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