County of Middlesex



Middlesex is one of the 39 historic counties of England and the second smallest by area. The low-lying county contained the wealthy and politically independent City of London on its southern boundary and was dominated by it from a very early time. The county was significantly affected by the expansion of the metropolitan area of London in both the 18th and 19th centuries; such that from 1855 the south east was administered as part of the metropolis. When county councils were initially introduced in England in 1889 around 20% of the area of Middlesex, and a third of its population, was transferred to the County of London, and the remainder formed a smaller county, in the north west, under the control of Middlesex County Council.

In the interwar years urban London had further expanded, with increasing suburbanisation, improvement and expansion of public transport, and the setting up of new industries outside the inner London area. After World War II the population of the County of London and inner Middlesex was in steady decline, with new population growth only experienced in the outer suburbs. After a Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London, almost all of the original area was incorporated into an enlarged Greater London in 1965, with small parts transferred to neighbouring Hertfordshire and Surrey. Despite the abolition of the administrative county, Middlesex is still used informally as an area name and was retained as a postal county; which is now an optional component of postal addresses.

Etymology and geography

The name means territory of the middle Saxons and refers to the reputed ethnic origin of its inhabitants. Its first recorded use was in 704 as Middleseaxan. The county lay within the London Basin and the most significant feature was the River Thames, which formed the southern boundary. The River Lee and the River Colne formed natural boundaries to the east and west. In the south west of the county the Thames meandered enough to make "Middlesex bank" more descriptively accurate than "north bank"; a distinction used during the The Boat Race. In the north the boundary was mostly formed by a ridge of hills broken by Barnet valley and a long protrusion of Hertfordshire into the county. The county was thickly wooded, with much of it covered by the ancient Forest of Middlesex. The highest point was the High Road by Bushey Heath at , which is now one of the highest points in London.

Early settlement and economy

Middlesex was recorded in the Domesday Book as being divided into the six hundreds of Edmonton, Elthorne, Gore, Hounslow (Isleworth in all later records), Ossulstone and Spelthorne. The City of London, which has been self-governing since the thirteenth century, was geographically within the county and it also included Westminster, which had a high degree of autonomy. Of the six hundreds, Ossulstone contained the districts closest to the City of London. During the 17th century it was divided into four divisions, which, along with the Liberty of Westminster, largely took over the administrative functions of the hundred. The divisions were named Finsbury, Holborn, Kensington and Tower. The county had parliamentary representation from the 13th century. The title Earl of Middlesex was created twice, in 1622 and 1677 but became extinct in 1843.

The economy of the county was dependent on the City of London and was primarily agricultural. All manner of goods were provided for the City, including crops such as grain and hay, livestock and building materials. Tourism in early resorts such as Hackney, Islington and Highgate also formed part of the early economy. However, during the 18th century the inner parishes of Middlesex started to instead function as suburbs of the City and were increasingly urbanised.

Modern history

Expansion of the metropolis

During the 19th century, the East End of London had expanded to the eastern boundary with Essex and the Tower division had reached a population of over a million. Following the coming of the railways, the north-western suburbs of London had steadily covered large parts of the county. The areas closest to London were served by the Metropolitan Police from 1829 and from 1840 the entire county was included in the Metropolitan Police District. Local government in the county was unreformed by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 and civic works were instead carried out by individual parish vestries or ad-hoc improvement commissioners. In 1855 the parishes of the densely populated area to the south east, but excluding the City of London, came within the responsibility of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Despite this innovation, the system was described by commentators at the time as one "in chaos". In 1889, under the Local Government Act 1888, the metropolitan area of approximately became part of the County of London. The Act also provided that the part of Middlesex in the administrative county of London should be "severed from [Middlesex], and form a separate county for all non-administrative purposes".

The part of the County of London that had been transferred from Middlesex was divided in 1900 into metropolitan boroughs, which were merged in 1965 to form seven of the present-day inner London boroughs, such that Camden was formed from the metropolitan boroughs of Hampstead, Holborn and St Pancras; Hackney was formed from the metropolitan boroughs of Hackney, Shoreditch and Stoke Newington; Hammersmith and Fuham was formed from the metropolitan boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham; Islington was formed from the metropolitan boroughs of Finsbury and Islington; Kensington and Chelsea was formed from the metropolitan boroughs of Chelsea and Kensington; Tower Hamlets was formed from the metropolitan boroughs of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney; and Westminster was formed from the metropolitan boroughs of Paddington, St Marylebone and Westminster.

Extra-metropolitan area

Middlesex outside the metropolitan area remained largely rural until the middle of the nineteenth century, and so local government was slow to develop. Other than the Cities of London and Westminster, there were no ancient boroughs. The importance of the hundred courts declined, and such local administration as there was divided between "county business" conducted by the justices of the peace meeting in quarter sessions, and the local matters dealt with by parish vestries. As the suburbs of London spread into the area, unplanned development and outbreaks of cholera forced the creation of local boards or improvement commissioners to govern the growing towns. In rural areas, parishes began to be grouped for different administrative purposes. From 1875 these local bodies were designated as urban or rural sanitary districts.

Following the Local Government Act 1888, the remaining county came under the control of Middlesex County Council except for the parish of Monken Hadley, which became part of Hertfordshire. The area of responsibility of the Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex was reduced accordingly. Middlesex did not contain any county boroughs, so the county and administrative county (the area of county council control) were identical.

The Local Government Act 1894 divided the administrative county into four rural districts and thirty-one urban districts, based on existing sanitary districts. One urban district, South Hornsey was a detached part of Middlesex within the County of London until 1900, when it was transferred to the latter county. The rural districts were Hendon, South Mimms, Staines and Uxbridge. Because of increasing urbanisation these had all been abolished by 1934. Urban districts had been created, merged, and many had gained the status of municipal borough by 1965. The districts as at the 1961 census were:

  1. Potters Bar
  2. Enfield
  3. Southgate
  4. Edmonton
  5. Hendon
  6. Harrow
  7. Friern Barnet
  8. Finchley
  9. Uxbridge
  10. Ruislip-Northwood
  11. Wood Green
  12. Tottenham
  13. Hornsey
  1. Wembley
  2. Willeseden
  3. Ealing
  4. Hayes and Harlington
  5. Acton
  6. Southall
  7. Yiewsley and West Drayton
  8. Brentford and Chiswick
  9. Heston and Isleworth
  10. Feltham
  11. Staines
  12. Twickenham
  13. Sunbury-on-Thames

After 1889 the growth of London did not cease and the county became almost entirely urbanised by its suburbs with a significant rise in population density. This process was accelerated by the Metro-land developments, which covered a large part of the county. Public transport in the county, including the extensive network of trams, buses and the London Underground came under control of the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933 and a New Works Programme was devised in order to further enhance services during the 1930s. Because of its proximity to the capital, the county had a significant role during World War II. The county was subject to aerial bombardment and contained part of a series of bases, such as RAF Uxbridge and RAF Heston, which were involved in the Battle of Britain.

Arms of Middlesex County Council

Coats of arms were attributed by the medieval heralds to the Kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. That assigned to the Kingdom of the Middle and East Saxons depicted three "seaxes" or short notched swords on a red background. The seaxe was a weapon carried by Anglo-Saxon warriors, and the term "Saxon" may be derived from the word. These arms became associated with the two counties that approximated to the kingdom: Middlesex and Essex. County authorities, militia and volunteer regiments associated with both counties used the attributed arms. In 1910 it was noted that the county councils of Essex and Middlesex and the Sheriff's Office of the County of London were all using the same arms.

The Middlesex County Council decided to apply for a formal grant of arms from the College of Arms, with the addition of an heraldic "difference" added to the attributed arms. Colonel Otley Parry, a Justice of the Peace for Middlesex and author of a book on military badges, was asked to devise an addition to the shield. The chosen addition was a "Saxon Crown", derived from the portrait of King Athelstan on a silver penny of his reign, stated to be the earliest form of crown associated with any English sovereign. The grant of arms was made by letters patent dated 7 November 1910. The blazon of the arms was:

Gules, three seaxes fessewise points to the sinister proper, pomels and hilts and in the centre chief point a Saxon crown or.

The undifferenced arms of the Kingdom were eventually granted to Essex County Council in 1932. Seaxes were also used in the insignia of many of the boroughs and urban districts in the county, while the Saxon crown came to be a common heraldic charge in English civic arms. On the creation of the Greater London Council in 1965 a Saxon crown was introduced in its coat of arms. Seaxes appear in the arms of several London borough councils and of Spelthorne Borough Council, whose area was in Middlesex.

Creation of Greater London

The population of the County of London was in decline since its creation in 1889, and following World War II the exodus continued. In contrast, the population trend of Middlesex had seen steady increase during that period. From 1951 to 1961 the population of the inner districts of the county started to drop and growth was experienced only in eight of the suburban outer districts. According to the 1961 census, Ealing, Enfield, Harrow, Hendon, Heston and Isleworth, Tottenham, Wembley, Willesden and Twickenham had all reached a population of greater than 100,000, which would usually have entitled them to seek county borough status. If granted to all these boroughs, it would have reduced the population of the administrative county of Middlesex by over half, to just shy of a million.

Following the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London nearly all the remainder of Middlesex became part of Greater London in 1965 and formed the new outer London boroughs of Barnet (part only), Brent, Ealing, Enfield, Haringey, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Richmond upon Thames (part only). The remaining areas were Potters Bar Urban District, which became part of Hertfordshire, while Sunbury-on-Thames Urban District and Staines Urban District became part of Surrey. Following the changes, local acts of Parliament relating to Middlesex were henceforth to apply to the entirety of the nine "North West London Boroughs". In 1974, the three urban districts that had been transferred to Hertfordshire and Surrey were abolished and became the districts of Hertsmere (part only) and Spelthorne respectively. In 1995 the village of Poyle was transferred from Spelthorne to the Berkshire borough of Slough. Additionally, since 1965 the Greater London boundary to the west and north has been subject to a significant number of small changes.


Middlesex is used in the names of organisations based in the area such as Middlesex County Cricket Club and Middlesex University. There is a Middlesex County Football Association and two teams that are now within Surrey, Staines Town and Ashford Town (Middlesex) as well as Potters Bar Town in Hertfordshire, compete in the Middlesex County Cup. Sir John Betjeman, a native of North London and Poet Laureate, published several poems about Middlesex and the suburban experience. Many were featured in the televised readings Metroland. As part of a 2002 marketing campaign, the plant conservation charity Plantlife chose the wood anemone as the county flower. In 2003, an early day motion with two signatures noted that 16 May is the anniversary of the Battle of Albuera and in recent years has been celebrated as Middlesex Day, commemorating the valiant efforts of the Middlesex Regiment (the "Die-hards") in that battle. The idea is to recognise and celebrate the historic county. On its creation in 1965, Greater London was divided into five commission areas for the administration of justice. One was named "Middlesex" and consisted of the boroughs of Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Enfield, Haringey, Harrow, Hillingdon and Hounslow. This was abolished on 1 July 2003.

County town

Middlesex does not have a single established historic county town, with different locations having been used for different county purposes. The County Assizes for Middlesex were held at the Old Bailey in the City of London. Until 1889 the High Sheriff of Middlesex was chosen by the City of London Corporation. The sessions house for the Middlesex Quarter Sessions was at Clerkenwell Green from the early eighteenth century. The quarter sessions at the former Middlesex Sessions House performed most of the administration of the county until the creation of the Middlesex County Council in 1889.

New Brentford was first described as the county town in 1789, on the basis that it was the location of elections of knights for the shire (or Members of Parliament) from 1701. In 1795, New Brentford was "considered as the county-town; but there is no town-hall or other public building". Middlesex County Council, which took over the administrative duties of the Quarter Sessions in 1889, was based at the Middlesex Guildhall, in Westminster. This was in the County of London, and thus outside the council's area of jurisdiction.

Former postal county

Middlesex (abbreviated Middx) is also defined as a former postal county; an element of postal addressing in routine use until 1996 and now an optional component. The postal county was retained after 1965 because Royal Mail was unable to follow all the changes to county boundaries and could not adopt Greater London as a postal county. However, much of inner Middlesex (Willesden, Hornsey etc.) was within the London postal district, within which addresses already included "LONDON" and did not include a county. The transfer of Potters Bar to Hertfordshire was adopted by the Royal Mail, but the transfers of Staines and Sunbury to Surrey were not. The remaining postal county consisted of two unconnected areas (Enfield and the rest) and comprised the following post towns:

Postcode area Post towns

† = postal county was not required

The postal county included many anomalies where the post towns it consisted of encroached on neighbouring counties, such as the village of Denham, Buckinghamshire, which is included in the post town of Uxbridge and was therefore within the postal county of Middlesex; conversely, Hampton Wick was not included in the Middlesex postal county as it was served by post towns associated with Surrey. This gave rise to the misconception that Hampton Court Palace was located in Surrey. Wraysbury, Berkshire and Egham Hythe, Surrey are served by the Staines post town and thus were also included in the Middlesex postal county.


  • Middlesex: The Jubilee of the County Council 1889–1939 by C W Radcliffe


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