How a British town becomes a city

The English language plays tricks when it travels from one country to another, so if you asked me to define a city I’d have to ask you where the city is. Or where you are. 

Some days, I’d have to ask you where I am.

In the US, it’s fairly simple: A city’s a place where a lot of people live. How many? Um, yeah, no one’s drawn a clear line to separate it from a town.

In Britain, though, a town has to do more than get big to become a city. And in some cases, it doesn’t even have to get big.


The informal definition

Most people in Britain will tell you that a city has to have a cathedral, although one article I read claims a university will do just as well, and a few people think the town has to gather up a lot of people and convince them to live there.

But in Britain there’s a difference between people thinking of a place as a city and the place formally being one. To really be a city, the place needs the queen or king to wave a magic city-making feather over it.

Irrelevant photo: a begonia

Yes, really–except for that business with the magic feather. Because of course the queen or king has the final say over how many cities the country has. If they didn’t, for all we know every cluster of houses would dance around singing, “We’re a city. Look! We’re a city.” Order would break down. Trains would stop running. Long-established recipes would cease to work. 

Imagine Britain without its bakewell tarts and victoria sponges.* 

So yes, of course officialdom wants to put some limits on the number of cities.

Mind you, the king or queen doesn’t actually make the decisions about which town to citify. Officials do the choosing, but it’s the monarch who waves that feather, presumably while looking entirely serious about it.

Just to confuse the issue, though, any number of towns are governed by bodies that call themselves city councils. 

Why do they do that? Possibly because someone has delusions of grandeur and possibly because the language is at war with the country’s endless formalities. 


The formal process

Britain’s home to 66 officially recognized cities–50 in England, 6 in Scotland, 5 in Wales, and 5 in Northern Ireland. Not all of them have cathedrals. The belief that they had to comes from a time when building a cathedral really did make you a city. This led to small places like Truro being cities while much bigger industrial centers like Birmingham and Belfast weren’t.

In 1889, Birmingham became the first cathedral-less place to be recognized as a city, and these days you can leave all that stone in the ground and bid for city status through the Ministry of Housing and a Few Other Things. It’s less romantic than building a cathedral, but it’s cheaper and it’s easier on the fingernails.

There’s a catch, though: You can only apply on special occasions, when the Ministry opens up bidding to mark some occasion: the millennium, the golden jubilee, the silver jubilee, the arrival of a new kitten. Outside of those special times, towns have to shut up and wait.

What’s a jubilee? In dictionary terms, a celebration of anything from emancipation to becoming a king or queen, but in this context it has to do with Liz having become a queen some number of decades before. Or more accurately, the queen—something Britain as a whole takes seriously, even if not every single individual who lives here does.


How big does a city have to be?

Not always very. The U.K.’s smallest city is St David’s, which has a whopping 1,600  residents–not all that many more than the village I live in. It earned its status in 1995 to mark the queen’s 40th anniversary, and it was chosen because of its role in Christian heritage.

Yeah, the monarchy takes that Christian heritage flap seriously. It has to. If it didn’t, what’s to justify someone being the monarch instead of just one more citizen?

Part of the argument in its favor, though, was that it had a cathedral, so people already thought of it as a city. 

In practice, being big doesn’t guarantee official status as a city, and neither does being thought of as a city. London contains two cities–the City of London (called the City, as if the planet didn’t have any others) and the City of Westminster. But London itself itself isn’t, officially speaking, a city.

If you get dizzy, just sit down and rest a while. We’ll be here when you come back.


Mayors and cities

Most city councils (whether they govern cities or towns) will appoint a mayor, who does ceremonial stuff and shows up at special occasions in eye-catching and wildly outdated clothes, including gold chains that outdo anything a celebrity ever turned up in. If the queen (or king, as the case may be) has waved a different magic feather over the locality, the mayor may turn into a lord mayor. This will make no practical difference in his or her ability to climb stairs, lose weight, or push a car out of a snowbank. 

But having a lord mayor doesn’t make a place a city.

Sorry. Like I said, different magic feather, different result.

How do you address a lord mayor? You say, “Lord Mayor.” Or you say, “My Lord Mayor.” Or if appropriate, “Lady Mayoress,” or, “My Lady Mayoress.”

You do not laugh while you’re doing any of that upon pain of being banished from the event and left giggling hysterically on the sidewalk.

In a different category of officialdom, many towns and cities have an elected executive mayor, a title that sounds less impressive but comes with political powers, which ceremonial mayors lack. 

Having an executive mayor also doesn’t make a place into a city. 


Can a place stop being a city?

Yup. Rochester accidentally lost its status in 1988, when it reorganized its government structure and–well, you know how sometimes the cat jumps on the keyboard and your entire life disappears and next thing you know you no longer exist? It was like that. 

By way of demonstrating how important it is to have city status, four years rolled past before anyone noticed the city was no longer a city. 

It still hasn’t gotten its status back.


What are the benefits of being a city?

None, at least according to Professor John Beckett“There never have been any privileges. It’s always been a status thing, nothing more. There’s nothing to stop places declaring themselves a city–Dunfermline did it.”

The whole system, he says, “makes no sense” and just “gives a bit of patronage to government”.

Dunfermline declared itself a city in 1856. It figured that since it had been Scotland’s capital for 400 years, it had the right. The idea of it as a city never caught on, though, and it’s planning to bid for genuine city status when the queen’s platinum jubilee rolls around, in 2022.


* A victoria sponge isn’t something you wipe the kitchen counter with. It’s a cake-ish thing, as is a bakewell tart, although I’m stretching the definition of cake pretty thin in saying that.

52 thoughts on “How a British town becomes a city

    • I’m glad you added that because I was just about to ask. The word borough came up several times when I was researching this and I was tempted to go down that sidetrack but in the end didn’t. Despite growing up in a city of 5 boroughs (New York–Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Manhattan, the Bronx), I haven’t a clue what a borough is either.

      Funny how you can live alongside something like that without knowing what it means.

      Liked by 2 people

        • It’s the things we most take for granted that we haven’t a clue about.

          For what it’s worth, Lord Google offers us the following: a town or district which is an administrative unit.
          BRITISH: a town (as distinct from a city) with a corporation and privileges granted by a royal charter.
          HISTORICAL•BRITISH: a town sending representatives to Parliament.

          Liked by 2 people

          • It turns out that being a county borough and a city aren’t mutually exclusive. Lord Wikipedia says: “After the establishment of Hampshire County Council, following the passage of the 1888 Local Government Act, Southampton became a county borough within the county of Hampshire, which meant that the Corporation in Southampton had the combined powers of a lower-tier (borough) and an upper-tier (county) council within the city boundaries, while the new county council was responsible for upper-tier functions outside the city of Southampton. ” This is pretty much how things are today, since Southampton is a unitary authority. It became a city in 1964 (I’m not sure which part of the queen’s reign that was supposed to commemorate), but didn’t lose county borough status until 1974 when all the counties were given new boundaries. That was a very odd time.

            I’m glad I looked, but I’m not sure I’m any the wiser.

            Liked by 2 people

  1. Traditionally, it meant having a cathedral, a university or both, before applying for official city status, but it all seems to have got a bit muddled now, especially as a lot of what just used to be called further education colleges are now classed as universities.

    Why would you laugh about addressing someone as “Lord Mayor”? It’s the title that goes with the job, like addressing someone as Doctor.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’ve never been easy with titles. Doctor’s about as far as I can go, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually used it outside of talking about someone as Doctor Somebody. To simply address them as Doctor? The brain mechanism that’s needed to make the sounds come out of my mouth seem to be missing. I figure they know who and what they are without me having to remind them. Years ago, a friend who’s a former Catholic tried to convince me that I could address a priest as Father because it was just a title. It was a good argument and I couldn’t do it. He wasn’t my father and I had to leave that to people who accepted him as one.

      I won’t argue that I’m right about that, but it does seem to be a line I can’t cross. When it gets to the fancier titles–sorry, but it must be my American upbringing. They strike me as so improbable that they trigger the giggle mechanism.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Having lurked on the fringes of political circles of Oxford (a city) and Reading (has tried several times for city status and failed), I can report that going down on one knee to Mayors and to Peers of the Realm, is frowned upon, and doing it repeatedly may get you a restraining order.

    But going down on one knee when giggling to your newly anointed CEO, did get my dearest from volunteer onto the payroll. The wife of said Lord CEO dared dearest to do it in the middle of Oxford, and he duly did. With the press in attendance and while sponsored to raise money……

    Meanwhile, Reading so deserves to be a city. Gonna make up a chant this time. Or a pop song. Reading! Reading! Reading!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Thanks, Ellen, for that very informative article. I always like your funny way of presenting serious information. :)
    I just wanted to add my tuppence worth of thoughts: there’s also the spelling, isn;t it, as there’s the “city of London” as opposed to the “City of London”, isn’t it?
    Have a great weekend,

    Liked by 3 people

  4. How enlightening. I do love that, despite being a native Britisher, your blog teaches me all sorts of things. I was always taught that it was a cathedral or university that conferred city status but then, of course, there were exceptions to that rule that led to the bestowing of city status but I had zero clue what the criteria for that were. I had absolutely no idea, however, that city status could be removed. I also didn’t know about the self-declaration and, as a Fifer, I love that Dunfermline had a crack at that “fake it ’til you make it” approach.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Well, I knew there was some conflict in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper killings because not all of hem took place in the city. Some were inThe City and a differet police force responded. Same result though…
    Over here we have townships too. Within couties. Though I’m not sure that’s in every state. The townsips have elected trustees.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Let me guess: Are you in Massachusetts? I seem to remember that it has townships, which when I was a kid confused me thoroughly. I couldn’t figure out their relationship to plain old towns and for some reason didn’t think to ask anyone. As a result, I still don’t know.

      England (I’m not sure whether the relationship’s different in other parts of Britain) also has counties, which are the rough equivalent of US states. I’ve never given much thought to the overlapping laws and bureaucracies and enforcement complications all that creates in both countries but if my hair weren’t already as gray as it can get, it would be enough to turn my hair gray.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I live in Ohio, actually. I was surprised to hear the reference to UK counties – I thought they were “shires. ‘ Now if you want to get greyer you can write a post explaining the difference. Or not.
        Over here they have decided our fourth Covid wave is ending, but”winter is coming.” Stay safe.
        I am no longer allowed to post under “catladymac” for some reason. Just want to let you all know it is moi. (It may have something to do with Scotland’s wanting another referendum ?)

        Liked by 2 people

        • Can’t post as Catladymac? Who/what/why? Not to mention how?

          The shire/county question’s an interesting one. Off the top of my head (so not reliably), shires are in the–ironically–home counties. That’s basically an area of the southeast. The rest of us live in shire-free zones. Hmm. I could see an interesting post there.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. A city, a town, a village, a hamlet, a “lieu-dit”? Frogs (my compatriots) have 36,000 “communes” (counties?) all with a Mayor. (99%). The British situation is probably a consequence of the Normand invasion. (Our bad)
    Now 55 cities in England, and only 5 (or was it 6?) in Scotland? A clear example of English “privilège”. (And colonialism…)
    All well my dear?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Here in Virginia we have our own sort of weirdness. We have counties, and we have cities, and there is no overlap. Cities are not part of counties, they are independent political entities whose government is organized differently. And we have some whole counties that incorporated themselves as cities, so if you look at a map you’ll see Suffolk, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, which are all the size of counties, but are officially cities. While Arlington, which is across the river from DC and completely urbanized, is still a county.

    We have a Richmond County that’s nowhere near the City of Richmond, and likewise a Franklin County that’s nowhere near the City of Franklin.

    But on top of that, we also have towns, which are officially still a part of a county. People who live in a town pay both county and town taxes, and the towns have their own small police force for some reason.

    So we have the City of Fairfax which lies entirely within Fairfax County, but which is not part of Fairfax County politically. But the Fairfax County Courthouse is within the City of Fairfax, on a small bit of land carved out that belongs to the County. Oh, and the County runs all the schools and the library for the City, because it’s easier that way, I guess. It makes my head spin.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, that’s a truly glorious mess and my life is richer and more dizzying for having read about it. And here I thought that kind of mayhem was reserved for Britain.

      Or is it England, which is its own nation–or in some tellings, country–wholly contained by the country of Britain, with which furriners regularly confuse it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps it’s that Virginians started out with that nonsense as a holdover from the English nonsense and are too stuck on tradition to fix it. There are two good responses to the joke “How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer is either “Three, one to change it and two to talk about how great the old one was.” or “Change? Whaddya mean CHANGE?”

        Liked by 2 people

        • I can’t explain why, but I like the first one better. Maybe it crawled a little further out on the absurdity limb.

          The possibility that Virginia carried over some element of English tradition did cross my mind, but since my knowledge of Virginia history is limited to hearsay, a bit of trashy TV, and a few other similarly reliable sources, I thought I’d shut up about it.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Well, I never. It’s amazing what you learn… I’ve always fallen for the ‘a city (in England) must have a cathedral’ line up to now.

    I wonder if I can declare my bedroom a city? I could be its Lord Mayor. Hmm. On second thoughts, scratch that idea; I’d probably have to stop slouching around in my pyjamas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just add a gold chain to your pajamas for formal occasions and it would work.

      I was told by several people that it was all about a cathedral, and since I’m an outsider that struck me as strange enough that it seemed like something worth learning about. That’s the advantage of having outsiders around. They hear the things you take for granted and say, “What???”

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: A Minnesotan admits, belatedly, that it does actually snow in Britain | Notes from the U.K.

  10. Hull (or more formally Kinston Upon Hull) is a city, and it doesn’t have a cathedral, it became a royal city (hence kingston) when it helped a king out with some defence or shipping… my history is sketchy as I left the place a while ago…
    It does have the biggest parish church in the country though, which has recently declared its self a minster because apparently you can declare yourself a minster if you are big enough… I might try it!
    (Also I seem to be fairly behind on my blog reading)

    Liked by 1 person

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