What Are England’s Home Counties?

If you spend much time reading about England, sooner or later you’ll stub your toe on the phrase Home Counties. That’s what you get for reading in the dark.

But what are they?

No one’s sure. Or lots of people are sure, but they don’t agree with each other, which is what makes the question interesting. A lot of the sources I’ve found say they’re the counties around London, and that’s safe enough but doesn’t tell us which ones, so whatever consensus we pretended to have falls apart.

 

The boundless wisdom of public opinion

A polling company, YouGov, tried to shed light on the issue (someone must’ve paid them to do that) and succeeded mainly in highlighting how dark it is out there. Because although it’s easy to come up with wrong answers (Wales not only is in the wrong part of Britain, it’s not a county), no one can say what the right answer is. So let’s look for the most common candidates. 

Irrelevant photo: wild sweet peas.

The most widely recognized in the poll were Buckinghamshire, Surrey, and Berkshire. For whatever that’s worth, which I suspect is not much, especially since none of them gathered any impressive amount of support. 

Historically, YouGov says, Sussex is usually included, but only 30% of the people in their sample included West Sussex, and only 29% included East Sussex. (East and West Sussex were divided into separate counties in 1974, although no one told me until today. Which is unforgivably rude.) 

By other definitions,  the Home Counties include Bedfordshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Cambridgeshire, although only a third to a quarter of YouGov’s sample were convinced of it. You could also make a case for Hertfordshire, Kent, and Essex, which got 36%. 

 

Forget polling. What else do we know?

The simplest definition of the Home Counties is that they’re the six counties surrounding London: Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Berkshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Kent. (I’m taking someone else’s word for that, but I have verified that the list has six entries. You can check for yourself if you need more certainty than that.) But you could also toss in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Sussex (or the two halves of Sussex) and not be wrong. 

And although London’s the reference point for all of this, London isn’t one of the Home Counties. It’s–well, it’s London. 

 

Does any of this matter?

No. And also yes. The Home Counties aren’t an administrative entity. They’re not a governmental division. No one runs for office to represent them or sets out parking regulations for them and only them, although the phrase does show up sometimes in official usage. Or so says WikiWhatsia, which I fall back on only in desperation. That I’m leaning on it now tells you how little information I could find anywhere else.

That covers the no, it doesn’t matter part of the answer. What about the yes, it does part? It matters as a reflection of reality and as a cultural reference reinforcing that reality.

London is Britain’s economic and cultural heavyweight. It’s where the wealth and the power and the glitz come together–along with a lot of the grit and the poverty and the problems, although in fairness those last three are pretty widely distributed. But let’s stay with the wealth and the et cetera. When you concentrate enough of that stuff in a small space, it forms a gravity well, drawing everything nearby into its orbit. So whatever the hell they are, the Home Countries matter because London’s sitting there in their middle.

In fact, London’s not just sitting there, it’s been nibbling away at the  surrounding counties and by now has swallowed MIddlesex almost completely.

The broad-brush image of the Home Counties (that’s a nice way of saying “the stereotype”) is that they’re comfortable, conformist,conservative, and consumerist. Also suburban and expensive to live in, but those don’t start with C.

 

History

According to WikiWhatsia (at the moment; you never know when it’ll change), the origin of the phrase Home Counties can be traced–unreliably–back to several periods. One is Tudor times, when they were the counties close enough for a London-based functionary to have a country home and still rush back to London when needed. Another is the 18th century (more or less), which  had the “Home Counties Circuit of courts.”

A third is the Anglo-Saxon period, although the entry doesn’t offer anything to justify that, but it’s true that many English counties were originally Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, so what the hell, we’re close. Let’s move on before anyone notices how little we know about this.

Again, according to WikiWhatsia, the first mention of the phrase is from 1695, when Charles Davenant wrote “An essay upon ways and means of supplying the war,” arguing that the Home Counties were thought to pay a disproportionate amount in land taxes. 

Davenant included eleven counties. 

 

Yeah, but what about the shires

As long as we’re wandering around with an edgeless topic, and as long as counties with the word -shire in their names have come up, let’s talk about what the shires are:

They’re English counties that end in -shire. 

I  took the romance out of that, didn’t I?

The word’s roots are Anglo-Saxon–that language we call Old English and that modern English speakers couldn’t understand even if someone offered them a chocolate pie as a reward for deciphering a single sentence. Shire’s basically the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the French-based county. 

Talking about the shires will set off some cultural resonances, although I’m not the best-placed person to tell you what they are. What I can do is tell you that the Collins Dictionary says they’re in the Midlands and famous for hunting. 

Do what you can with that.

40 thoughts on “What Are England’s Home Counties?

  1. Home Counties is one of those expressions you hear but never hear anyone acually define it. I thought it was the counties around London, but some of them are more Home Counties than others – those to the west. So Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire much more so than Kent or Essex! Although there’s no logical to that statement, really.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a signifier, “Home Counties” = people who like and can afford the idea of living in the country, while also being near London – but wouldn’t particularly like or be able to afford to live on a country estate. It probably maps quite closely to people who have an Aga in their kitchen.

    Likewise “shires” has no clear objective correlative, but is often applied in politics to deep-dyed Tory MPs representing usually safe seats in rural areas (usually those that are not in the suburbanised Home Counties), who are usually equally deeply loyal to the party leader – until for whatever reason they aren’t, at which point the leader had better start looking for directorships, consultancies and lecture tours,

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Home counties – what an interesting concept. I confess I’ve never heard of a home county, but I’m all in for them now.
    Of course, my mind races to compare them with counties around Columbia, SC – the site of the state’s capitol building which is filled with wild and crazy lawmakers at random times.
    We crossed the rivers (Congaree, Saluda, and Broad) and live in our home county of Lexington which is filled with wild and crazy peeps at all times (including us probably as many of our neighbors would think).
    Stay safe and have a good weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

      • You are correct. The waterfalls are actually in the upstate. The most beautiful waterfalls are up the Broad River which is where T grew up. Her father is still alive, and we used to go up there to let him tell us his stories of why he loved the Broad River so much. He was born in a little hollow called Spillkorn in North Carolina’s Appalachia poverty corridor. We have visited there with him several times in the last few years. You would have been amazed at the place. He came down from the mountains, graduated from college, got a master’s degree from University of Georgia, became a teacher and then administrator. When we were getting to know each other, we were surprised at the similarity of the paths both of our fathers had followed.
        Whew. Yes, there are waterfalls. Holy Mary and Joseph – just stick to the question.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. So “Buckinghamshire” relly means “Buckingham County County.” Got it. Is West Essex the same as Wessex ? East Essex is already Essex, I guess. And is the Cheshire Cat from Cheshire or Cheshireshire ?
    I’ve read about The Home Counties but I have no idea where, so I appreciate knowing what they are.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. London’s in Middlesex. Don’t give me any of that 1974 boundaries nonsense! Some parts of what are classed as South London are in Surrey. I’d say that Essex, Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Kent (parts of Essex and Herts tend to be classed as “London” anyway) were also Home Counties.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll repeat what I said to Emma Cownie: No matter how long I live here, I’ll never understand this country.

      It’s not that there aren’t many (many, many) bits of the history, politics, and culture of the US that I don’t know, but somehow when I discover them they have a different impact. I don’t know how to explain it, but as an incomer I have this constant sense of surprise. And bafflement.

      Anyway, thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Cornwall is definitely out of the ‘shire’ running, but on the basis of it being where people of London have a country home, we may also qualify for a Home County status these days… Unless you also want to raise the possibility it’s a country and not a county, which is always an interesting debate, best approached in protective, if not armoured, clothing.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I grew up in the north of England and also have little idea how to define the Home Counties apart from the fact they are near London and generally affluent. I realise this comment is not actually contributing anything to the discussion, except to say that many of us in England (but north of Watford) have no idea what they are either

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Well, now this US reader has a general idea of what “Home Counties” is meant to mean in UK books, anyway. There’s that. Sort of like the “Greater Washington” that bumps at some uncertain point against “Greater Baltimore,” or “Bosnywash,” for the strip of urban grime that includes all three major Atlantic Coast cities…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh dear I never gave it much thought. I feel still clueless.. I liked your sweet pea.

    I hope you are well Ellen. I have been Mia from your blog for too long. Life has been somewhat..

    I look forward to your thoughts on bj and Xmas.

    I do hope you and yours are well.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. A few years ago, I attempted to figure out what “black holes” are, at least in laymen’s terms. If I have it right, they happen when a star dies and for some reason, the resulting emptiness “sucks” in everything, including light. How light gets itself “sucked” I have no idea. But every, including time, stops at the edge of the black hole. I don’t think anyone has truly figured out what happens inside of it, maybe the new Webb telescope will help with that.
    Why am I babbling about black holes? I couldn’t help but think of them when you described London “absorbing” (not necessarily sucking up) the surrounding counties.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure someone out there would be happy to convince you that London and a black hole have a lot in common, but it won’t be me. What makes a black hole a black hole, as I understand it (and you should have a salt shaker on hand when I start telling you about science) is that as the star dies it collapses in on itself, creating such a massive gravitational pull that nothing can escape it, including light. I’m not so sure about time.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Funny how the language works. I was a tutor, mostly for foreign-born students, at a community college years ago, and I remember a Somali (I think) student commenting on the way English has so many words for things. “In my language,” he or she (I don’t remember) said, “we have one word for one thing.”

          I can’t imagine what it would be like to work in a language like that. So yes, absolutely, gravitational pull.

          Liked by 1 person

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