Postal counties of the United Kingdom

Last updated

Postal county
  • Also known as:
  • Former postal county
British former postal counties (numbered).svg
CategoryPostal geography
LocationUnited Kingdom
  • Major revision 1974
  • 1996
Number116 (as of 1996)
Possible types
  • England (48)
  • Northern Ireland (6)
  • Scotland (54)
  • Wales (8)

The postal counties of the United Kingdom, now known as former postal counties, [1] were postal subdivisions in routine use by the Royal Mail until 1996. [2] The purpose of the postal county – as opposed to any other kind of county – was to aid the sorting of mail by differentiating between like-sounding post towns. Since 1996 this has been done by using the outward code (first half) of the postcode instead. For operational reasons the former postal counties, although broadly based on the counties of the United Kingdom, did not match up with their boundaries: in some cases there were significant differences. The boundaries changed over time as post towns were created or amended.


According to the Royal Mail, the former postal county data no longer forms part of postal addresses. It was removed from the Postcode Address File database in 2000 and does not form part of its code of practice for changing addresses. [3] Despite this, county data is routinely sold to companies, ostensibly to let them cleanse their own address data. As the former postal county data was the last to be in routine use, some organisations have continued to use this obsolete data as part of postal addresses. In 2009 the Royal Mail code of practice consultation included discussion of the possible replacement of the currently supplied 'alias data' with an up-to-date county information data field. [4] In 2010 the regulator advised Royal Mail to cease supply of county data altogether [5] and a timetable was put in place for this to occur between 2013 and 2016. [6]


Counties were used in postal addresses from the earliest days of the Post Office, but over time the postal counties of many places did not match geographic counties or counties used for administrative purposes. There were several reasons for this:

Places part of a post town in another county

First, many of the approximately 1,500 post towns straddled county boundaries, and the postal addresses of all places in such areas included the postal county of the post town, regardless of their actual location. In a written answer in the House of Lords in 1963, Lord Chesham, Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Transport estimated that about 7% of towns and villages with a post office lay in a postal county different from their geographical county. He went to explain that:

Postal addresses are in effect routing instructions for Post Office sorters and, in settling what they should be, the main concern is to ensure a quick and efficient service at reasonable cost. The general aim is to align postal boundaries with those of the counties and where this has not been done it is usually because road and rail communications are such that mail can be got more quickly and efficiently to and from certain villages, et cetera, via a neighbouring county than via the county in which they are situated. Alignment of postal and county boundaries in these instances would mean either a poorer postal service for the villages, et cetera, in question or prohibitively heavy additional costs.

John Cavendish, 5th Baron Chesham, Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Transport written answer to Parliamentary question [7]

Examples, usually consisting of small villages near to county boundaries, included:

Geographic localityGeographic countyPost townFormer postal county
Chenies Buckinghamshire RICKMANSWORTH Hertfordshire
Chirbury Shropshire (England) MONTGOMERY Powys (Wales)
Hinwick and Podington Bedfordshire WELLINGBOROUGH Northamptonshire
Melbourn [8] Cambridgeshire ROYSTON Hertfordshire
Pitstone Buckinghamshire LEIGHTON BUZZARD Bedfordshire
Shirebrook Derbyshire MANSFIELD Nottinghamshire
Tatsfield Surrey WESTERHAM Kent
Ugley and Molehill Green Essex BISHOP'S STORTFORD Hertfordshire
Woodcote and Sonning Common Oxfordshire READING Berkshire [notes 1]

There were additional examples resulting from the 1974 reorganisation of local government:

Geographic localityCeremonial countyPost townFormer postal county
Birtley Tyne and Wear CHESTER LE STREET County Durham
Coleshill and Water Orton Warwickshire BIRMINGHAM West Midlands [notes 1]
Seaton Delaval [9] Northumberland WHITLEY BAY Tyne and Wear [notes 2]
Sedgefield County Durham STOCKTON-ON-TEES Cleveland
Stokesley and Great Ayton North Yorkshire MIDDLESBROUGH Cleveland

The postal counties were subject to change over time as post towns near to county boundaries were amended. For example, Chinley in Derbyshire had a postal address of "Stockport, Cheshire" [10] which was later updated to "High Peak, Derbyshire" when a new post town was created.


London postal district shown (in red) against the Greater London boundary London Postal District.png
London postal district shown (in red) against the Greater London boundary
Middlesex former postal county Middlesex former postal county.svg
Middlesex former postal county

Second, the London postal district, which formed a special post town, did not conform to any administrative boundaries. The postal district was created in 1858 and has periodically been revised. However, at no point has its boundary coincided with either the metropolis (later County of London) of 1855–1965, which was somewhat smaller, or the Greater London area created in 1965, which was much bigger. Addresses in the London post town, an area of 241 square miles (620 km2) [11] (or 40% of Greater London), did not include a county; however, the rest of Greater London (60% of its area) formed parts of other post towns in the postal counties of Surrey, Kent, Essex, Middlesex and Hertfordshire. For example, Wembley Stadium had a postal address of Wembley, Middlesex rather than London. Some London boroughs were split between multiple postal counties: for example Barnet had sections in the London postal district (e.g. Golders Green) and in the Middlesex and Hertfordshire postal counties (e.g. Edgware and East Barnet); with the NW7 postcode district touching the Greater London boundary to divide the three sections. Sewardstone, in the Epping Forest district of Essex, is the only locality outside Greater London to be included in the London postal district (E4).

Changes to geographic county boundaries

Third, the Royal Mail adopted some, but not all, of the local government reforms of 1965 and 1974/5. This caused postal counties in some areas to reflect boundary changes, while in other areas they did not. Although the Post Office did not follow the changes of the London Government Act 1963 with respect to the outer London suburbs, it did reflect the move of Potters Bar from Middlesex to Hertfordshire. In contrast, Middlesex remained part of the postal address for Staines, Sunbury and Ashford, which had transferred to Surrey. The 1960s saw an increase in the number of addresses the Post Office delivered to, but a decrease in the volume of mail sent, which caused a significant drop in revenue and a proportionate increase in operational costs. [12] Furthermore, retaining the existing postal county boundaries was explained as largely due to cost reasons. The Times pointed out that this might cause confusion, noting that in future "children will no doubt wonder why their address should refer to a county in which they have never lived", but that "some people […] want the name of Middlesex preserved because of its historical associations". [13]

The Local Government Act 1972 redrew the administrative county map of England and Wales outside Greater London. The Post Office was considering its policy in January 1973, [14] and in November 1973 noted that "Greater Manchester" would be unlikely to be adopted because of confusion of the Manchester post town, but that Avon was likely to be introduced. [15] When the local government changes came into force, the Post Office announced that the new counties would form part of postal addresses from 1 July 1974, and should be used as "soon as possible". Old counties could, however, still be used until 1 July 1975. It was stated that the rule applied to: "...addresses throughout England and Wales outside Greater London with the exception of Greater Manchester and Hereford and Worcester where addresses remain unchanged. In Humberside it is necessary to show whether an address is in North Humberside or South Humberside. Addresses in certain post-towns have not, in the past, included a county name; these addresses are unchanged, but the postcode should be shown. Addresses in Greater London are also unchanged as are addresses in any place where the new county bears the same name as the former one." [16] The postal counties listed in 1961 that did not continue after the reforms were Cumberland, Rutland, Sussex, Westmorland and Yorkshire. [10]

In Scotland, counties were entirely abolished for local government purposes in May 1975. The matter of postal counties was raised in the House of Lords in April 1975. Lord Beswick, Minister of State at the Department of Industry, stated that "the Post Office is consulting its customers in Scotland about the possible use of new postal addresses for Scotland based on the new local government Regions and Island Areas". [17] In the event, the postal counties were not changed. Thus Alva, despite being in the Central Region after 1975, was still postally in Clackmannanshire. Gordon Oakes, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, explained the policy in a written answer to a question in parliament, shortly after the changes were brought in: [18]

Postal addresses are routing instructions, not geographical descriptions, and the extent to which the new county names are being adopted for mail has been the subject of advice issued by the Post Office.

Special post towns

The postal county was omitted for addresses within 110 post towns. These were mainly either larger towns and cities or places where the county name was derived from the post town. These post towns were:

  • AYR
  • BATH
  • HULL
  • YORK

The towns of BRECON, CAERNARVON, CARDIGAN, CARMARTHEN, DENBIGH, FLINT, HUNTINGDON, MONMOUTH, MONTGOMERY and PEMBROKE also qualified as special post towns until 1974 as the name of the county was derived from the town. Following the Local Government Act 1972, addresses in these towns required the new postal county.

Postal counties in operation from 1974 to 1996

listed with official abbreviations, if any


Postal counties broadly matched the county boundaries established in 1974, unless noted otherwise under "geographic coverage".

Former postal countyAbbreviation [19] Geographic coverageMap
Avon 1
CheshireSignificant differences from the county boundaries established in 1974; also extended into Greater Manchester 6
County DurhamCo Durham9
CumbriaAlso extended into Northumberland and Dumfries & Galloway 10
East SussexE Sussex14
EssexSignificant differences from the county boundaries established in 1974; also extended into Greater London; [20] Stansted post town (CM24 postcode) is an exclave of the Essex postal county wholly within the Hertfordshire postal county15
HerefordshireCovered part of Hereford and Worcester; also extended into Powys.18
HertfordshireHertsSignificant differences from the county boundaries established in 1974; also extended into Greater London [20] 19
Isle of Wight20
KentAlso extended into Greater London [20] 21
LancashireLancsSignificant differences from the county boundaries established in 1974; also extended into Cumbria, Greater Manchester, North Yorkshire and West Yorkshire 22
LondonNot a postal county, but the London postal district corresponded to the London post town [20] 25
Middlesex MiddxCovered parts of Greater London and Surrey; Enfield post town was an exclave, separated from the rest by the London postal district and Hertfordshire [20] 27
North Humberside N HumbersideCovered part of Humberside29
North YorkshireN Yorkshire30
NorthumberlandNorthdSignificant differences from the county boundaries established in 1974; consisted of two unconnected areas divided by Tyne & Wear (NE19 postcode)32
South Humberside S HumbersideCovered part of Humberside37
South YorkshireS Yorkshire38
SurreySignificant differences from the county boundaries established in 1974; also extended into Greater London [20] and did not include Spelthorne (included in Middlesex)41
Tyne and WearTyne & WearSignificant differences from the county boundaries established in 1974; long salient into Northumberland all the way to the Scottish border (NE19 postcode)42
WarwickshireWarksSignificant differences from the county boundaries established in 1974; consisted of two unconnected areas divided by West Midlands (i.e. the easterly salient of the Coventry post town)43
West MidlandsW MidlandsSignificant differences from the county boundaries established in 1974; extended into Warwickshire all the way to the Leicestershire border (CV7 postcode)44
West SussexW Sussex45
West YorkshireW Yorkshire46
WorcestershireWorcsCovered part of Hereford and Worcester48


The postal counties of Scotland broadly followed the boundaries of the civil counties on the mainland. Offshore islands, however, were regarded as distinct counties for postal purposes. There was no postal county of Buteshire, which was instead divided between the Isles of Arran, Bute and Cumbrae.

Former postal countyGeographic coverageMap
AberdeenshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county less Aberdeen post town49
AngusApproximated to 1890–1975 county less areas in Dundee post town50
ArgyllApproximated to 1890–1975 county less islands51
AyrshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county52
BanffshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county53
BerwickshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county54
CaithnessApproximated to 1890–1975 county55
ClackmannanshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county56
DumfriesshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county57
DunbartonshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county, comprising two separate areas58
East LothianApproximated to 1890–1975 county59
FifeApproximated to 1890–1975 county60
Inverness-shireApproximated to 1890–1975 county less islands61
Isle of Arran62
Isle of Barra63
Isle of Benbecula64
Isle of Bute65
Isle of Canna66
Isle of Coll67
Isle of Colonsay68
Isle of Cumbrae69
Isle of Eigg70
Isle of Gigha71
Isle of Harris72
Isle of Iona73
Isle of Islay74
Isle of Jura75
Former postal countyGeographic coverageMap
Isle of Lewis76
Isle of Mull77
Isle of North Uist78
Isle of Rum79
Isle of Scalpay80
Isle of Skye81
Isle of South Uist82
Isle of Tiree83
KincardineshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county84
Kinross-shireApproximated to 1890–1975 county85
KirkcudbrightshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county86
LanarkshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county less areas in Glasgow post town87
MidlothianApproximated to 1890–1975 county less Edinburgh post town88
MorayshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county89
NairnshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county90
OrkneyCovered 1890–1975 county and modern islands area91
PeeblesshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county92
PerthshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county less areas in Dundee post town93
RenfrewshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county94
Ross-shireApproximated to 1890–1975 county of Ross and Cromarty less islands95
RoxburghshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county96
SelkirkshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county97
ShetlandCovered 1890–1975 county of Zetland and modern islands area of Shetland98
StirlingshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county99
SutherlandApproximated to 1890–1975 county100
West LothianApproximated to 1890–1975 county101
WigtownshireApproximated to 1890–1975 county102


Former postal countyAbbreviation [19] Geographic coverageMap
ClwydBroadly matched the 1974–1996 counties103
Mid GlamorganM Glam107
South GlamorganS Glam108
West GlamorganW Glam110

Northern Ireland

Former postal countyAbbreviation [19] Map
County AntrimCo Antrim111
County ArmaghCo Armagh112
County DownCo Down113
County FermanaghCo Fermanagh114
County LondonderryCo Londonderry115
County TyroneCo Tyrone116

Normally, counties in Northern Ireland are named with the word 'County', and not simply the county name, perhaps to avoid confusion with the towns of the same name.

After 1996

Postcode defined circulation

The Royal Mail ceased to use postal counties as a means of sorting mail following the modernisation of their optical character recognition equipment in 1996. Instead, using postcode defined circulation, the outward code (first half) of the postcode is used to differentiate between like-sounding post towns. In 2000 the postal county data was removed from the Postcode Address File database and was added to the Alias File, which is used to cleanse data of local, colloquial and "postally-not-required" details that have been added to addresses. According to Royal Mail policy the field is not updated and where new post towns are created they will not be assigned to a former postal county. In guidance to customers it is required that the correct post town and postcode must be included in addresses and a county is not required. [21] As part of a "flexible addressing policy" customers can add a county, which will be ignored in the sorting process.

1990s local government reform

During the 1990s a reform of local government in England caused further changes to the locations in which the former postal counties did not match up to the geographic counties. Avon, Cleveland and Humberside were abolished as geographic counties and Rutland was reconstituted. This had the following effects on the relationship between the geographic and postal counties:

Former postal countyCoverage
AvonBristol, Somerset (part), Gloucestershire (part)
ClevelandCounty Durham (part), North Yorkshire (part)
North HumbersideEast Riding of Yorkshire
South HumbersideLincolnshire (part)
Leicestershire (part)Rutland

Hereford and Worcester was abolished and reconstituted as two separate counties once more, broadly matching the former postal counties. Greater London and Greater Manchester remained unaffected by the reform. Local government was also reorganised in 1996 in both Scotland (Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994) and Wales (Local Government (Wales) Act 1994), such that in some places counties reverted to the historic names once again (e.g. Pembrokeshire), [2] but in others the post-1974 names were retained (e.g. Powys and Gwynedd). As the Royal Mail had also declared postal counties redundant in 1996, the former postal county data was not updated to reflect these changes.

Extended usage

Despite Royal Mail stipulating that counties no longer form part of addresses, many organisations have continued routinely to include them as part of postal addressing, often simply combining Postcode Address File data with the data from the Alias File. Some organisations using software which requires a county to be included as part of a postal address have extended the use of counties to addresses in special post towns, which never needed them.

This continued use has caused customers in areas where there is discrepancy between the postal and geographic counties to complain to Royal Mail. Until 2007 the Royal Mail position was that under their current code of practice, changes to county data will not be considered. [3] [21] However, after a lengthy and well-organised campaign, [22] the Royal Mail agreed to create a postal county of Rutland in 2007. This was achieved in January 2008 by amending the former postal county for all of the Oakham (LE15) post town and part of the Market Harborough (LE16) post town. [23] In contrast, Seaton Delaval residents had unsuccessfully campaigned in 2004 to be removed from the former postal county of Tyne and Wear. [9]

In 2009 the Royal Mail code of practice came up for renewal, and the regulator Postcomm held a public consultation on its future. Consultation guidance from the regulator indicated that although the former postal county data is obsolete, it was the last available data set to be in routine use and was therefore the most likely to be used by corporate customers for their address databases. [4] It was also recognised that residential customers in some areas were not happy with this situation. The Royal Mail reconfirmed its preference for eliminating counties altogether from addressing, but also invited comments on providing a new and updated county data field, reflecting boundary changes. Postcomm found that many respondents objected to the use of obsolete counties. In May 2010 Postcomm decided to advise Royal Mail to "discontinue provision of such information at the earliest opportunity". However, because some existing software included the use of counties, Royal Mail was advised not to implement the change before 2013. [5] The timetable announced by Royal Mail in July 2010 indicated that this was likely to happen between 2013 and 2016. [6]

In 2013 Felicity MacFarlane stated the Royal Mail position: [24]

As we have stressed for a number of years, Royal Mail's Postcode Address File does not contain county names as they are not required for postal purposes. However, we do make a list of historical county names available to customers to reference if they wish though we don't encourage external organisations to use or rely on the county information.

Between November and December 2013 a further consultation on the issue was conducted by the PAF Advisory Board that sought opinions on removing some or all of the county data from the Alias File [25] and the results were published in January 2014. [26]


  1. 1 2 Because the post town was a special post town, the postal county was not required.
  2. The postal county was Northumberland before 1974.

Related Research Articles

Postcodes in the United Kingdom

Postal codes used in the United Kingdom, British Overseas Territories and Crown dependencies are known as postcodes. They are alphanumeric and were adopted nationally between 11 October 1959 and 1974, having been devised by the General Post Office. A full postcode is known as a "postcode unit" and designates an area with several addresses or a single major delivery point.

London postal district post town

The London postal district is the area in England of 241 square miles (620 km2) to which mail addressed to the London post town is delivered. The General Post Office under the control of the Postmaster General directed Sir Rowland Hill to devise the area in 1856 and throughout its history it has been subject to reorganisation and division into increasingly smaller postal units, with the early loss of two compass points and a minor retraction in 1866. It was integrated by the Post Office into the national postcode system of the United Kingdom during the early 1970s and corresponds to the N, NW, SW, SE, W, WC, E and EC postcode areas. The postal district has also been known as the London postal area. The County of London was much smaller, at 117 square miles (300 km2), but Greater London is much larger at 607 square miles (1,570 km2).

Humberside Former county of England

Humberside was a non-metropolitan and ceremonial county in Northern England from 1 April 1974 until 1 April 1996. It was composed of land from either side of the Humber Estuary, created from portions of the East Riding of Yorkshire, West Riding of Yorkshire, and the northern part of Lindsey, Lincolnshire. The county council's headquarters was County Hall at Beverley, inherited from East Riding County Council. Its largest settlement and only city was Kingston upon Hull. The county stretched from Wold Newton in its northern tip to a different Wold Newton at its most southern point.

W postcode area Postcode area within the United Kingdom

The W postcode area, also known as the London W postcode area is a group of postcode districts covering part of central and part of West London, England. The area originates from the Western (W1) and Paddington (W2-14) districts of the London postal district. This area covers 35 postcode districts and around 18,554 live postcodes.

The Postcode Address File (PAF) is a database that contains all known "Delivery Points" and postcodes in the United Kingdom. The PAF is a collection of over 29 million Royal Mail postal addresses and 1.8 million postcodes. It is available in a variety of formats including FTP download and compact disc, and was previously available as Digital Audio Tape. As owner of the PAF, Royal Mail is required by section 116 of the Postal Services Act 2000 to maintain the data and make it available on reasonable terms. A charge is made for lookup services or wholesale supply of PAF data. Charges are regulated by Ofcom. It includes Small User Residential, Small User Organisation and Large User Organisation details. There have been requests as part of the Open Data campaign for the PAF to be released by the government free of charge.

E postcode area United Kingdom postcode area

The E (Eastern) postcode area, also known as the London E postcode area, is the part of the London post town covering much of the east of Greater London, England as well as Sewardstone, Essex. It borders the N postcode area to the west, both north of the tidal Thames. Since closure of the East London mail centre its mail is sorted at Romford Mail Centre together with IG and RM postcode areas.

A post town is a required part of all postal addresses in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and a basic unit of the postal delivery system. Including the correct post town in the address increases the chance of a letter or parcel being delivered on time. Post towns in general originated as the location of delivery offices. As of 2004, their main function is to distinguish between localities or street names in addresses not including a postcode.

IG postcode area Postcode area within the United Kingdom

The IG postcode area, also known as the Ilford postcode area, is a group of eleven postcode districts in England, within six post towns. These cover parts of eastern Greater London and south-west Essex. Inward mail for the area is sorted, along with mail for the E and RM postcode areas, at the Romford Mail Centre.

WC postcode area Postcode area within the United Kingdom

The WC postcode area, also known as the London WC postcode area, is a group of postcode districts in central London, England. The area covered is of high density development, and includes parts of the City of Westminster and the London Boroughs of Camden and Islington, plus a very small part of the City of London.

In the United Kingdom, the postcode lottery is the unequal provision of services such as healthcare, education and insurance prices depending on the geographic area or postcode. Postcodes can directly affect the services an area can obtain, such as insurance prices. Despite having many non-postal uses, postcodes are only determined based on Royal Mail operations and bear little relation to local government boundaries. More broadly, there is an unequal provision of services around the country, especially in public services, such as access to cancer drugs in the healthcare system or quality of education. These are more likely to be a result of local budgets and decision-making than actual postcodes.

BR postcode area Postcode area within the United Kingdom

The BR postcode area, also known as the Bromley postcode area, is a group of eight postcode districts in England, within seven post towns. These cover part of south-eastern Greater London, as well as a small part of north-west Kent.

North Humberside

North Humberside is a former postal county of England. It was introduced by the Royal Mail on 1 July 1974, when some addresses were altered in response to the changes in administration brought about under the Local Government Act 1972.

South Humberside

South Humberside is a former postal county of England. It was introduced by the Royal Mail on 1 July 1974, when some addresses were altered in response to the changes in administration brought about under the Local Government Act 1972.

KA postcode area Postcode area within the United Kingdom

The KA postcode area, also known as the Kilmarnock postcode area, is a group of 30 postcode districts in south-west Scotland, within 23 post towns. These cover East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire and South Ayrshire.

WD postcode area Postcode area within the United Kingdom

The WD postcode area, also known as the Watford postcode area, is a group of eleven postcode districts in Greater London and Hertfordshire, within seven post towns. These cover north west London (Hillingdon) and south-west Hertfordshire, plus very small parts of Buckinghamshire.

S postcode area Postcode area within the United Kingdom

The S postcode area, also known as the Sheffield postcode area, is a group of postcode districts in England, which are subdivisions of eight post towns. These cover most of South Yorkshire, parts of north Derbyshire and north-west Nottinghamshire.

NW postcode area Postcode area within the United Kingdom

The NW postcode area, also known as the London NW postcode area, is a group of 13 postcode districts covering around 13,895 live postcodes within part of northwest London, England. It is the successor of the NW sector, originally created as part of the London postal district in 1856.

NE postcode area Postcode area within the United Kingdom

The NE postcode area, also known as the Newcastle upon Tyne postcode area, is a group of 61 postcode districts in north-east England, within 34 post towns. These cover most of Tyne and Wear and Northumberland, plus a very small part of northern County Durham.

L postcode area Postcode area within the United Kingdom

The L postcode area, also known as the Liverpool postcode area, is a group of postcode districts in north-west England, which are subdivisions of four post towns. These cover most of Merseyside, part of west Lancashire and a small part of north-west Cheshire.


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