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Counties of England
The counties of England are territorial divisions of England for administrative, political and geographical purposes. Most current counties have foundations in older divisions such as the Anglo-Saxon shires, and duchies.
The names, boundaries and functions of these divisions have changed considerably over their history. A series of local government reforms from the 19th century onwards has left the exact definition of the term 'county' ambiguous.
The term "counties of England" does not, therefore, refer to a unique set of names or boundaries; in formal use, the type of county relevant to the specific task is explicitly stated e.g. ceremonial county, registration county, historic county or former postal county.
The 39 historic, ancient or traditional counties, developed from the 12th to the 16th centuries, though many of the specific areas are much older. They were not used for census reporting since 1841. Most of the historic counties continue to form part of the local government structure, often with reformed boundaries. 
Registration counties existed from 1851 to 1930 and were used for census reporting from 1851 to 1911.
1889 to 1974
Elected county councils were set up in England in 1889, taking over many of the administrative functions of the Quarter Sessions courts, as well as being given other powers over the years. A County of London was created from parts of Kent, Middlesex and Surrey.  The counties were divided into administrative counties (the area controlled by a county council) and independent county boroughs.  Some counties were covered by several administrative counties; they were Suffolk, Sussex, Northamptonshire, Hampshire, Cambridgeshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.
Changes in 1974
On 1 April 1974 the Local Government Act 1972 came into force. This the existing local government structure in England and Wales (except in Greater London) and replaced it with a new entirely two-tier system. It abolished the previously existing administrative counties and county boroughs (but not the previous non-administrative 'counties') and created a new set of 46 'counties' in England, 6 of which were metropolitan and 40 of which were non-metropolitan.
Some of the counties established by the Act were entirely new, such as Avon, Cleveland, Cumbria, Hereford and Worcester, and Humberside, along with the new metropolitan counties of Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands, and West Yorkshire. The counties of Cumberland, Herefordshire, Rutland, Westmorland and Worcestershire were abolished and the county boroughs as well.
A further local government reform in the 1990s grouped the counties into regions, created many small unitary authorities with county level status (re-establishing in effect if not in name the old county boroughs), and restored Herefordshire, Rutland and Worcestershire as administrative entities.
There are now 81 county level entities outside Greater London. Of these, 34 are so-called 'shire counties' with both county councils and district councils, and 40 are unitary authorities. Six are metropolitan counties. The remaining one is Berkshire, whose county council has been abolished and its districts have become unitary authorities.
Post-1996 ceremonial counties
Because of the local government reforms in the 1990s, the distinction between the counties used for local government and those used for Lieutenancy, abolished in 1974, was revived, and a new term, 'ceremonial county', coined. Most unitary authorities remained associated with the same county for Lieutenancy, and in a few areas the old ceremonial counties were restored (Bristol, East Riding of Yorkshire, Herefordshire, Rutland, Worcestershire).
These are also known as the geographic counties and are generally used to describe a place's location in England. They are also taken into consideration by the boundary commission when they draw up boundaries for constituencies, for example.
The former postal counties as used by the Post Office are no longer required on addresses. They included most of the 1974 changes, but did not acknowledge Greater Manchester or Greater London as postal counties. They went out of official use in 1996.
- Her Majesty's Stationary Office, Aspects of Britain: Local Government (1996)
- Thomson, D., England in the Nineteenth Century (1815-1914) (1978)
- Bryne, T., Local Government in Britain, (1994)