire) Forfar
Argyll Lochgilphead (formerly Inveraray)[b]
Ayrshire Ayr
 Banffshire Banff
 Berwickshire Duns, Scottish Borders (formerly Berwick-upon-Tweed, formerly Greenlaw)
Bute Rothesay
 Caithness Wick
Clackmannanshire Alloa (formerly Clackmannan)
Cromartyshire Cromarty
Dumfriesshire Dumfries
Dunbartonshire Dumbarton
 East Lothian (or Haddingtonshire) Haddington
Fife Cupar
Inverness-shire Inverness
Kincardineshire Stonehaven (formerly Kincardine)
Kinross-shire Kinross
 Kirkcudbrightshire Kirkcudbright
Lanarkshire Lanark[c]
Midlothian (or Edinburghshire) Edinburgh[d]
 Morayshire (or Elginshire) Elgin
Nairnshire Nairn
 Orkney Kirkwall
Peeblesshire Peebles
Perthshire Perth
Renfrewshire Renfrew[e]
Ross-shire Dingwall (also the county town of Ross and Cromarty)
Roxburghshire Jedburgh (formerly Roxburgh)[f]
Selkirkshire Selkirk
 Shetland Lerwick
Stirlingshire Stirling
 Sutherland Dornoch[g]
West Lothian (or Linlithgowshire) Linlithgow
Wigtownshire Wigtown[h]
  1. ^ In 1900 Aberdeen became a county of a city and thus outside the remit of the county council.
  2. ^ Inveraray (the seat of the Duke of Argyll) was regarded as the county town until 1890, when the Argyll County Council was created with headquarters in Lochgilphead.
  3. ^ The headquarters of the Lanark County Council were established in 1890 in Glasgow. In 1893 Glasgow became a county of itself, and was therefore outside the council's area. The county council moved to Hamilton in 1964.[20]
  4. ^ Edinburgh was a county of itself, and therefore lay outside the remit of the county council.
  5. ^ The headquarters of Renfrew County Council were in Paisley from 1890.
  6. ^ Newtown St Boswells was the administrative headquarters of the county council established in 1890.
  7. ^ The headquarters of Sutherland County Council were at Golspie from 1890.
  8. ^ Stranraer became the administrative headquarters of the Wigtown county council in 1890, and was sometimes described as the "county town" thereafter.


Following the Norman invasion of Wales, the Cambro-Normans created the historic shire system (also known as ancient counties). Many of these counties were named for the centre of Norman power within the new county (Caernarfonshire named for Caernarfon, Monmouthshire named for Monmouth) others were named after the previous medieval Welsh kingdoms (Ceredigon becomes Cardigan, Morgannwg becomes Glamorgan). The 1535 Laws in Wales Act established the historic counties in English law, but in Wales they were later replaced with eight preserved counties for ceremonial purposes and the twenty two principal areas are used for administrative purposes. Neither of these subdivisions use official county towns, although their administrative headquarters and ceremonial centres are often located in the historic county town.[21]

Name in English Name in Welsh County town in English County town in Welsh
 Anglesey Ynys Môn Llangefni
(formerly Beaumaris?)
Brecknockshire Brycheiniog Brecon Aberhonddu
(formerly Carnarvonshire)
Sir Gaernarfon Caernarfon Caernarfon
 Cardiganshire Ceredigion Cardigan Aberteifi
Carmarthenshire Sir Gaerfyrddin Carmarthen Caerfyrddin
Denbighshire Sir Ddinbych Ruthin (formerly Denbigh) Rhuthun (formerly Dinbych)
 Flintshire Sir y Fflint Mold (formerly Flint) Yr Wyddgrug (formerly Y Fflint)
 Glamorgan Morgannwg Cardiff Caerdydd
 Merioneth or Merionethshire Meirionnydd or Sir Feirionnydd Dolgellau Dolgellau
Montgomeryshire Sir Drefaldwyn Welshpool (formerly Montgomery) Y Trallwng (formerly Trefaldwyn)
 Monmouthshire Sir Fynwy Monmouth Trefynwy
 Pembrokeshire Sir Benfro Haverfordwest (formerly Pembroke) Hwlffordd (formerly Penfro)
Radnorshire Sir Faesyfed Presteigne (formerly New Radnor) Llanandras (former Maesyfed)

Great Britain, post 19th-century reforms[edit]

With the creation of elected county councils in 1889, the administrative headquarters in some cases moved away from the traditional county town. Furthermore, in 1965 and 1974 there were major boundary changes in England and Wales and administrative counties were replaced with new metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties. The boundaries underwent further alterations between 1995 and 1998 to create unitary authorities, and some of the ancient counties and county towns were restored. (Note: not all headquarters are or were called County Halls or Shire Halls e.g.: Cumbria County Council's HQ up until 2016 was called The Courts and has since moved to Cumbria House.) Before 1974, many of the county halls were in towns and cities that had the status of a county borough i.e. a borough outside the county council's jurisdiction.

England, from 1889[edit]

County council Date Headquarters
Bedfordshire 1889 to 2009 Bedford
Berkshire 1889 to 1998 Reading (county borough until 1974)
Buckinghamshire 1889 onwards Aylesbury
Cambridgeshire 1889 to 1965 and
1974 onwards
Cambridge (until 2021)
Alconbury Weald (after 2021)
Cheshire 1889 to 2009 Chester
Cornwall 1889 onwards Truro
Cumberland 1889 to 1974 Carlisle (county borough from 1914)
Derbyshire 1889 onwards Matlock (moved from Derby, county borough 1958)[22]
Devon 1889 onwards Exeter (county borough until 1974). In 1963 the Devon County Buildings Area was transferred from the county borough of Exeter to the administrative county of Devon, of which it formed an exclave until 1974.[23]
Dorset 1889 onwards Dorchester
Durham 1889 onwards Durham
Essex 1889 onwards Chelmsford
Gloucestershire 1889 onwards Gloucester (county borough until 1974)
Hampshire 1889 onwards Winchester
Herefordshire 1889 to 1974 and
1998 onwards
Hertfordshire 1889 onwards Hertford
Huntingdonshire 1889 to 1965 Huntingdon
Isle of Ely 1889 to 1965 March
Isle of Wight 1890 onwards Newport
Kent 1889 onwards Maidstone
Lancashire 1889 onwards Preston (county borough until 1974)
Leicestershire 1889 onwards Leicester
Lincolnshire, Parts of Lindsey 1889 to 1974 Lincoln (county borough)
Lincolnshire, Parts of Holland 1889 to 1974 Boston
Lincolnshire, Parts of Kesteven 1889 to 1974 Sleaford
London 1889 to 1965 Spring Gardens, Westminster until 1922, County Hall at Lambeth thereafter
Middlesex 1889 to 1965 Middlesex Guildhall at Westminster in County of London
Norfolk 1889 onwards Norwich (county borough until 1974)
Northamptonshire 1889 onwards Northampton (county borough until 1974)
Northumberland 1889 onwards County Hall Newcastle upon Tyne 1889 – 1981[24]
County Hall Morpeth since 1981[25]
Nottinghamshire 1889 onwards West Bridgford (moved from county borough of Nottingham in 1959)
Oxfordshire 1889 onwards Oxford (county borough until 1974)
Soke of Peterborough 1889 to 1965 Peterborough
Rutland 1889 to 1974 and
1997 onwards
Shropshire 1889 onwards Shrewsbury
Somerset 1889 onwards Taunton
Staffordshire 1889 onwards Stafford
East Suffolk 1889 to 1974 Ipswich (county borough)
West Suffolk 1889 to 1974 Bury St Edmunds
Surrey 1889 onwards Inner London Sessions House, Newington (until 1893)
County Hall, Kingston upon Thames (1893–2020)
Woodhatch Place, Reigate (2021 onwards)[26]
East Sussex 1889 onwards Lewes
West Sussex 1889 onwards Chichester (originally jointly with Horsham)[17]
Warwickshire 1889 onwards Warwick
Westmorland 1889 to 1974 Kendal
Wiltshire 1889 onwards Trowbridge
Worcestershire 1889 to 1974 and
1998 onwards
Worcester (county borough until 1974)
Yorkshire, East Riding 1889 to 1974 and
1996 onwards
Beverley (later HQ of Humberside)
Yorkshire, North Riding 1889 to 1974 Northallerton
Yorkshire, West Riding 1889 to 1974 Wakefield (county borough from 1915)

England, from 1965[edit]

County council Date Headquarters
Avon 1974 to 1996 Bristol
Bristol 1996 onwards Bristol
Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely 1965 to 1974 Cambridge
Cleveland 1974 to 1996 Middlesbrough
Cumbria 1974 to 2023 Carlisle
Greater London 1965 to 1986 and
2002 onwards
County Hall, Lambeth (Greater London Council) (1965–1986)
City Hall, Southwark (Greater London Authority) (2002–2021)
City Hall, Newham (Greater London Authority) (2021 onwards)
Greater Manchester 1974 to 1986 Manchester
Hereford and Worcester 1974 to 1998 Worcester
Humberside 1974 to 1996 Beverley
Huntingdon and Peterborough 1965 to 1974 Huntingdon
Lincolnshire 1974 onwards Lincoln
Merseyside 1974 to 1986 Liverpool
Suffolk 1974 onwards Ipswich
Tyne and Wear 1974 to 1986 Newcastle upon Tyne
West Midlands 1974 to 1986 Birmingham
North Yorkshire 1974 onwards Northallerton
South Yorkshire 1974 to 1986 Barnsley
West Yorkshire 1974 to 1986 Wakefield


County council Date Headquarters
Anglesey 1889 to 1974 Beaumaris1
Brecknockshire 1889 to 1974 Brecon
Caernarvonshire 1889 to 1974 Caernarfon
Carmarthenshire 1889 to 1974
1996 onwards
Cardiganshire 1889 to 1974 Aberystwyth2
Ceredigion 1996 onwards Aberaeron
Clwyd 1974 to 1996 Mold
Denbighshire 1889 to 1974 Denbigh
Dyfed 1974 to 1996 Carmarthen
Flintshire 1889 to 1974 Mold
Glamorgan 1889 to 1974 Cardiff (county borough)
Gwent 1974 to 1996 Newport (1974–78), Cwmbran (1978–96)
Gwynedd 1974 onwards Caernarfon
Mid Glamorgan 1974 to 1996 Cardiff (extraterritorial)
Merionethshire 1889 to 1974 Dolgellau
Montgomeryshire 1889 to 1974 Welshpool
Monmouthshire 1889 to 1974 Newport (county borough from 1891)
Radnorshire 1889 to 1974 Presteigne3
Pembrokeshire 1889 to 1974
1996 onwards
Powys 1974 onwards Llandrindod Wells
South Glamorgan 1974 to 1996 Cardiff
West Glamorgan 1974 to 1996 Swansea
Isle of Anglesey 1996 onwards Llangefni
  1. Due to its better transport links and more central location, some administrative functions were moved to Llangefni.
  2. Cardigan was often still referred to as 'the county town' due to the name link. However, assizes were held at Lampeter while Aberystwyth housed the administration of the county council. Aberystwyth was therefore the de facto county town.
  3. Due to its better transport links and more central location, some administrative functions were moved to Llandrindod Wells.


Republic of Ireland[edit]

The follow lists the location of the administration of each of the 31 local authorities in the Republic of Ireland, with 26 of the traditional counties.

County Councils County town Notes
County Carlow Carlow County Council Carlow
County Cavan Cavan County Council Cavan
County Clare Clare County Council Ennis
County Cork Cork County Council Cork city
Cork City Council Cork city
County Donegal Donegal County Council Lifford
County Dublin Dublin City Council Dublin city
Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council Dún Laoghaire Until 1994, formed Dublin County Council, with its administrative offices in Dublin city
Fingal County Council Swords
South Dublin County Council Tallaght
County Galway Galway City Council Galway city
Galway County Council Galway city
County Kerry Kerry County Council Tralee
County Kildare Kildare County Council Naas
County Kilkenny Kilkenny County Council Kilkenny
County Laois Laois County Council Portlaoise Called Maryborough until 1929
County Leitrim Leitrim County Council Carrick-on-Shannon
County Limerick Limerick City and County Council Limerick
County Longford Longford County Council Longford
County Louth Louth County Council Dundalk
County Mayo Mayo County Council Castlebar
County Meath Meath County Council Navan previously Trim was the administrative town
County Monaghan Monaghan County Council Monaghan
County Offaly Offaly County Council Tullamore Prior to 1883, the county town was Daingean, then known as Philipstown
County Roscommon Roscommon County Council Roscommon
County Sligo Sligo County Council Sligo
County Tipperary Tipperary County Council Clonmel/Nenagh Until the Local Government Reform Act 2014, these were respectively the administrative towns of South Tipperary County Council and North Tipperary County Council
County Waterford Waterford City and County Council Waterford
County Westmeath Westmeath County Council Mullingar
County Wexford Wexford County Council Wexford
County Wicklow Wicklow County Council Wicklow

Northern Ireland[edit]

County County town
County Antrim Antrim
County Armagh Armagh
County Down Downpatrick
County Fermanagh Enniskillen
County Londonderry Coleraine
County Tyrone Omagh

Note – Despite the fact that Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, it is not the county town of any county. Greater Belfast straddles two counties – Antrim and Down.


Jamaica's three counties were established in 1758 to facilitate the holding of courts along the lines of the British county court system, with each county having a county town.[27] The counties have no current administrative relevance.

County County town
Cornwall Savanna-la-Mar
Middlesex Spanish Town
Surrey Kingston

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Lewis, Samuel (1831). "Berkshire". A Topographical Dictionary of England. Vol. I (1st ed.). p. 130.
  2. ^ "Berkshire Quarter Sessions". Jackson's Oxford Journal. 4 July 1868.
  3. ^ "Hampshire Placenames and their Meanings". Hampshire County Council. 17 February 2009. Archived from the original on 15 August 2013. Retrieved 31 August 2013.
  4. ^ Webb, Sidney; Beatrice Webb (1906). English Local Government from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations Act: The Parish and the County. London: Longmans Green and Co. pp. 432–433.
  5. ^ Justice in Eighteenth-Century Hackney (Process and Procedures), by Ruth Paley British History Online
  6. ^ "Alnwick (St. Mary and St. Michael), A Topographical Dictionary of England (1848), pp. 39–44". British-history.ac.uk. 22 June 2003. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
  7. ^ "Morpeth (St. Mary), A Topographical Dictionary of England (1848), pp. 345–350". British-history.ac.uk. 22 June 2003. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
  8. ^ "Northiam – Nortoft, A Topographical Dictionary of England (1848), pp. 433–439". British-history.ac.uk. 22 June 2003. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
  9. ^ Nicholson, A P (11 November 2007). "Shire (County) Hall, Nottingham". Nottinghamshire History. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
  10. ^ "Somerton archaeological survey (Somerset County Council)". Archived from the original on 28 March 2005. Retrieved 29 April 2007.
  11. ^ "Southwark Prisons". Survey of London: volume 25: St George's Fields (The parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington). British History Online. 1955. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
  12. ^ Edward Walford (1878). "The Old Kent Road". Old and New London: Volume 6. British History Online. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
  13. ^ Stewart, Alexander (1828). A compendium of modern geography: with remarks on the physical peculiarities, productions of the various countries; Questions for Examination at the end of each Section; and Descriptive Tables. Oliver & Boyde.
  14. ^ "About Sussex". Sussex County Flag. 11 March 2015. Retrieved 2 February 2019.
  15. ^ A List of Some Towns of Commercial, Antiquarian, Historical or Sanitary Interest. A Reference Book of Modern Geography. Longmans, Green and Co. 1870.
  16. ^ Chichester, Lewes. Sussex; being an historical, topographical, and general description of every rape, hundred, river, town, borough, parish, village, hamlet, castle, monastery, and gentleman's seat in that county, etc. E. Taylor. 1834.
  17. ^ a b General history of Horsham – The town as county centre, Victoria County History of Sussex, Volume VI British History Online
  18. ^ "Question: Why is Trowbridge the county town of Wiltshire?". Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. Wiltshire Council. Retrieved 2 May 2023.
  19. ^ Wilson, John Marius (1872). "Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales: WILTS". A. Fullarton and Co.
  20. ^ Notice in Edinburgh Gazette, 28 February 1964 that county council's address changed from Lanarkshire House, 191 Ingram Street, Glasgow C1 to County Buildings, Hamilton from 6 April 1964
  21. ^ John Davies, A History of Wales, Penguin, 1993, ISBN 0-14-028475-3
  22. ^ Removal of County Headquarters, The Times, 28 January 1958
  23. ^ Frederic A. Youngs, Guide to the Local Administrative Units of England, Vol.1: Southern England, London, 1979, p.83
  24. ^ Northumberland County Hall was situated within an exclave of Northumberland (Moot Hall Precincts) within the county borough of Newcastle 1889 – 1974; the area became part of the county of Tyne and Wear in 1974 and was thus extraterritorial
  25. ^ County Hall moved to Morpeth on 21 April 1981 (see notice in London Gazette issue 48579, dated 10 April 1981)
  26. ^ "127 year chapter of history comes to an end as Surrey County Council moves home". Get Surrey. 23 December 2020. Archived from the original on 3 May 2021. Retrieved 3 May 2021.
  27. ^ Higman, B. W.; Hudson, B. J. (2009). Jamaican Place Names. Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press. p. 31. ISBN 978-976-640-306-5. Archived from the original on 13 December 2017. Retrieved 13 December 2017.