The Story of The Counties of England

The Story of The Counties of England

English children should have such a familiar and intimate knowledge of the geography of their own country as would make a railway journey a delight; and this is especially the case in these days when “cheap trips” afford opportunities “to see for themselves” to persons whose eyes have been opened by previous instruction.[1]

It was with these words that Miss Charlotte Mason first introduced her readers to The Counties of England in 1881. It had been fifty-six years since the first railway had opened on English soil, and the country was connected as never before. People who in previous generations would have been restricted to short walks or carriage journeys to neighbouring towns were now able to zip up and down the country in abundance. And they loved it. The Victorian zest for day trips to the seaside was very real as piers such as the one in Brighton buzzed with activity all summer long.

A hundred and forty years later and a world without travel can scarcely be imagined. The world is small; we realise that now, and in many respects it grows smaller by the day. A day trip to London is no mean feat when we can fly to Europe and spend the weekend there at only a moment’s notice.

While the people of Great Britain, and of England in particular, still enjoy taking day trips to the seaside (she is an island nation after all) holidayers often jet off to countries in Europe such as France, Spain, or the Netherlands. Not only do these destinations offer a more affordable opportunity for putting one’s feet up or laying by a swimming pool with cocktail in hand, but the dawn of package holidays makes such an event simpler and more enticing still.

It is wonderful to travel the world, to meet people of different cultures and backgrounds, to see the sites from worlds far removed from one’s own. Yes, we are privileged beyond a doubt for the opportunities we have available to us in the twenty-first century, but one must never forget the wonder and beauty that lies on their very doorstep.

The Counties of England was written because Miss Mason believed that “the only way in which ‘England’ can be practically known is, county by county.”[2] She was certain that “no other mode of treatment is equally interesting,—so curiously individual in its aspect, history, and employments is each of the forty shires.”[3]

It is a book which attempts to deviate from the method of teaching that was common in her day and perhaps is not so dissimilar from those methods still used today; that is, it eschews the trend to treat geography as a scientific discipline, but rather takes up the subject with interest and vitality, “nourish[ing] the mind with ideas, and … furnish[ing] the imagination with pictures.”[4]

Not merely limited to those aspects of physical geography that we so often associate with the subject, such as riverways and watersheds, mountain ranges, valleys, and borderlands, The Counties of England brings the shires to life with tales from history, glorious sketches of scenery, the arts, industries, and legends that make up this rich and diverse country.

But how much of a book written nearly a century and a half ago is relevant for today’s students? Quite a lot actually. Despite the fact that the face of the nation has changed drastically over the years and England’s place in the world has been altered radically, even so far as the division within the country and the county boundaries have morphed, the significance of this book enables the reader to study England’s geography through a historical lens. Much of The Counties of England addresses the historical significance within a certain geographical region, and now, today, this book further enables the reader to study the geographical makeup within England by comparing the country today to when the book was written in the late nineteenth century. The historical perspective curated within the book leads to a fascinating reflection of England throughout history.

Take Liverpool, for instance. In the nineteenth century this well-known city was a major port town. Cargo was bringing in cotton for the Lancashire Mills; people were immigrating from Ireland, or setting sail for the Americas, excited at the prospect of setting foot in the New World.

As Miss Mason describes it:

The chief business of Liverpool is to send abroad the cotton goods of Lancashire, and to bring in the raw cotton from America and elsewhere. But this is far from being the only business of this great port, which has the largest foreign trade in the kingdom. Linen, woollen stuffs, iron goods, salt, soap, and sugar, earthenware and glass, and most British manufactures are sent abroad; and whatever things are produced in all lands upon the face of the globe—pleasant to the eye, or good for food, or in any way useful or precious—these are brought into England by the ships of this mart of nations, this crowning city, whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth.[5]

Still today, Liverpool is home to one of Britain’s largest ports, handling in excess of 32.5 million tonnes of freight per year, and yet you would be excused for recognising it primarily for its rich music history and sporting reputation. Named the “World Capital City of Pop” in 2010, this diverse city is well-known as the birthplace of The Beatles, as well as the home of the Liverpool and Everton Football Clubs.

Eighty years ago it made headlines once again but for reasons far more tragic. Liverpool was of strategic importance during World War II due to its links with America and as an entry point for receiving necessary supplies into the country. It was bombed with unrelenting brutality. The extent to which it was targeted was second only to London and resulted in the death of over 4,000 civilians.

It is a fascinating exercise to compare the Liverpool that Miss Mason knew with the Liverpool of today. One hundred and forty years and yet it still stands proudly, boasting a strong and noble history, and still playing a pivotal role in the workings of this nation. By the time The Counties of England was published, Liverpool had only been granted city status for one year, an honour that only the monarch can bestow upon a community. Miss Mason included its entry under the county of Lancashire, and yet just eight years later it broke away from county control and today enjoys its independence as a county borough.

There is also the aspect of patriotic sentiment which Miss Mason alludes to when she states that “it is hoped that the notices of great men or of noble deeds which belong to many of the counties may stimulate patriotic feeling.”[6] And how can one not feel a surge of admiration for men such as Hugh Latimer? In his final moments, as the flames engulfed him so long ago in Oxford square, he turned to his fellow martyr and said, “Play the man, Master Ridley: we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.”[7] England has surely produced great men such as Latimer, but we must never forget the effects of ordinary men who are equally—if not more so—-deserving of our reverence. Here is just one example Miss Mason provides:

A terrible danger to home-bound ships was the Eddystone, a narrow rock about fourteen miles from Plymouth, which is daily covered by the tide. A Mr. Winstanley, a brave gentleman of Essex, raised a lighthouse here to warn the ships of the hidden danger. It was a most difficult undertaking, for as fast as the foundations were laid at low tide, high water washed them away.[8]

The toils and dedication of men and women like these two historical figures are what paved the way for Britain to become the strong nation she is today. Miss Mason implores us not to forget their sacrifice, and we would do well to heed her advice.

When assigning The Counties of England for students in Form II (ages 9­–11), Miss Mason was expecting the students to already hold a rudimentary knowledge of the geography of the British Isles and the countries therein. This knowledge was to have been gained during their time in Form IA (ages 7–8) when they had read Miss Mason’s second geographical reader, The British Empire and the Great Divisions of the Globe. Form IA students spent two years with this second volume, getting acquainted with the general outlines and common knowledge of their island home. Overall, Miss Mason wrote five geographical readers during her lifetime, of which The Counties of England was her third.

The way in which Miss Mason structured The Counties of England was no accident. Beginning at the very top of the country upon the border between England and Scotland, she starts the journey within the two northern counties of Northumberland and Durham. Having regaled the students with tales of wars with Scotland, coal mines, high mountains, and dales, where “mountain streams roar over stony beds, and cut their way through rocky glens”[9] she moves us to the north-west. Here lies the Lake District, a piece of country which was very dear to Miss Mason’s heart. Her captivating words describe it as “the playground of England, whither the young men go to climb the mountains, and young and old to be refreshed by the ever-changing beauty of lake and fell.”[10]

And so the students continued their journey, systematically moving from one county into the next, all the time following their progress on a map and painting beautiful pictures within their minds. It took the students three years to complete the journey. From north to south, east to west, the students became acquainted with the counties of their nation in a way that no dry textbook or list of bite-sized facts could ever hope to achieve.

In general the students read 105 pages of the book per year, or 35 pages a term. A typical lesson was 20–30 minutes long and would begin with the students answering a series of map questions upon the county that was to be read about. The students were no strangers to these kinds of questions as they had been answering similar questions for the past two years. The questions were provided by Miss Mason at the close of each chapter, and yet they were intended to be answered before the lesson commenced. It was not a test or a memory exercise, as the students had access to the maps in front of them. The purpose was to direct the students’ attention to places of particular interest within the county to be studied. It was to acquaint them with the area and bring about a certain level of familiarity before the lesson was to begin. It was an exercise they had become accustomed to from their geography lessons in Form IA; however, this time there was an added element to undertake. After the students had answered the questions according to the map in front of them, they were to then put the map away and answer the same questions again, but this time from memory.

Once the map questions had been answered, the students would read the day’s lesson, concluding with narration, either oral or written. Any remaining time might then be spent drawing memory sketch maps of the places studied. These would be self-correcting exercises; the students would study the maps and draw from memory without the use of memory prompts or drawing aids.

And so it was in this way that the students developed an intimate relationship with the geography of their home country. By the time they graduated to Form III they had a superb infrastructure upon which they could build as they branched out into the countries of Europe.

I hope I have convinced you that The Counties of England holds value still as a classroom lesson aid and geography reader, as it was for this reason that I determined to transcribe and re-publish the book in a way that would be accessible to all. The book can be downloaded for free in its entirety from  Charlotte Mason Beehive, or physical copies may be purchased through Amazon worldwide.

Rachel North is a Charlotte Mason home educator living in Great Britain, at the very heart of England’s “green and pleasant land.” When not out exploring the countryside with her two young children, she can usually be found curled up on a sofa reading picture books aloud, drinking copious amounts of Earl Grey tea, and developing new content for Charlotte Mason Beehive.


[1] Mason, C. (2020). The Counties of England, p. 11.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Mascon, C. (1906). Home Education, p. 272.
[5] The Counties of England, p. 40.
[6] Ibid., p. 11.
[7] Ibid., p. 183.
[8] Ibid., p. 214.
[9] Ibid., p. 19.
[10] Ibid. p. 28.

© 2021 Rachel North

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