Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Location, Location, Location and the UK

I am British, it is difficult to describe myself otherwise as my father is descended from Scottish ancestors, my mother from Welsh and I was born in England. It may be because of this hybrid background that I am sensitive to the way in which UK locations are entered in genealogy reports.

Let us start with the meaning of the UK; it is (now) the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but prior to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland in 1922 it included the whole of Ireland. This, of course, leads to the question as to what is Great Britain; put simply, it is the largest island within the British Isles the latter being merely a geographical description which also includes, the whole of Ireland and the Isle of Man. Often the Channel Isles are included as well but this is not strictly accurate. Great Britain comprises the countries of Scotland, England and Wales. The first two are Kingdoms and the latter a principality - but never suggest to the Welsh that Wales is not a country, it is :-).

Northern Ireland is a province of the UK, created from 6 counties in 1922, and is not the same as Ulster which contains two additional counties, now in the Republic. The Isle of Man and the Channel Isles are not, and never have been, part of the UK, but are Crown Dependencies. The former having the oldest parliament in the world, The Tynwald. The Channel Isles has two separate states, Jersey and Guernsey with their own governments, and the other islands are dependencies of Guernsey.

For further information please refer to The British Isles and all That.

After only a short time studying genealogy one meets the "four field convention" for naming locations. Let us be perfectly clear - this does not work for UK locations. To start with we do not have states, and England, Scotland and Wales are countries not states of the UK or GB. The correct description of location in these three countries would basically be: Parish/County/Country or Parish/Town/County/Country. There are variations, but these are the basic formats.

Thus, the correct location of Southampton is "Southampton, Hampshire, England", and not as I have recently seen "Southampton, ,Hampshire, Engand". There is not another tier between Southampton and Hampshire. We never add "UK" or "GB" to the end of a location, in particular, the latter is simply wrong and the former unacceptable. Arguably it could be said that "Northern Ireland, UK" is correct, although I would not include "UK".

Ouch! I hear, the Geolocation finders no longer work, well they don't, they were designed to fit the four field system, which doesn't work for us (and much of the world outside of America for that matter). I would suggest that accuracy should come before convenience and where I need to use the locator (rarely) I first enter the data incorrectly so that it fits the four field system, get the latitude and longitude, and then correct the location fields. A little more trouble, yes, but at least the output is accurate.

For further information on the history of English locations you are referred to English Counties, Parish, etc. for Genealogists.

In conclusion, for me, to expect a system of naming which has developed over nearly 2000 years to fit a convention developed only in the 20c is beyond my comprehension, and I look forward to the day when we will see our locations accurately reported.

© Ron Ferguson


  1. Ooooh - there's 3 additional counties for Ulster in the Republic, not two! Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan are in the south, though Donegal has the most northerly point in Ireland. It's grear being Irish - we're a nation built to confuse!