Fringe Box



Letter: Is Guildford Definitely Surrey’s County Town?

Published on: 14 Aug, 2015
Updated on: 4 Feb, 2017
Extract from a map showing English counties and the designated county towns.

Extract from a map showing English counties and the designated county towns. (Click to enlarge.)

From Martin Elliott

Forgive my limited, amateur knowledge but isn’t the questioned status of Guildford as a county town fairly common?

Despite Royal Charters, etc. Guildford has been in competition with Kingston-upon-Thames as an administrative base for centuries.

This resulted, due to a lack of investment in facilities in the past, to the move of the assizes.

I’m sure a local historian can correct my faulty knowledge.

Matthew Alexander in his Remembrancer robes during the Judiciary Procession October 2013.

Matthew Alexander in his hon remembrancer robes during the judiciary procession, October 2013.

The Guildford Dragon has consulted Matthew Alexander, Guildford’s hon remembrancer, who has very kindly responded as follows:

The question of county town status could be considered rather redundant, as it is an informal term today; certainly no other town can properly claim to be Surrey’s county town.

Historically, the county town was defined as the meeting place of the sheriff’s county court (not to be confused with the modern County Courts, which date from 1846).

Henry III’s charter of 7th September 1257 stated that: “the county court of Surrey shall be held in the said town of Guildford forever.” It still is, though the only remaining function of this once powerful court is to proclaim the new monarch.

In 1952 the present Queen was proclaimed by the High Sheriff on Guildford High Street, and nowhere else in Surrey. Other towns held municipal proclamation ceremonies, but these were unofficial.

Until the great Reform Act of 1832, the elections of Surrey’s two MPs – the Knights of the Shire – to parliament took place at special meetings of the county court held at Guildford. It meant that electors from as far as Southwark had to come to Guildford personally to cast their votes.

The growth of the suburbs south of the Thames increasingly concentrated Surrey’s population into the north-east corner. When the London County Council was formed in 1889, the most urbanised parishes were removed from Surrey.

At the same time, Surrey County Council was formed, establishing its headquarters in Kingston-upon-Thames. However, despite popular assumptions, this did not make Kingston the county town, any more than Guildford Cathedral made this borough automatically into a city. (Incidentally, the absorption of Kingston into the Greater London Council in 1963 resulted in the anomaly that the Surrey County Council actually administered its county from outside its borders.)

The question of the assizes – the trials of serious crimes heard by the crown’s itinerant judges – is another red herring. When Edward I established the assizes in 1272, they were held in a number of towns in Surrey, but frequently in Guildford.

By the 18th century the growth of London had skewed the business of the courts more to the north-east and a pattern became established of holding the Spring Assizes at Kingston and the Summer Assizes at Croydon or Guildford.

From 1890 to 1930 they were only held in Guildford, which nonetheless failed to provide an adequate court building. This led to their removal to Kingston, where they remained until abolished by the Courts Act of 1971. All this is quite irrelevant to county town status, however.

With regard to rivalries, Woking, it seems, still has ambitions. Some might regard it as a shame that the Surrey History Centre is in Woking, not Guildford. Perhaps now Woking hopes to attract the Surrey Archaeological Society and even become the home for a “Surrey County Museum”? Ed

Share This Post

Responses to Letter: Is Guildford Definitely Surrey’s County Town?

  1. Stuart Barnes Reply

    August 19, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Re anomalies, I believe that at least some official Surrey business/administration is even now conducted outside the County borders in Staines, which is clearly (and always has been) in Middlesex.

    My internet research indicates that actually Staines (or Staines-on-Thames as some now like to call it), although north of the Thames, did become part of Surrey in 1965 when some county borders were readjusted. Middlesex as an administration no longer exists but does live on in some postal addresses, including those for Staines. However postal counties have not been required, since 1996, by the post office as part of postal addresses.

    Of course, many take no notice of changes to county boundary changes. Many residents in Croydon, for instance, still claim or feel that they are part of Surrey. Ed

  2. Stuart Barnes Reply

    August 20, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Thanks to the editor for his clarification. I would mention that the infamous 1965 change to county borders is yet one more thing for which we can blame our worst ever PM, Heath.

    Many people to this day refuse to accept them whatever the Post Office might say. I used to live in Middlesex and as far as I am concerned it still exists. After all it has got a cricket team, amongst other things!

    Yes such loyalties can often be simply how we feel, quite rightly. Regarding cricket – Welshman, Scots and Irishmen have played cricket for England and the first Ashes test was played in Cardiff, still in Wales as far as I know. Ed

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *