County town

In the United Kingdom and Ireland, a county town is the most important town or city in a county. It is usually the location of administrative or judicial functions within a county and the place where the county's members of Parliament are elected. Following the establishment of the English county councils in 1889, the headquarters of the new councils were usually located in the county town of each county. However, the concept of a county town pre-dates the establishment of these councils.

The concept of a county town is ill-defined and unofficial. Some counties have their administrative bodies located elsewhere. For example, Lancaster is the county town of Lancashire, but the county council is located in Preston. Some county towns are no longer situated within the administrative county because of changes in the county's boundaries. For example, Nottingham is administered by a unitary authority separate from the rest of Nottinghamshire.

UK county towns, pre-19th-century reforms

Historic counties of England

This list shows county towns prior to the reforms of 1889.

CountyCounty town
 BerkshireReading,[a] previously also Abingdon[2]
 BuckinghamshireAylesbury,[b] although the county is named after Buckingham
 County DurhamDurham
 HampshireWinchester, although the county is named after Southampton[3]
 MiddlesexBrentford, Clerkenwell, the City of London or Westminster for different functions.[g]
 SomersetTaunton,[j] although the county is named after Somerton
 WiltshireTrowbridge although the county is named after Wilton[m]
  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. ^ 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.III 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 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.[11] By 1799 the buildings were completed and the county administration was based there until 1893.[12] Newington, or more inaccurately Southwark 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". 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.[18] An 1870s gazetteer describes "Salisbury and Devizes" as the "county towns".[19] The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica names only Salisbury.

Historic counties of Scotland

CountyCounty town
Angus (or Forfarshire)Forfar
ArgyllLochgilphead (formerly Inveraray)[b]
BerwickshireDuns, Scottish Borders (formerly Berwick-upon-Tweed, formerly Greenlaw)
ClackmannanshireAlloa (formerly Clackmannan)
 East Lothian (or Haddingtonshire)Haddington
KincardineshireStonehaven (formerly Kincardine)
Midlothian (or Edinburghshire)Edinburgh[d]
Morayshire (or Elginshire)Elgin
Ross-shireDingwall (also the county town of Ross and Cromarty)
RoxburghshireJedburgh (formerly Roxburgh)[f]
West Lothian (or Linlithgowshire)Linlithgow
  1. ^ In 1900 Aberdeen became a county of a city and thus outside Aberdeenshire.
  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 county of Midlothian.
  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.

Historic counties of Wales

This list shows county towns prior to the reforms of 1889.

CountyCounty town
DenbighshireRuthin (formerly Denbigh)
 FlintshireMold (formerly Flint)
MontgomeryshireWelshpool (formerly Montgomery)
 PembrokeshireHaverfordwest (formerly Pembroke)
RadnorshirePresteigne (formerly New Radnor)
  1. ^ a b 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

CountyCounty town
County AntrimAntrim
County ArmaghArmagh
County DownDownpatrick
County FermanaghEnniskillen
County LondonderryColeraine
County TyroneOmagh

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.


County councilDateHeadquarters
Avon1974 to 1996Bristol
Bedfordshire1889 to 2009Bedford
Berkshire1889 to 1998Reading (county borough until 1974)
Bristol1996 onwardsBristol
Buckinghamshire1889 onwardsAylesbury
Cambridgeshire1889 to 1965
1974 onwards
Cambridge (until 2021)
Alconbury Weald (after 2021)
Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely1965 to 1974Cambridge
Cheshire1889 to 2009Chester
Cleveland1974 to 1996Middlesbrough
Cornwall1889 onwardsTruro
Cumberland1889 to 1974Carlisle (county borough from 1914)
Cumbria1974 onwardsCarlisle
Derbyshire1889 onwardsMatlock (moved from Derby, county borough 1958)[21]
Devon1889 onwardsExeter (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.[22]
Dorset1889 onwardsDorchester
Durham1889 onwardsDurham
Essex1889 onwardsChelmsford
Gloucestershire1889 onwardsGloucester (county borough until 1974)
Greater London1965 to 1986
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 Manchester1974 to 1986Manchester
Hampshire1889 onwardsWinchester
Herefordshire1889 to 1974
1998 onwards
Hereford and Worcester1974 to 1998Worcester
Hertfordshire1889 onwardsHertford
Humberside1974 to 1996Beverley
Huntingdonshire1889 to 1965Huntingdon
Huntingdon and Peterborough1965 to 1974Huntingdon
Isle of Ely1889 to 1965March
Isle of Wight1890 onwardsNewport
Kent1889 onwardsMaidstone
Lancashire1889 onwardsPreston (county borough until 1974)
Leicestershire1889 onwardsLeicester
Lincolnshire, Parts of Lindsey1889 to 1974Lincoln (county borough)
Lincolnshire, Parts of Holland1889 to 1974Boston
Lincolnshire, Parts of Kesteven1889 to 1974Sleaford
Lincolnshire1974 onwardsLincoln
London1889 to 1965Spring Gardens, Westminster until 1922, County Hall at Lambeth thereafter
Merseyside1974 to 1986Liverpool
Middlesex1889 to 1965Middlesex Guildhall at Westminster in County of London
Norfolk1889 onwardsNorwich (county borough until 1974)
Northamptonshire1889 onwardsNorthampton (county borough until 1974)
Northumberland1889 onwardsCounty Hall Newcastle upon Tyne 1889 – 1981[23]
County Hall Morpeth since 1981[24]
Nottinghamshire1889 onwardsWest Bridgford (moved from county borough of Nottingham in 1959)
Oxfordshire1889 onwardsOxford (county borough until 1974)
Soke of Peterborough1889 to 1965Peterborough
Rutland1889 to 1974
1997 onwards
Shropshire1889 onwardsShrewsbury
Somerset1889 onwardsTaunton
Staffordshire1889 onwardsStafford
East Suffolk1889 to 1974Ipswich (county borough)
West Suffolk1889 to 1974Bury St Edmunds
Suffolk1974 onwardsIpswich
Surrey1889 onwardsInner London Sessions House, Newington (until 1893)
County Hall, Kingston upon Thames (1893–2020)
Reigate (after 2020)[25]
East Sussex1889 onwardsLewes
West Sussex1889 onwardsChichester (originally jointly with Horsham)[17]
Tyne and Wear1974 to 1986Newcastle upon Tyne
Warwickshire1889 onwardsWarwick
West Midlands1974 to 1986Birmingham
Westmorland1889 to 1974Kendal
Wiltshire1889 onwardsTrowbridge
Worcestershire1889 to 1974
1998 onwards
Worcester (county borough until 1974)
Yorkshire, East Riding1889 to 1974
1996 onwards
Beverley (later HQ of Humberside)
Yorkshire, North Riding1889 to 1974Northallerton
North Yorkshire1974 onwardsNorthallerton
South Yorkshire1974 to 1986Barnsley
Yorkshire, West Riding1889 to 1974Wakefield (county borough from 1915)
West Yorkshire1974 to 1986Wakefield


County councilDateHeadquarters
Anglesey1889 to 1974Beaumaris1
Brecknockshire1889 to 1974Brecon
Caernarvonshire1889 to 1974Caernarfon
Carmarthenshire1889 to 1974
1996 onwards
Cardiganshire1889 to 1974Aberystwyth2
Ceredigion1996 onwardsAberaeron
Clwyd1974 to 1996Mold
Denbighshire1889 to 1974Denbigh
Dyfed1974 to 1996Carmarthen
Flintshire1889 to 1974Mold
Glamorgan1889 to 1974Cardiff (county borough)
Gwent1974 to 1996Newport (1974–78), Cwmbran (1978–96)
Gwynedd1974 onwardsCaernarfon
Mid Glamorgan1974 to 1996Cardiff (extraterritorial)
Merionethshire1889 to 1974Dolgellau
Montgomeryshire1889 to 1974Welshpool
Monmouthshire1889 to 1974Newport (county borough from 1891)
Radnorshire1889 to 1974Presteigne3
Pembrokeshire1889 to 1974
1996 onwards
Powys1974 onwardsLlandrindod Wells
South Glamorgan1974 to 1996Cardiff
West Glamorgan1974 to 1996Swansea
Ynys Môn (Anglesey)1996 onwardsLlangefni
  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.


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.

CountyCouncilsCounty townNotes
County CarlowCarlow County CouncilCarlow
County CavanCavan County CouncilCavan
County ClareClare County CouncilEnnis
County CorkCork County CouncilCork city
Cork City CouncilCork city
County DonegalDonegal County CouncilLifford
County DublinDublin City CouncilDublin city
Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County CouncilDún LaoghaireUntil 1994, formed Dublin County Council, with its administrative offices in Dublin city
Fingal County CouncilSwords
South Dublin County CouncilTallaght
County GalwayGalway City CouncilGalway city
Galway County CouncilGalway city
County KerryKerry County CouncilTralee
County KildareKildare County CouncilNaas
County KilkennyKilkenny County CouncilKilkenny
County LaoisLaois County CouncilPortlaoiseCalled Maryborough until 1929
County LeitrimLeitrim County CouncilCarrick-on-Shannon
County LimerickLimerick City and County CouncilLimerick
County LongfordLongford County CouncilLongford
County LouthLouth County CouncilDundalk
County MayoMayo County CouncilCastlebar
County MeathMeath County CouncilNavanpreviously Trim was the administrative town
County MonaghanMonaghan County CouncilMonaghan
County OffalyOffaly County CouncilTullamorePrior to 1883, the county town was Daingean, then known as Philipstown
County RoscommonRoscommon County CouncilRoscommon
County SligoSligo County CouncilSligo
County TipperaryTipperary County CouncilClonmel/NenaghUntil the Local Government Reform Act 2014, these were respectively the administrative towns of South Tipperary County Council and North Tipperary County Council
County WaterfordWaterford City and County CouncilWaterford
County WestmeathWestmeath County CouncilMullingar
County WexfordWexford County CouncilWexford
County WicklowWicklow County CouncilWicklow


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.[26] The counties have no current administrative relevance.

CountyCounty town
MiddlesexSpanish Town

See also


  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". 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". 22 June 2003. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
  7. ^ "Morpeth (St. Mary), A Topographical Dictionary of England (1848), pp. 345–350". 22 June 2003. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
  8. ^ "Northiam – Nortoft, A Topographical Dictionary of England (1848), pp. 433–439". 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. ^ "Why is Trowbridge the county town of Wiltshire?". Wiltshire County Council. 9 January 2003. Archived from the original on 22 March 2003.
  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. ^ Removal of County Headquarters, The Times, 28 January 1958
  22. ^ Frederic A. Youngs, Guide to the Local Administrative Units of England, Vol.1: Southern England, London, 1979, p.83
  23. ^ 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
  24. ^ County Hall moved to Morpeth on 21 April 1981 (see notice in London Gazette issue 48579, dated 10 April 1981)
  25. ^ "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.
  26. ^ 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.

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