The word 'borough' derives from a common Indo-European language cognate, meaning 'fort'; compare borough, bury (England), burgh (Scotland), burg (Germany), bourg (France), borg (Scandinavia), borgo (Italy), burcht (Dutch). The incidence of these words as suffixes to place names (e.g. Canterbury, Strasbourg, Luxembourg, Edinburgh, Hamburg), usually indicates that they were once fortified settlements.
In the Middle Ages, boroughs were settlements in England that were granted some self-government; burghs were the Scottish equivalent. In medieval England, boroughs were also entitled to elect members of parliament. The use of the word borough probably derives from the burghal system of Alfred the Great. Alfred set up a system of defensive strong points (Burhs); in order to maintain these settlements, he granted them a degree of autonomy. After the Norman Conquest, when certain towns were granted self-governance, the concept of the burh/borough seems to have been reused to mean a self-governing settlement.
The concept of the borough has been used repeatedly (and often differently) throughout the Anglophone world. Often, a borough is a single town with its own local government. However, in some cities it is a subdivision of the city (e.g. London, New York City, and Montreal). In such cases, the borough will normally have either limited powers delegated to it by the city's local government, or no powers at all. At certain times, London has had no overall city government and London boroughs were the main unit of local government for Londoners. In other places, such as Alaska, a borough does not designate a single township, but a whole region. In Australia, 'borough' can designate a town and its surrounding area, e.g. Borough of Queenscliffe.
Boroughs as administrative units are to be found in Ireland and the United Kingdom, more specifically in England and Northern Ireland. Boroughs also exist in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, in some states of the United States, in Israel, and formerly in New Zealand.
In the United States, "borough" is or /ˈbʊɹoʊ/. When appearing as the suffix "-burg(h)" in place-names, it's .
During the medieval period many towns were granted self-governernce by the crown, at which point they became referred to a 'borough'. The formal status of borough came to be conferred by Royal Charter. These boroughs were generally governed by a self-selecting corporation (i.e., when a member died or resigned his replacement would be by co-option). Sometimes boroughs were governed by bailiffs or headboroughs.
Debates on the Reform Bill (eventually the Reform Act 1832) had highlighted the variations in systems of governance of towns, and a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the issue. This resulted in a regularisation of municipal government (Municipal Corporations Act 1835). 178 of the ancient boroughs were reformed as 'municipal boroughs' , with all municipal corporations to be elected according to a standard franchise based on property ownership. The unreformed boroughs either lapsed in borough status, or were reformed (or abolished) at a later time. Several new municipal boroughs were formed in the new industrial cities after the bill enacted, according to the provisions of the bill.
As part of a large-scale reform of local government in England and Wales in 1974, municipal boroughs were finally abolished (having become increasingly irrelevant). However, the civic traditions of many boroughs were continued by the grant of a charter to their successor district councils. In smaller boroughs, a town council was formed for the area of the abolished borough, while charter trustees were formed in other former boroughs. In each case, the new body was allowed to use the regalia of the old corporation, and appoint ceremonial office holders such as sword and mace bearers as provided in their original charters. The council or trustees may apply for an Order in Council or Royal Licence to use the former borough coat of arms.
From 1265, two burgesses from each borough were summoned to the Parliament of England, alongside two knights from each county. Thus parliamentary constituencies were derived from the ancient boroughs. Representation in the House of Commons was decided by the House itself, which resulted in boroughs being established in some small settlements for the purposes of parliamentary representation, despite them possessing no actual corporation.
After the reform act, which disenfranchised many of the rotten boroughs (boroughs which had declined in importance, had only a small population, and only a handful of eligible voters), parliamentary constituencies began to diverge from the ancient boroughs. Whilst many ancient boroughs remained as municipal boroughs, they were disenfranchised by the reform act.
The Local Government Act 1888 established a new sort of borough - the county borough. These were designed to be 'counties-to-themselves'; administrative divisions to sit alongside the new administrative counties. They allowed urban areas to be administered separately from the more rural areas. They therefore often contained pre-existing municipal boroughs, which thereafter became part of the second tier of local government, below the administrative counties and county boroughs.
The county boroughs were, like the municipal boroughs, abolished in 1974, being reabsorbed into their parent counties for administrative purposes.
In 1899, as part of a reform of local government in the County of London, the various parishes in the London were reorganised as new entities, the 'metropolitan boroughs'. These were reorganised further when Greater London was formed out of Middlesex and the County of London in 1965.
When the new metropolitan counties (Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Tyne & Wear, West Midlands, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire) were created in 1974, their sub-divisions also became metropolitan boroughs; in many cases these metropolitan boroughs recapitulated abolished county boroughs (e.g. Stockport). The metropolitan boroughs possessed slightly more autonomy from the metropolitan county councils than the shire county districts did from their county councils.
With the abolition of the metropolitan county councils in 1986, these metropolitan boroughs became independent, and continue to be so at present.
Only eight municipalities in Quebec are divided into boroughs. See List of boroughs in Quebec.
It was previously used in Metropolitan Toronto, Ontario, to denote suburban municipalities. The Borough of East York was the last Toronto municipality to hold this status, relinquishing it upon becoming part of the City of Toronto on January 1, 1998.
The following states use, or have used, the word with the following meanings:
In the 1980s, some boroughs and cities began to be merged with their surrounding counties to form districts with a mixed urban and rural population. In 1989, a nationwide reform of local government completed the process. Counties and boroughs were abolished and all boundaries were redrawn. Under the new system, most territorial authorities cover both urban and rural land. The more populated councils are classified as cities, and the more rural councils are classified as districts. Only Kawerau District, an enclave within Whakatane District, continues to follow the tradition of a small town council that does not include surrounding rural area.
It is the declared intention of the Interior Ministry to use the borough mechanism in order to facilitate municipal mergers in Israel, after a 2003 wide-reaching merger plan, which generally ignored the sensitivities of the communal settlements, largely failed.
A number of other European languages have cognate words which were borrowed from the Germanic languages during the Middle Ages, including brog in Irish, bwr or bwrc, meaning "wall, rampart" in Welsh, bourg in French, burg in Catalan, borgo in Italian, and burgo in Spanish (hence the place-name Burgos).
The 'burg' element is often confused with 'berg' meaning hill or mountain (cf. iceberg). Hence the 'berg' element in Bergen relates to a hill, rather than a fort. In some cases, the 'berg' element in place names has converged towards burg/borough; for instance Farnborough, from fernaberga (fern-hill).