A Note on UK and Ireland Boundaries



As indicated, the principal means of structuring used for GENUKI is by means of the following elements:

  1. The British Isles.
  2. England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
  3. Counties, including the separate islands comprising the Channel Islands.
  4. Towns and parishes within counties.
  5. Parishes that are grouped together within a town.

However locations, their hierarchy and the boundaries between groups of locations (county, parish, township, etc.) vary with date. And the existence of both civil and ecclesiastical parishes can cause confusion when these differ significantly.

The following sections derive mainly, or exclusively, from the practice and law in England and Wales. Where this differs significantly, the practice and law elsewhere in the UK are listed in additional sections. However, an additional section has been added to reflect the Welsh timeline which brought Wales into line with England.

Parish and County Definitions

Parishes existed for centuries as loosely defined groupings of manors, hamlets and other residences. Ancient parishes are often defined as ones which existed prior to the 1597 and 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law Acts. They often had detached parts, exclaves and enclaves which were not contiguous with the rest of the parish. In some cases the detached part was in a different county. In other cases, an entire parish was in a detached part of the county to which it belonged. There were also many examples of parishes divided between two or more adjoining counties.

Ancient parishes supported one or more priests by means of tithes paid by residents as a fraction of their produce or its value.

Originally, parishes were the main (or only) source of income to support a parish priest, whose living was defined as a benefice, i.e., financial support. Much later, it became the custom for several parishes to be combined to form a benefice.

Parishes were exclusively ecclesiastical until the mid-19thC but it was the 1866 Act which defined the concept of civil parishes.

[Wikipedia] The historic counties of England were established for administration by the Normans, in most cases based on earlier kingdoms and shires established by the Anglo-Saxons and others, and went out of official use with the creation of the administrative counties in 1889. They are alternatively known as former counties, ancient counties or traditional counties.

The county boundaries for England were historically relatively static as defined by the ancient counties until the impact of the 1844 Counties (Detached Parts) Act. The 1844 Act rationalised many counties by incorporating small external enclaves back into their geographical county. This aligned county boundaries with the consequences of the 1832 Great Reform Bill that changed only parliamentary boundaries not those of local government. Subsequently the 1888 Local Government Act created Administrative Counties, rationalising things further with the establishment of county councils and county borough councils whose borders were then aligned with those of the parent county.

Poor Laws and Unions

The Elizabethan Poor Law Acts were introduced in 1597, and 1601, and made it the responsibility of ecclesiastical parishes to support their membership financially if unable to do so themselves. It therefore became vital for parishes to be clear about their membership and their boundaries. Relief of the poor was based upon the principle of "settlement", that is their right to live in the parish in question. This was based originally upon place of birth and parentage, residence, property ownership, apprenticeship, or contract of work. Married women were granted settlement in their husband's parish. Otherwise it became necessary to produce a "settlement certificate" from the home parish before moving to a new one. However, the Acts allowed the use of a parish rate to provide for support of the poor.

From the 18thC it became common for ecclesiastical parishes to combine together to build workhouses to provide relief to the poor via independent acts of Parliament. "Gilbert's Act" of 1783 made this easier by allowing the voluntary association of parishes for this purpose. In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act facilitated the building of workhouses by creating Poor Law Unions throughout England & Wales which existed until their abolition in 1930 as a result of the Local Government Act of 1929.

The boundaries of these Poor Law Unions were used as the basis of Civil Registration Districts when they were introduced in 1837 by the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836. Thus District boundaries took no regard of county boundaries and as a result Registration Counties were created for statistical purposes. The boundaries of the unions would later be re-used to define rural sanitary districts in 1875 and yet again for rural districts in 1894.

Extra-Parochial Areas

Historically nearly 700 geographical areas of England & Wales were omitted from the ecclesiastical parish structure, meaning that they had no local church or clergy. Some were established because of the existence of a crown property, e.g., Windsor Castle, a cathedral close, or an Inn of Court, e.g., Middle Temple. Others simply existed because the area covered was unpopulated, often falling on the boundaries of two or more parishes, e.g., Nomansland, Devon.

However, the creation of civil parishes, and the new Poor Law Unions, based originally upon the ecclesiastical parish structure, and the growing population in the 19th century, including that within these extra-parochial areas, created problems. The issue was partly resolved in 1858 by means of the Extra-Parochial Places Act 1857 that turned the extra-parochial areas into civil parishes and finally by the Poor Law Amendment Acts of 1866 and 1868, which removed the remaining anomalies. Of course, these rationalisations applied in the context only of civil parishes and did not affect the ecclesiastical status of these areas.

Special arrangements were made for Gray's Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Charterhouse, (all in London) which could not be grouped into any poor law union, although they were otherwise considered to be parishes.

There were also many English areas that lay outside the ancient ecclesiastical parish, and later civil parish, structure known as Liberties, where the land was independent of the ancient hundred and borough structure. In some cases a Liberty was large, comprising several geographically separate areas, while others were much smaller plots of land contained within one surrounding parish. The Liberty of Bowland was a notable example of the larger variety that included several manors, villages and four ecclesiastical parishes. Such anomalies were removed by a series of Acts of Parliament in the 19th century, culminating in the Local Government Act 1888. The exceptions to this being both Inner and Middle temple which remain Liberties to this day, as well as retaining their extra-parochial status.


There are some dates at which changes occurred in the definition and boundaries of counties, parishes and other elements of interest to GENUKI users:

  • 1538. Parishes (ecclesiastical) were instructed to keep a record of baptisms, marriages and burials. At this time civil parishes did not exist, but the county boundaries had been established for many years, and were formalised soon after 1066.
  • 1597 and 1601. The Elizabethan Poor Law Acts were introduced which made parishes responsible for supporting their membership and allowed the use of a parish rate to provide the associated funds.
  • 1812. Closed ecclesiastical parish records had to be lodged in the care of the civil administration.
  • 1832. The Great Reform Bill changed parliamentary boundaries.
  • 1837. The Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836 introduced Civil Registration to England & Wales in 1837, and civil registration became mandatory in 1875.
  • 1844. The Counties (Detached Parts) Act rationalised many counties by incorporating small external enclaves back into their geographical county.
  • 1855. Similar to 1837 in England and Wales, civil registration of life events in Scotland was started, and all existing Kirk of Scotland Registers of Baptism, Marriage and Death were surrendered to the Registrar-General in Edinburgh.
  • 1866. The ancient parishes of England and Wales diverged into two distinct units following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1866 which declared all areas that levied a separate rate including extra-parochial areas, townships, and chapelries as "civil parishes".
  • 1888. The 1888 Local Government Act created Administrative Counties, rationalising things further with the establishment of county councils and county borough councils whose borders were then aligned with those of the parent county.
  • 1891. A major re-alignment of both parish and county boundaries took place in Scotland.
  • 1894. Civil parishes in their modern sense were established afresh in 1894, by the Local Government Act.
  • 1974. The Local Government Act (England and Wales) retained civil parishes in rural areas and low-population urban districts, but abolished them in larger urban districts, especially boroughs. County boundaries and their included civil parishes were redefined extensively, and new districts, counties, boroughs and other administrative entities defined.
  • 1974. The Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1973 (introduced in 1974) abolished the "traditional" counties and replaced them by a system of 9 "Regions" and 3 "Island Authorities".


When co-ordinating Scotland in the early years of GENUKI, the policy was to adopt the counties as in 1855 as the core reference point.

This was because 1855 was a significant date in Scottish genealogy, equivalent to 1837 in England and Wales, and to use the counties as they were at that point made sense.

However, a major re-alignment of both parish and county boundaries took place in Scotland in 1891.

In parallel with the 1974 changes in England and Wales there were similar, but very different, changes in Local Government which took effect in Scotland. Under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, the traditional counties were abolished and replaced by a system of 9 "Regions" and 3 "Island Authorities".

So, in Scotland, 1855 was the start date for civil registration of life events, but all the Registers, together with the "OPRs" (the pre-1855 parochial records of the Kirk of Scotland), the Census records, the Poor Law records and much else are catalogued by their current guardians according to the parishes and counties as they were between 1891 and 1974.

As a result, the stability of parish and county definitions and boundaries in Scotland between 1891 and 1974, makes 1891 as good, if not a better date than 1855 for standardising GENUKI parish lists for Scotland.

Even so, it is important for all changes to be acknowledged, to an extent. So, for example, the Scottish Borders county pages in GENUKI acknowledge the later regions, but mainly to explain to a modern readership how the entities they know now were reflected in the past.

The 1974 situation continued until 1995, when under the terms of the Local Government etc (Scotland) Act (1994) the Regions were abolished, to be replaced by a set of counties. But while these new counties revived some of the former county names, they were different from the counties merged in 1974. The "New, Improved" Aberdeenshire, for example, now includes the whole of the former county of Kincardine, and about half of the former county of Banffshire, but excludes the City of Aberdeen, which has its own separate Council.

None of these latter-day changes has any effect on how resources might be indexed, where 1891-1974 is still the Gold Standard, but does have some influence on where some resources are held. The now discontinued Regional setup, for instance, lives on in terms of Archives, with records from the whole of the former Grampian Region (Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Kincardine and Moray) being held by Aberdeen City and County Archives. And the 1995 counties will be the place to go for Burial Records.

As regards sources, the definitive guide to the 1891 changes in Scotland is "Boundaries of Counties and Parishes in Scotland" (published 1892). The author was Hay Shennan, who had been Secretary to the Boundary Commission which decided on those changes.

The pre-1891 parish and county boundaries are shown on the 1st Edition of the Ordnance Survey 1 inch maps, while the 2nd Edition (which conveniently came out in the mid-1890s) shows the post-1891 boundaries.

An annoyance to genealogists is that the Ordnance Survey, in their wisdom, stopped showing parish boundaries in Scotland from the early 1980s, i.e., the 2nd Edition of the 1:50000 "Landranger" sheets. They justify this by claiming that there were (from 1974) no more Parish Councils in Scotland. Whilst this is technically true, it ignores the fact that the parish boundaries are apparently still used in the calculation of agricultural subsidies.




Researchers should look elsewhere for the history of the relationship between Wales and England prior to the 1536/43 Acts of Union brought in by Thomas Cromwell to ensure a more effective domination of Wales by Henry VIII and his Parliament. These resulted in the abolition of the Marcher lordships and the creation of 5 new counties i.e Monmouth, Brecon, Radnor, Montgomery, Denbigh, making 13 in total.

One aspect of land divisions in Wales that it would be worth having a working knowledge of relates to cantrefs and hundreds

Over the centuries Monmouthshire has for some purposes been treated as if it was part of England but for most practical purposes it should be seen as part of Wales.

Since the above dates changes in Welsh boundaries follow the same pattern as their English counterparts as outlined under Timeline above.

It is worth noting in respect of Welsh ancient ecclesiastical parishes that before the introduction of the concept of civil parishes in 1866 the Church in Wales, an integral part of the Church of England, was comprised of four ancient dioceses which covered the following areas;

Bangor ;  Anglesey, most of Caernarfonshire, parts of Merioneth and Montgomeryshire, and the Deanery of Dyffryn Clwyd in central Denbighshire.

Llandaff ; Most of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire

St Asaph; Most of Flintshire and Denbighshire, with parts of Caernarfonshire, Merioneth, Montgomeryshire and Shropshire

St David's; Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire, Pembrokeshire, Brecknockshire, most of Radnorshire, and parts of Montgomeryshire, Glamorgan, Monmouthshire and Herefordshire.

And if that seems complex then it won't help to point out that 3 English dioceses also included parts of Wales; there was a considerable of swapping of parishes between the two countries in the 19th century.

In 1974 the 13 ancient counties of Wales were divided or amalgamated into 8 new ones and in 1996 certain ancient counties reappeared but some without the same boundaries that existed before 1974.

These changes are outlined  on Wales - Genealogy Help Pages