A county town in Great Britain or Ireland is usually, but not always, the location of administrative or judicial functions within the county. The concept of a county town is ill-defined and unofficial. Following the establishment of county councils in 1889, the administrative headquarters of the new authorities were usually located in the county town of each county. However, this was not always the case and the idea of a "county town" pre-dates the establishment of these councils. For example, Lancaster is the county town of Lancashire but the county council is located at Preston.
The county town was often where the county members of Parliament were elected or where certain judicial functions were carried out, leading it to becoming established as the most important town in the county.
Some county towns are no longer situated within the administrative county. For example, Nottingham is administered by a unitary authority entirely separate from the rest of Nottinghamshire. Many county towns are classified as cities, but all are referred to as county towns regardless of whether city status is held or not. The term was also used historically in Jamaica.
UK county towns, pre-19th-century reforms
Historic counties of England
This list shows county towns prior to the reforms of 1889.
- 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. Knights of the shire were nominated at Reading and elected at Abingdon.
- 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.
- The county assize court sat at Bodmin, and the 1911 Britannica considered Bodmin to be the county town. Prior to 1835, it was Launceston.
- Knights of the shire were elected at Cockermouth; the assizes and quarter sessions courts were occasionally held at Penrith in the middle ages.
- 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.
- 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.III c.58) established that the principal administrative business of the county could be transacted only at Preston.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- Nottingham was constituted a county corporate separate from Nottinghamshire in 1449. The area containing the Shire Hall however remained an exclave of Nottinghamshire.
- 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.
- Under an act of 1791, 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. By 1799 the buildings were completed and the county administration was based there until 1893. Newington, or more inaccurately Southwark were sometimes described as the county town thereafter, for instance in a school textbook of 1828.
- 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.
- Wiltshire County Council note that Wiltshire "never had a well recognised county town". Wilton had served as the seat of quarter sessions and for election of knights of the shire until 1832. Knights had been nominated at Devizes. An 1870s gazetteer describes "Salisbury and Devizes" as the "county towns". The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica names only Salisbury.
Historic counties of Scotland
- In 1900 Aberdeen became a county of a city and thus outside Aberdeenshire.
- 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.
- 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.
- Edinburgh was a county of itself, and therefore lay outside the county of Midlothian.
- The headquarters of Renfrew County Council were in Paisley from 1890.
- Newtown St Boswells was the administrative headquarters of the county council established in 1890.
- The headquarters of Sutherland County Council were at Golspie from 1890.
- Stranraer became the administrative headquarters of the Wigtown county council in 1890, and was sometimes described as the "county town" thereafter.
Historic counties of Wales
This list shows county towns prior to the reforms of 1889.
|Denbighshire||Ruthin (formerly Denbigh)|
|Flintshire||Mold (formerly Flint)|
|Montgomeryshire||Welshpool (formerly Montgomery)|
|Pembrokeshire||Haverfordwest (formerly Pembroke)|
|Radnorshire||Presteigne (formerly New Radnor)|
- Between 1536 and 1974, Monmouthshire was included by successive English and later, British, governments within England for some administrative and legal purposes. Always regarded culturally and ecclesiastically as part of Wales, particularly by the Welsh, since 1974 when new local government legislation was introduced it has unequivocally been within that country. The county is named after Monmouth, but the Sheriff's county court was held alternately in Monmouth and Newport.
Historic counties of Northern Ireland
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).
UK county towns post 19th-century reforms
With the creation of elected county councils in 1889 the location of 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 have since moved to Cumbria House.) Before 1974 many of the county halls were located in towns and cities that had the status of a county borough i.e.: a borough outside of the county council's jurisdiction.
|Avon||1974 to 1996||Bristol|
|Bedfordshire||1889 to 2009||Bedford|
|Berkshire||1889 to 1998||Reading (county borough until 1974)|
|City and County of Bristol||1996 onwards||Bristol|
|Cambridgeshire||1889 to 1965
|Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely||1965 to 1974||Cambridge|
|Cheshire||1889 to 2009||Chester|
|Cleveland||1974 to 1996||Middlesbrough|
|Cumberland||1889 to 1974||Carlisle (county borough from 1914)|
|Derbyshire||1889 onwards||Matlock (moved from Derby, county borough 1958)|
|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.|
|Gloucestershire||1889 onwards||Gloucester (county borough until 1974)|
|Greater London||1965 to 1986
|County Hall, Lambeth (Greater London Council)|
City Hall, Southwark (Greater London Authority)
|Greater Manchester||1974 to 1986||Manchester|
|Herefordshire||1889 to 1974
|Hereford and Worcester||1974 to 1998||Worcester|
|Humberside||1974 to 1996||Beverley|
|Huntingdonshire||1889 to 1965||Huntingdon|
|Huntingdon and Peterborough||1965 to 1974||Huntingdon|
|Isle of Ely||1889 to 1965||March|
|Isle of Wight||1890 onwards||Newport|
|Lancashire||1889 onwards||Preston (county borough until 1974)|
|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|
|Merseyside||1974 to 1986||Liverpool|
|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|
County Hall Morpeth since 1981
|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, although geographically considered part of Northamptonshire|
|Rutland||1889 to 1974
|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 County Hall, Kingston upon Thames opened in 1893 (Kingston has been in Greater London since 1965).|
|East Sussex||1889 onwards||Lewes|
|West Sussex||1889 onwards||Chichester (originally jointly with Horsham)|
|Tyne and Wear||1974 to 1986||Newcastle upon Tyne|
|West Midlands||1974 to 1986||Birmingham|
|Westmorland||1889 to 1974||Kendal|
|Worcestershire||1889 to 1974
|Worcester (county borough until 1974)|
|Yorkshire, East Riding||1889 to 1974
|Beverley (later HQ of Humberside)|
|Yorkshire, North Riding||1889 to 1974||Northallerton|
|North Yorkshire||1974 onwards||Northallerton|
|South Yorkshire||1974 to 1986||Barnsley|
|Yorkshire, West Riding||1889 to 1974||Wakefield (county borough from 1915)|
|West Yorkshire||1974 to 1986||Wakefield|
|Anglesey||1889 to 1974||Beaumaris1|
|Brecknockshire||1889 to 1974||Brecon|
|Caernarvonshire||1889 to 1974||Caernarfon|
|Carmarthenshire||1889 to 1974
|Cardiganshire||1889 to 1974||Aberystwyth2|
|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)|
|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
|Powys||1974 onwards||Llandrindod Wells|
|South Glamorgan||1974 to 1996||Cardiff|
|West Glamorgan||1974 to 1996||Swansea|
|Ynys Môn (Anglesey)||1996 onwards||Llangefni|
- Due to its better transport links and more central location, some administrative functions were moved to Llangefni.
- 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.
- Due to its better transport links and more central location, some administrative functions were moved to Llandrindod Wells.
The follow lists the location of the administration of each of the 31 local authorities in Ireland, with the 26 traditional counties.
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. The counties have no current administrative relevance.
- Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of England, Vol. I, 1831
- "Berkshire Quarter Sessions". Jackson's Oxford Journal. 4 July 1868.
- "Hampshire Placenames and their Meanings". .hants.gov.uk. 17 February 2009. Retrieved 31 August 2013.
- 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.
- Justice in Eighteenth-Century Hackney (Process and Procedures), by Ruth Paley British History Online
- "''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.
- "''Morpeth (St. Mary)'', ''A Topographical Dictionary of England'' (1848), pp. 345–350". British-history.ac.uk. 22 June 2003. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
- "''Northiam – Nortoft'', ''A Topographical Dictionary of England'' (1848), pp. 433–439". British-history.ac.uk. 22 June 2003. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
- Nicholson, A P (11 November 2007). "Shire (County) Hall, Nottingham". Nottinghamshire History. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
- Somerton archaeological survey (Somerset County Council)
- "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.
- Edward Walford (1878). "The Old Kent Road". Old and New London: Volume 6. British History Online. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
- 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.
- General history of Horsham – The town as county centre, Victoria County History of Sussex, Volume VI British History Online
- "Why is Trowbridge the county town of Wiltshire?". Wiltshire County Council. 9 January 2003.
- Wilson, John Marius (1872). "Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales: WILTS". A. Fullarton and Co.
- 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
- Removal of County Headquarters, The Times, 28 January 1958
- Frederic A. Youngs, Guide to the Local Administrative Units of England, Vol.1: Southern England, London, 1979, p.83
- 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
- County Hall moved to Morpeth on 21 April 1981 (see notice in London Gazette issue 48579, dated 10 April 1981)
- When the question of where the council should meet arose in 1889/90 six towns were considered: Epsom, Guildford, Kingston, Redhill, Surbiton and Wimbledon.The Times, 27 March 1890
- 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.