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Unravelling the mystery of English counties

UK addresses can be surprisingly complicated, making it difficult to fetch up the right postal details.  To help you understand the riddle of the UK address system, let’s take a closer look at the significance and variance in county names throughout the nation.

How are UK counties defined?

Perhaps unhelpfully, there’s no central authority in the UK which defines county boundaries. This means that depending on who you’re talking to, you’ll often find plenty of variety in how they’re defined throughout the nation.

In England alone there have been four different systems – from postal definitions through to historic county names.

Traditional County Names

Sometimes better known as the historic or ancient county names, these date back to the Norman Conquest and are still frequently used to define local governments even today. This is particularly true of less populous areas, with cities favouring newly created boundaries – making the mix of old and new quite confusing.

Traditional county names have never been a feature of contemporary address lookup as they were disbanded from official use in 1889, however they continue to be a pervasive part of modern life in areas outside of London.

Postal County Names

The postal service once divided England into 48 postal counties, a system which was dropped in 1996. Royal Mail has rejected this system, and many major towns today do not have a postal county, causing even more confusion for urban mailboxes. As of 2010, county data has been formally abandoned for both sorting and delivering mail, making this another largely defunct definition.

Ceremonial County Names

A historic addition to our list, ceremonial counties are a snapshot of the past. Now mostly matching up with local authorities as they were back in 1974, they rarely have much relevance to contemporary county borders and boundaries.

Despite this, they continue to be associated with various regions and hold great significance for some UK residents.

Metropolitan and Non-Metropolitan County Names

There are (in total) 82 metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties, all of which exist solely for local government definitions outside of Greater London.

While these definitions are still quite pervasive, they are mainly used for admin rather than post, making them obsolete from an address lookup perspective.

What can this mean for addresses?

This can mean a simple address could have a number of different “counties” applied to it. For example, I live in Peckham in South London – which you’d think would be easy – hmmm.

In the Traditional Counties, “London” exists but only applies to the City of London, or the Square Mile, covered by the EC postcodes. Peckham has postcodes starting with SE15 – so would have been part of Surrey before 1889. In the Ceremonial Counties, my address would be part of Greater London. In the Postal Counties, London was designated a “ Postal Town” and therefore did not need a county. And, finally, the Metropolitan and Non-Metropolitan Counties only exist outside of London, so it technically does not have a county in this system but would have been designated Greater London.

Our advice?

If you want to ensure your address is accurate, we suggest you leave the county name out of it entirely. As you can see, there is far too much room for error and county names are no longer needed for postal services. Using an address lookup service in your eCommerce checkout or CRM system means that the wrong county won’t be applied no matter what is input.  In the UK, all the client needs to know is their postcode to get an accurate, fully validated postal address that is correctly formatted for Royal Mail and other postal and delivery services.

For our clients who prefer to capture a county name, the Fetchify API for Address Auto Complete and Postcode Lookup can be configured to offer traditional, ceremonial or postal county names.

About Fetchify

We are a pioneer in SaaS address lookup and data validation solutions. We process millions of data transactions each day for thousands of clients ranging from small e-commerce startups to large household brands such as Heinz and RBS. Our flagship products Address Auto-Complete and Postcode Lookup reduce friction on checkouts, leading to increases in conversion rate of up to 40%, and helps reduce failed deliveries by as much as 75%. Since launching in 2008, we have differentiated by our ease of integration and exceptional support.