Confusing Counties

You may think you know your county but with three different types of county listed, a substantial proportion of us do not know which county we live in!

The problem actually stems from the late 1970s when there were a series of boundary changes, especially around London. In the mid-1990s the situation became even more complex with the introduction of unitary authorities around the major cities. The government recognises counties on the basis of administrative authority – for example, Derby isn’t actually in Derbyshire – at least administratively speaking!

This can be confusing and frustrating when buying something online and the address auto-fill returns a different county to what we thought.

In fact, getting the right county for an address can be a surprisingly complex and contentious issue.

For example; Nailsea is a town in Bristol, previously classified as in Avon county, which has been replaced by Somerset county. Looking for a nice quiet pub in the area you either head to ‘The Glassmaker’ or the ‘Royal Oak’, both in the same town, yet according to their websites, in completely different counties.

The three types of county are:
1. Traditional (used before 1970’s)
2. Former Postal (Used by Royal Mail until mid-1990’s, and not updated since)
3. Administrative (Strict top level administrative unit)

Killing off counties

Thankfully you do not need to keep track of these changes because all you need for postal purposes are the first line of an address and the postcode, the rest of the information is worked out from this. Royal Mail no longer requires the county as part of an address and, as a result, no longer supports it.

Royal Mail has been toying with the idea of deleting counties completely; this is controversial as some people don’t want counties to be deleted because they are part of the country’s heritage. Many people have a strong sense of identity with them. Sporting, social and cultural activities are based upon them and they are still widely used as a popular geographical framework. Therefore, Royal Mail has been putting it off and will be considering it next year when their current licence is reviewed.

In the meantime however, we have made changes to county data to make sure you get the best fit. Unless you have a county specific requirement, the best advice for now is not to include a county field in the address form at all to help reduce any confusion.


  • Andy

    The town and county of a Royal Mail address, is actually where your mail is sorted and not where your house is located.

    The majority are one and the same, but sometimes this throws up interesting and usually annoying addresses for the recipients.

  • Duncan

    The problem is that Royal Mail thinks no-one else’s use of the PAF matters apart from it’s own.

    Just because it doesn’t want to use counties any more doesn’t mean other users don’t. For example although I consider myself fairly geographically knowledgeable – there are a lot of postal towns I couldn’t place on a map – and therefore often the county is necessary to know where in the country an address is.

    The solution is obvious – the government should take responsibility for maintatining the PAF away from the Royal Mail – and since the rapid drop in postal volumes means I think it’s unlikely the Royal Mail will exist in its current form for much longer – that’s probably going to be necessary at some point anyway.