English Towns

A town traditionally was a settlement which had a charter to hold a market or fair and therefore became a “market town”. Market towns were distinguished from villages in that they were the economic hub of a surrounding area, and were usually larger and had more facilities.  A borough were an historic unit of local government, or a degree of self-government. The ancient boroughs covered only important towns and were established by charters of incorporation granted at different times by the monarch.  229 places had borough charters in the period 1307-1660.

The process of incorporation was reformed in 1835 and many more places received borough charters, whilst others were lost. All existing boroughs were abolished on 1 April 1974 and borough status was reformed as a civic honour for local government districts, allowing a District Council to describe itself as a Borough Council. At the same time, 300 successor parishes were formed from the former area of 78 municipal boroughs (e.g. Buckingham, Glastonbury) and 221 urban districts (e.g. Clevedon, Holmfirth). 52 towns in metropolitan districts and ten other towns successfully applied for successor status, so were permitted to continue to call themselves towns. Four were cities. Rural Districts were already parished, and some of these parishes have since become towns.

Boroughs that did not become successor parishes formed unparished areas, but were able to preserve their charters without a corporate body by appointing charter trustees.  A metropolitan borough is a a subdivision of a former metropolitan county (which were created in 1974, and whose councils were abolished in 1985), are defined in English law as metropolitan districts, and are effectively unitary authority areas. However, all of them have been granted or regranted royal charters to give them borough status.  The districts of London (except for the Cities) are London Boroughs.  Some counties, districts and towns have Royal status granted by charter.

In modern usage the term town is used either for old market towns, or for settlements which have a town council, or for settlements which elsewhere would be classed a city, but which do not have the legal right to call themselves such.  However, not all settlements which are commonly described as towns have a “Town Council” or “Borough Council”. In fact, because of many successive changes to the structure of local government, there are now few large towns which are represented by a body closely related to their historic borough council. These days, a smaller town will usually be part of a local authority which covers several towns. And where a larger town is the seat of a local authority, the authority will usually cover a much wider area than the town itself (either a large rural hinterland, or several other, smaller towns).  Some settlements which describe themselves as towns (e.g. Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire) are smaller than some large villages (e.g. Kidlington, Oxfordshire). Sometimes a town can be generally be considered part of a larger abutting town (e.g. Bottesford), even when it is governed by a different council (e.g. Earley). Stockport was part of Macclesfield, grew so large it became a County Borough in its own right, and absorbed by Greater Manchester, and then given autonomy as a unitary authority, and then ceded some power to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, to which it sends an indirectly elected member. Stockport has an indirectly elected mayor; the GMCA has a directed elected mayor.

The lowest tier of English government is the (civil) parish, which generally exist in rural areas and sometimes in urban areas.  It was derived originally from the manor, and diverged from Church of England parishes during the 19th century.  Since 1974, any parish council in England has the right to resolve to call itself a town.  Several communities have taken up this right, including areas that preserved continuity with charter trustees.  This will usually only apply to the smallest “towns” because larger towns will be larger than a single civil parish.  Additionally, there are “new towns” which were created during the 20th century. Examples are Basildon, which initially incorporated a village of the same name with several others, later absorbed urban districts, and was eventually given borough status. Redditch was formerly a town; Telford was composed of several towns and a previously rural hinterland. Milton Keynes (which took the name of a village) was designed to be a “new city” but legally it is still a town, despite its size. Similarly, Welwyn Garden City is a town, not a city.

The word town can also be used as a general term for urban areas, including cities and in a few cases, districts within cities. For example, Greater London is sometimes referred to colloquially as “London town”. (The “City of London” is the historical nucleus, informally known as the “Square Mile”, and is administratively separate from the rest of Greater London, while the City of Westminster is also technically a city and is also a London borough). Camden Town and Somers Town are districts of London. So, London is not a city, despite a “leading global city” and being home to eight million people. The former Hertfordshire market town of Barnet is now a London Borough, along with towns from Kent, Surrey and Middlesex (which has been completely absorbed by Greater London), and suburban areas such as Islington.

The Office for National Statistics has produced census results from urban areas since 1951, since 1981 based upon the extent of irreversible urban development indicated on Ordnance Survey maps. The definition is an extent of at least 20 ha and at least 1,500 census residents. Separate areas are linked if they are, including are transportation features, less than 200 m apart. England has four Urban Areas with a population over a million and a further 63 with a population over one hundred thousand. It is notable that London extends well beyond its county boundary by this measure. There is also a European ‘EPSON’ definition which brings commuting into the assessment: here this affect is even more pronounced.

The status of a city is reserved for places that have Letters Patent entitling them to the name, historically associated with the possession of a cathedral. Some large municipalities (such as Northampton and Bournemouth) are legally boroughs but not cities, whereas some cities are quite small — such as Ely or Lichfield.  Rochester (Kent) has been a city for centuries but, when in 1998 the Medway district was created, trustees were not appointed to retain the letters patent and Rochester lost its city status. It is often thought that towns with bishops’ seats rank automatically as cities: however, Blackburn remains a town despite being the seat of the diocese of Blackburn (which covers the City of Preston which has no diocese or cathedral). In reality, the pre-qualification of having a cathedral of the established Church of England ceased to apply from 1888.  Administratively,  except for the City of London, a city functions as a unitary authority (e.g. Peterborough) or district (e.g. Carlisle), sometimes with Metropolitan Borough (e.g. Wakefield) or London Borough status (Westminster); eight function as parishes. One of these is Salisbury (the district of the same name was merged into the Wiltshire unitary authority). Bristol is also a county (since the Metropolitan County of Avon was broken up). Bath is unparished: charter trustees preserve city status.

The City of London is different. It has a unique political status, a legacy of its uninterrupted integrity as a corporate city since the Anglo-Saxon period and its singular relationship with the Crown. Historically its system of government was not unusual, but it was not reformed by the Municipal Reform Act 1835 and little changed by later reforms. It is administered by the City of London Corporation, headed by the Lord Mayor of London (not the same as the more recent Mayor of London), which is responsible for a number of functions and has interests in land beyond the City’s boundaries. Unlike other English local authorities, the Corporation has two council bodies: the (now largely ceremonial) Court of Aldermen and the Court of Common Council. The Court of Aldermen represents the wards, with each ward (irrespective of size) returning one Alderman. The chief executive of the Corporation holds the ancient office of Town Clerk of London. The City is also a ceremonial county which has a Commission of Lieutenancy headed by the Lord Mayor instead of a Lord-Lieutenant and has two Sheriffs instead of a High Sheriff, quasi-judicial offices appointed by the Livery Companies, an ancient political system based on the representation and protection of trades (Guilds). Senior members of the Livery Companies are known as Liverymen and form the Common Hall, which chooses the Lord Mayor, the Sheriffs and certain other officers.

A village in England is a compact settlement of houses, smaller in size than a town, and generally based on agriculture or, in some areas, mining, quarrying or sea fishing. The main historical distinction between a town and a village was that the former would have a regular (agricultural) market, although today such markets are less common even in towns. The main historical distinction between a hamlet and a village was that the latter had a church, and so usually was the centre of worship for an ecclesiastical parish. However, some civil parishes may contain more than one village. The typical village had a pub or inn, shops, and a blacksmith. But many of these facilities are now gone, and many villages are dormitories for commuters. The population of such settlements ranges from a few hundred people to around five thousand.

Note: this page is partly based on Wikipedia pages: town and Urban area Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Where possible, text is being updated to original, fully referenced research. ‘Our photos’ means we took the photographs. The Street View and street map visuals are courtesy of Google.