Q: Why is it all so complicated?

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A: The core of the system is mainly about administrative units, like counties, districts and parishes. These are of course related to the towns and villages that people live in, but British governments have spent the last two hundred years repeatedly changing administrative structures, and official sources like the census have periodically had to change the units reported on:

  • In the early nineteenth century data are listed for ancient parishes, hundreds, boroughs and counties.
  • In the late nineteenth century, the main reporting units were Poor Law Unions/Registration Districts (these were mostly identical), each typically based on a market town and including the surrounding countryside.
  • From the 1890s onward, a new system of local government districts (County and Municipal Boroughs, Urban and Rural Districts) was created, separating town and country.
  • A series of County Reviews in the mid-1930s made a great many detailed changes to this system.
  • In 1974, various counties were merged, new Metropolitan Counties were created, and a new system of larger districts again combined town and country.
  • In 1996 and again in 2009 further changes were made, and in some areas new Unitary Authorities replaced both counties and districts.

This potted history covers England and Wales, and the history of Scottish units is slightly simpler. Even there, there were major changes in the 1890s, 1975 and 1996. Every part of the country also experienced a trickle of smaller changes, so there was a slightly different map of administrative units almost every year.

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