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This page is concerned with British counties as they were before the Local Government Act (England and Wales) 1972 and the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. Where the present tense is used in this page, it relates to years before 1972.
If you lived in England before 1972, you are likely to have heard these claims:
"Bristol is not in any county"You may have found this surprising. Maps did not show Bristol as a county of its own. They showed it as lying mainly in Gloucestershire, with its southern suburbs in Somerset.
"Bristol is not in Gloucestershire"
"Bristol is a county of its own"
This page attempts to answer this question.
Bristol is one of many English and Welsh cities and towns to have the status of county. Wikipedia's page on the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 lists all 178 English and Welsh boroughs recognised by that act. The list includes eleven that have the status "County of the City of ...": they are Bristol, Canterbury, Chester, Exeter, Gloucester, Lichfield, Lincoln, Nercatle-upon-Tyne, Norwich, Nottingham and York. Eight towns with county status, including Haverfordwest, are also listed. Bristol's county status was the first of these to be granted, by Edward III in 1373.
The status of borough, of city, and of county, were, I believe, honorary. They were conferred by the authorities, in principle by the monarch, at the same time as other more meaningful rights were conferred. Such rights might be the right to have a sheriff, the right to hold quarter sessions, and the right to elect their own burgesses and mayor. Possibly some of these rights were particularly associated with the status of county. Those with the status of county were known as "counties corporate", not as "counties".
So there is a sense in which Bristol, Canterbury, Gloucester, Haverfordwest, etc., are counties. But there is also a sense in which they lie within other counties. I think that almost everyone would agree that Canterbury is in Kent, Gloucester is in Gloucestershire, and Haverfordwest is in Pembrokeshire.
Still considering the situation as it was before 1972, I would not actually disagree with the statement "Bristol is a county", just as I would not disagree with the statements "Canterbury is a county" and "Haverfordwest is a county". But I consider such statements misleading, unless the context makes it clear that this is an honorary status, and they nevertheless lie within another county. I consider that statements such as "Bristol is not in any county", "Canterbury is not in Kent", and "Haverfordwest is a county of its own" are false.
This page is part of maproom.org, which has maps of the counties of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.