Tuesday 14 February 2023

What Is Cheshire?

Cheshire Archives and Local Studies is one of hundreds of public record offices throughout the country, which carefully preserve and allow access to the historical archives of their local communities. These are often called “County Record Offices”, although in practice the areas they serve can be far smaller (or occasionally even bigger) than a county. Which raises the question… what is the county of Cheshire? Well, the answer depends on the date and the type of records you’re looking for. 

The “Cestrescire” recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 was one of 34 ‘shires’ that the Saxons established in England and Wales well before the Norman Conquest. Its boundaries then appear to have extended into what later became south Lancashire and most of Flintshire. However, the boundaries of the shires remained fluid and continued to evolve over the next few centuries. 

From 1254 to 1545 the County Palatine of Chester had its own parliament, consisting of nobles from the county serving under the Earl of Chester. This was abolished by the Chester and Cheshire (Constituencies) Act 1542, and thereafter the county was represented at Westminster by two Knights of the Shire, while the city of Chester was separately represented by two burgesses. 

Speaking of the city of Chester, in 1238 this had been granted the status of a “county corporate”, effectively making it independent from the rest of Cheshire, with its own completely separate system of local government. This was officially styled as the City and County of Chester, to distinguish it from the County of Chester (referring to the rest of Cheshire). These potentially confusing descriptions could still be found in some official sources until as late as 1974. 

By the mid-16th century, Cheshire had assumed its familiar ‘teapot’ shape, with the Rivers Mersey and Tame marking its northern extent, and the River Dee delimiting most of its western boundary with Wales. This area is often referred to as the Ancient County of Cheshire, and it remained largely unchanged until the Victorian period, when new systems of local government were required to cope with the demands of an increasingly large and industrialised population. 

The Registration County of Cheshire was formed from groups of poor law unions set up in 1835, under which groups of parishes would combine to care for their poor and infirm residents. When a new civil registration system for births, marriages and deaths was established in July 1837, most of the poor law unions doubled as “registration districts”, with the poor-law overseers becoming local registrars. However, unions and registration districts didn’t always respect county boundaries, with the parishes of Hawarden (Flintshire), Biddulph (Staffordshire), and Heaton Norris and Reddish (both Lancashire) being included in Cheshire districts, while the Cheshire parishes of Disley, Mottram in Longdendale and Malpas were originally placed with districts in Derbyshire, Lancashire and Denbighshire respectively. When searching the national indexes for our ancestors’ births, marriage or death certificates, this can mislead us into disregarding entries which seem to be in the ‘wrong’ county. These boundary anomalies persisted until 1937. 

The Victorian period also saw the introduction of local boards of health, to improve conditions in the towns and cities. From 1872 these became “urban sanitary districts”, with the remaining parts of each poor law union becoming “rural sanitary districts”, and they gradually took on more and more responsibility for local affairs (the “sanitary” part of the name was dropped in 1894). Several of these districts inconveniently extended into two or more counties: for example, Stockport, Stalybridge, Warrington, Ashton under Lyne and Mossley, each of which comprised parts of Cheshire and Lancashire (with Mossley including parts of Yorkshire for good measure). To remedy this problem the Local Government Act 1888 created a system of Administrative Counties, by placing each district in the county where it had the largest population. Although the administrative county of Cheshire was a little smaller than the ancient county, it contained a larger population. 

Although the 1888 Act made it clear that administrative counties were intended to exist alongside (rather than replace) the ancient counties, the latter became increasingly redundant for purposes of local government, especially after a new system of county councils and county boroughs was established in 1889 by the same legislation. This meant that certain large towns and cities functioned as counties in their own right: in Cheshire these were Chester, Birkenhead and Stockport (joined later by Wallasey in 1913). 

This system of local government was swept away when the Non-Metropolitan County of Cheshire was created in April 1974. The urban areas on the Wirral peninsula, and to the south and west of Manchester were transferred to the new metropolitan counties of Merseyside and Greater Manchester respectively, while Cheshire gained the towns of Warrington and Widnes from Lancashire in compensation. All the county boroughs were abolished, with the city of Chester at the centre of one of eight new districts making up the county, all overseen by a reformed Cheshire County Council. 

In 1998, two of these districts, Halton and Warrington, became “Unitary Authorities”, granting them the powers of a county council. In 2009, the remaining parts of the county were divided into two more unitary authorities – Cheshire West and Chester, and Cheshire East – with the result that Cheshire County Council ceased to exist. However, Cheshire itself lives on as a Ceremonial County, established under the Lieutenancies Act 1997, now comprising the boroughs of Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester, Halton, and Warrington. 

We should also mention the Diocese of Chester, which at its foundation in 1541 extended as far north as Cumberland and Westmorland, taking in almost the whole of Lancashire, and parts of north east Wales. During the nineteenth century the area of the diocese was steadily reduced to roughly correspond to the ancient county of Cheshire, as it still remains to this day. 

Cheshire Archives holds records relating to all the Diocese of Chester and the former county authorities, although some collections for places outside present-day Cheshire have been transferred to neighbouring record offices – for examples, wills for Lancashire residents proved in the Diocese of Chester before 1858 are now at Lancashire Archives. So if you aren’t sure whether we have the records you need then please ask us before you visit, or consult our online catalogue and guides.

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