UK and I Boundaries through Time


          Help and Guidance 2021: Modified Page: Version 1.1




The users of GENUKI will be interested in the life events of their ancestors:- birth, baptism, marriage, death, burial, residence, etc. They will be particularly keen ti understand where those took place. Locations, their hierarchy and the boundaries between groups of locations (county, parish, township, etc.) vary over time. The existence of both civil and ecclesiastical parishes can cause confusion when these differ significantly.

The following sections give a general account of these changes. They  derive mainly from the practice and law in England and Wales. Where this differs significantly, the practice and law in Scotland and Ireland is listed in additional sections. However, an additional section has been added to reflect the Welsh timeline which brought Wales into line with England.

Parish 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.

County Definitions

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 maintainers:

  • 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".



  • Acts of Union. Thomas Cromwell's master plan [for Henry VIII], comprising 22 Acts of Parliament to ensure a more effective domination of Wales by Henry VIII and his Parliament, resulted in the abolition of the Marcher lordships and the creation of 5 new counties [Monmouth, Brecon, Radnor, Montgomery, Denbigh], making 13 in total.
  • Wales became subject to English law for the first time, Welsh land laws were abolished, and Justices of the Peace established.
  • Wales became subject to pressures to conform to the English practice relating to surnames. Welsh could no longer be used for official or legal purposes.
  • The English shire system was introduced into Wales at a local level.
  • First Members of Parliament from Wales.


County Parish Lists

As can be seen from the above list of significant changes, boundaries cannot be defined absolutely, and any definition of county or parish must be associated with a relevant date.

Because of the different demands of GENUKI users, and the large variations in relevance, there is no standard definition as such. The base lists of parishes were taken from the 1832 definitions in "Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers (2nd ed.), Chichester, Phillimore (1995)", but this covered England and Wales only, and many counties have been supplemented by parishes drawn from the The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868). County maintainers for England are therefore recommended to use either the relevant 1832 parish list from Phillimore, or that provided in the 1868 National Gazetteer.

The situation in Scotland is rather more complicated and results in a recommendation to use a list of either the 1855 parishes or the 1891 parishes.

In all cases we aim to include text recording which definition is in use.


There remains the problem of parishes straddling multiple counties, with lots of examples in the Scottish Borders and elsewhere. And the similar issue of which maintainer looks after those parishes which have been transferred from one county to another as a result of county boundary changes.

One solution, for both cases, is to maintain a single parish page for each parish which existed in 1832 or 1868, for England and Wales, or 1891 for Scotland, linked to from the parish list in all the relevant county pages. This is not an ideal solution, but probably best for now.

Thus, it would be agreed mutually by the respective county maintainers that there would be one parish page, maintained in the county in which the parish was located in 1832, or 1868, for England and Wales, or 1891 for Scotland, and the "Town and Parish index" on all the relevant county pages would list the parish, and link to the unique parish page.

The county boundary changes are another issue which is difficult to address. However, the county maintainer could develop a single page to address all of the changes which affected parishes; see the Staffordshire (Boundary Changes) page for an example. This is not ideal but is much better than nothing.

Note that the Gazetteer has the ability to handle multi-county parishes, to cater for the Irish sections. It can group townlands in cross-county parishes on the maps. But no decision has been made on which county the parish page sits in, or whether there should be multiple parish pages. For the parishes which cross county boundaries, it is recommended that maintainers add a note under the "Historic Geography" section together with a link if there is another page for the parish in the adjacent county.

The issue of differing dates of which parishes are included within a county can be side-stepped to some extent by presenting the parish list from 1832, or 1868, or 1891, but within the individual pages adding links to lower level pages for the "newer" parishes.

A similar, but different, issue is that of places which were transferred, e.g., in 1891 in Scotland, from one parish to another. As with disputed counties, it would be sensible for the main article on any parish to reflect the parish as it was in 1832, or 1868, or 1891, but with an entry under "Historical Geography" both there and in any other parish affected, at the least outlining any boundary changes. As an example, see the Banffshire pages which supplement this with Gazetteer lists of individual placenames on either side of the Great Divise of 1891.


The Kain & Oliver maps are an excellent source of parish boundaries for England & Wales in 1832, even though they will have evolved slightly up to 1850 when published. By then some of the big industrial towns had created new parishes as they grew so there are inconsistencies between 1832 and 1850.

The IHGS maps of pre-1974 English and Welsh counties show the boundaries created up to 1832. However, the Kain & Oliver parish boundary maps are on a much larger scale, and so are far more detailed, and more accurate, than some of the earlier parish maps, such as IHGS and Phillimore.

Cecil Humphrey-Smith's Atlas & Index of Parish Registers (for England & Wales) includes maps and says "each parish map shows the ancient (pre-1832) parochial boundaries".

The LDS website at Family Search Maps provides maps of "English Jurisdictions" for 1851 which include boundaries for: Parish, County, Civil Registration District, Diocese, Rural Deanery, Poor Law Union, Hundred, and Province (Canterbury and York). This site is available in the list of standard mappings provided via the GENUKI map scripts.

Gazetteers are useful sources of parish lists and the Lewis Gazetteer (Eng, Sco, Ire, Wal) 1831-1837, is quite close to Phillimore's 1832. Whatley's Gazetteer (Eng only) was published in 1750 but might still be useful as a reference.

The excellent two volume "Guide to the Local Administrative Units of England" by F.A. Youngs can be used to track changes in ecclesiastical parish boundaries, as well as the related civil parishes and where necessary the changes to the county and borough boundaries themselves. It is big and Volume I for the South of England alone requires 800 pages to document the changes, despite the extensive use of abbreviations and keys to avoid duplicating similar information for multiple parishes. The well known "Vision of Britain" website summarises some of these boundary changes from the perspective of civil administration units.

The London Gazette website documents all changes to ecclesiastical parishes agreed by the Privy Council, e.g., the movement of parishes into different benefices.


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