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A society dedicated to celebrating and promoting the 92 historic counties of the United Kingdom and the important part they play in our culture, heritage and geography.


The short answer to this question, of course, is that Bristol lies partly in Gloucestershire and partly in Somerset, with the old course of the River Avon (e.g. along the Floating Harbour) forming the border. Nonetheless, it is occasionally claimed that the ‘county corporate’ status granted to Bristol in 1373 removed Bristol from its parent counties and made it a county equivalent in every respect to them. ABC’s latest Factsheet presents a detailed look at this matter:

The border of Gloucestershire and Somerset in Bristol

As the Factsheet illustrates, the general approach from 1373 to the present day has been to both highlight Bristol’s ‘county corporate’ status but also to acknowledge its place within both Gloucestershire and Somerset. There is no contradiction in this, providing one views ‘county corporate’ status as an extra civic dignity rather than as signifying that those towns given this status have literally becomes counties equivalent to Gloucestershire, Somersetshire, Wiltshire and the rest.

Innumerable maps, reference works and official documents illustrate this approach. The First Edition (1771) of Britannica was published nearly 400 years after Bristol was made a county corporate but still clearly describes it as “partly in Gloucestershire, and partly in Somersetshire”.

First Edition (1771) of Britannica

Joan Blaeu’s 1667 map of Gloucestershire clearly show Bristol in the two counties with the Avon as the border.

Joan Blaeu’s 1667 Map of Gloucestershire

The General Register Office (GRO) in its Census reports consistently stated that Bristol lay partly in Gloucestershire and partly in Somerset, see e.g. the 1881 Census report for Gloucestershire.

Census Report for Gloucestershire 1881

Numerous other reference works did likewise. For example, the Somersetshire Archæological and Natural History Society, in the minutes to their 1887 Proceedings, stated:
“Bristol, as you are no doubt aware, is one of the few places in England which are counties in themselves. But in common parlance it is considered as being partly in Gloucestershire and partly in Somersetshire, and we are proud of our connection with these two counties – two of the most fertile and beautiful in England. The largest part of Bristol lies to the north of the Avon and is therefore in Gloucestershire; and this portion of Bristol contains about a third part of the population of that county. But the Ward of Redcliff, and the large and rapidly increasing suburb of Bedminster, lie to the south of the Avon and therefore in Somersetshire, and contain in that part of Bristol a population equal to that of the largest city in the county.”

As the city expanded southwards in the nineteenth century, there was clearly a deliberate effort to reflect and celebrate the Somerset identity of this part of the city. There are several street and building names using the name ‘Somerset’.

Somerset Square in the Redcliffe area of Bristol

In the 21st century we are all too used to the tiresome problem of ‘county confusion’, i.e. the use of the word ‘county’ to describe administrative areas (local government and ceremonial) and the misuse of historic county names as the names of some of these areas. This absurd situation continues to have a deleterious effect on the identities of our historic counties.

However, before 1888 the only ambiguity concerning what was or was not a ‘county’ concerned the status of the co-called ‘counties corporate’: those towns or cities which various statutes had given the title ‘county of a town’ or ‘county of a city’ along with some of the administrative functions normally associated with a county, e.g. sheriff, courts of Assize, courts of Quarter Sessions. In fact, these did not really cause any great confusion because they were simply never treated as equivalent to the historic counties. Of the 20 counties corporate in England and Wales, Bristol is the only one for which the claim is ever made that the ‘county corporate’ status literally made it a county.

The notion of being a ‘county corporate’ had ceased to have any practical significance by the end of the 19th century. Despite this, the phrase ‘city and county’ persists in relation to Bristol. It seems likely this is mainly due to its use by the pre-1974 local authority. The modern Bristol council area is actually a factor of 35 times larger than that of the original City and County of Bristol. This does not stop it erecting boundary signs proclaiming the whole of this area to be ‘Bristol – City and County’. In recent years, the phrase ‘city and county’ has also been arbitrarily applied to Cardiff Council and Swansea Council, despite neither ever having had ‘county corporate’ status.

Councils do not need to pretend to be counties to build strong corporate identities. Instead they should embrace the historic counties in which they lie, especially as a part of their heritage and tourism activities. ABC wants to see an end to the use of the word ‘county’ as it relates to administrative areas and bodies. An end to the use of the ‘city and county’ phrase would be a welcome part of this.

5 thoughts on “Which county is Bristol in?

  • Misuse of the term ‘county’ has gone unchallenged for too long. It sounds ‘official’. ‘Tyne and Wear County Council’ was scrapped in 1986 but various institutions still use its badge and flag.

    As an Association we need to push hard for a review of the Lord Lieutenancies Act 1997, which used the 1972 Local Government Act as the structure for ‘ceremonial counties’. Lord Lieutenants, their Deputies and High Sheriffs on this basis reinforce the notion of ‘Cleveland’ and ‘Tyne & Wear’ as formal entities and not defunct administrative areas. The ‘Metropolitan County of Tyne & Wear’ should be scrapped, once and for all.

    The younger generation have no memory of the historic and traditional counties and are puzzled when challenged. ‘Cumbria’ suffers the same unfortunate legacy.  

    No coincidence that Heath introduced all this bureaucratic and unnecessary nonsense at exactly the same time as he took us, undemocratically, into what became the EU.

    No doubt the impending changes to the UK’s Parliamentary Constituencies will further muddy the waters. It could only happen here!

    • The loss of its High Sheriff and Lord Lieutenant in 1996 or soon after means “Cleveland” has already been wiped off the ceremonial map of England. How inconsistent it was of them to “return” Stockton and Hartlepool to County Durham but not Gateshead or Sunderland, especially since “Tyne and Wear” appears to have had – even as late as the mid 1990s – no official body representing it apart from a fire and rescue service.

      “Cleveland” and “Humberside”, on the other hand, each had not just a fire and rescue service with which there were no plans to do away, but a police force on top of that. As none of this stopped the powers that be from appreciating that getting rid of them as ceremonial entities was desirable nonetheless, why they didn’t have the same attitude towards “Tyne and Wear”, “Merseyside” etc. is beyond me.

  • ABC wants to see an end to the use of the word ‘county’ as it relates to administrative areas and bodies. An end to the use of the ‘city and county’ phrase would be a welcome part of this. – Agreed

  • There must be an official Pariamentary county covering that area between Somerset and Gloustershire.Stop mudying the waters with past nomenclature!

    • The aim of the full article (in the PDF) is to un-muddy the waters. Perhaps this doesn’t come across is the much shorter piece on the website.

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