Riding (country subdivision)

A riding is an administrative jurisdiction or electoral district, particularly in several current or former Commonwealth countries.

Word history

The word riding is descended from late Old English *þriðing or *þriding (recorded only in Latin contexts or forms, e.g., trehing, treding, trithing, with Latin initial t here representing the Old English letter thorn). It came into Old English as a loanword from Old Norse þriðjungr, meaning a third part (especially of a county), cf. farthing. The modern form riding was the result of initial th being absorbed in the final th or t of the words north, south, east and west, by which it was normally preceded.

A common misconception holds that the term arose from some association between the size of the district and the distance that can be covered on horseback in a certain amount of time.

Norse states

Ridings are originally Scandinavian institutions. In Iceland the third part of a thing which corresponded roughly to an English county was called þrithjungr. The island of Gotland, and the Swedish province Närke were also divided into þrithjungar instead of hundreds.

In Norway (excluding Iceland) the þrithjungr seems to have been an ecclesiastical division.



Since Viking rule, Yorkshire has had three ridings, North, West, and East, originally each subdivided into wapentakes.

The Yorkshire ridings were in many ways treated as separate counties, having had separate Quarter Sessions and also separate Lieutenancies since the Restoration. This practice was followed by the Local Government Act 1888, which made each of the three ridings an administrative county with an elected county council. These county councils, and the historic Lieutenancies were abolished in 1974 under the Local Government Act 1972.

A local government area East Riding of Yorkshire was re-established in 1996, with a corresponding Lieutenancy, but this does not include the entire area of the historic East Riding and even includes some of the historic West Riding.

According to the 12th-century compilation known as the laws of Edward the Confessor, the riding was the third part of a county (provincia); to it causes were brought which could not be determined in the wapentake, and a matter which could not be determined in the riding was brought into the court of the shire.

There is abundant evidence that riding courts were held after the Norman Conquest. A charter which Henry I granted to the Church of St Peters at York mentions wapentacmot, tridingmot and shiresmot (-mot designates popular assemblies), and exemptions from suit to the thriding or riding may be noticed frequently in the charters of the Norman kings. As yet, however, the jurisdiction and functions of these courts have not been ascertained. It seems probable from the silence of the records that they had already fallen into disuse early in the 13th century.

Although no longer having any administrative role the Ridings of Yorkshire still play a part as cultural entities - they are used for the names of a number of groups and organisations and some people in Yorkshire associate themselves with one Riding or another (see West Riding of Yorkshire#Current usage and Yorkshire Ridings Society).


Lindsey, one of the 'Parts' (subdivisions) of Lincolnshire, also possessed ridings, in this case the North, West, and South ridings.


County Tipperary in the Republic of Ireland was divided in 1838 into two (not three) ridings, Tipperary North Riding and Tipperary South Riding — the divisions remain as local government counties, but were renamed simply 'North Tipperary' and 'South Tipperary' in 2002.

County Cork was divided into East and West Ridings in 1823. The ridings still exist for judicial purposes, and Garda Siochana divisions are based on them. Cork county council is divided for some purposes into the two ridings, with councillors for the ridings meeting separately to perform some functions. County Galway was also divided into East and West Ridings.


The term was used in 19th century Canada to refer to subdivisions of counties.

In Canadian politics, "riding" is a colloquial term for a constituency or electoral district. Officially, "electoral district" is generally used, although government documents sometimes use the colloquial term. In colloquial Canadian French, a riding is confusingly known as comté, i.e., "county", as the electoral districts in Quebec were historically identical to its counties; the official French term is circonscription.

The Canadian use of "riding" is derived from the English local government term, which was widely used in Canada in the 19th century. Most Canadian counties never had sufficient population to justify administrative subdivisions. Nonetheless, it was common, especially in Ontario, to divide counties with sufficient population into multiple electoral districts, which thus became known as "ridings" in official documents. Soon after Confederation, the urban population grew (and more importantly, most city dwellers gained the franchise after property ownership was no longer required to gain the vote). Rural constituencies therefore became geographically larger through the 20th century and generally encompassed one or more counties each, and the word "riding" was then used to refer to any electoral division.

The local association for a political party is known as a riding association.


The term is also used in Australia as a division of Shire Councils, similar to a Ward in City councils.

New Zealand

Ridings existed in rural New Zealand until the popularisation of the automobile with the improvement of roads, and the concurrent urban drift. Then (c. ), the ridings were merged into larger "Councils", which in the were merged again into "district councils". In towns the equivalent administrative unit was called a "borough council".

See also

The term farthing is analogous for quarters of a county. Gloucestershire was once divided into Farthings. In Tolkien's fictional world of Middle-earth, the Shire is divided into four Farthings, into the Fourth Age.

Sources and references

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