Friday, 5 August 2011

What is Britain? - aka it's not England!

OK, that provocative title basically summarises Audrey Collins' introduction to her half hour online lecture What is Britain?, as hosted by FamilySearch at!

Audrey works at the National Archives in London, and to paraphrase her introduction, the Scots know where Scotland is, the Irish know where Ireland is, and the Welsh know where Wales is, but the English apparently don't know where England is. The Americans don't either, she observes, but they can be forgiven for that as neither do the English. The evidence for that comes from the fact that many English and American folk are forever mixing the words England and Britain up as if they are the same thing!


From a genealogical research point of view, it does have consequences, and that is the serious point of Audrey's presentation. You will often read in articles that civil registration began in Britain or the British Isles in 1837, and it most certainly did, but only in England and Wales. In Ireland many of the dates are different, but the structures in some way similar, and in Scotland... well, forget it, virtually everything is different!

A brilliant presentation - and I look forward to the next edition, when rumour has it that Audrey will also be teaching the English how to pronounce the letter 'r'...!

(OK, I can't substantiate that last bit!)



Caroline Gurney said...

Oh dear, not again. This is such a sad old stereotype / complaint on the part of the Scots. The English are perfectly well aware of the difference between England and Britain and do not consider them to be interchangeable. Quite a few of us blogged about our difficulties choosing a national identity in the recent census, as we felt both British and English. I have to say that this kind of unpleasant snarking at us by the Scots (plus the "anyone but England" mentality in sports) is actually doing great harm to feelings of British identity amongst the English. It deeply saddens me as, although I am English born and bred, I have the blood of all four parts of these islands in my veins and would love us to live in unity and harmony. If you and Audrey want a legitimate target, why not focus on the much more common problem of people using Great Britain and the UK as if they were interchangeable - thereby often excluding our fellow countrymen in your own native place of Ulster.

Chris Paton said...

Caroline, I think if you watch the presentation you will see that there is perhaps a degree of leg pulling going on here. Audrey's presentation is made on behalf of the National Archives of the UK.


Audrey Collins said...

Caroline, you plainly know the difference between England and Britain, the UK etc, but I'm afraid you are not typical. I suspect that genealogists are likely to be better-informed than the population at large, because they need to be. I wouldn't like to say whether confusing England and Britain or GB and UK is the more common error - I expect Chris winces even more than I do at the term 'Team GB' (and then thinks of Mary Peters).

I certainly come across both errors so frequently in speech and in print that I lose count. It's irritating, but mostly no more than that, and not worth making a fuss about, but sometimes it matters, and that is the point of my presentation. My personal views don't really come into it, so I'm rather mystified that you connected it with 'unpleasant snarking' or the 'anyone but England' mentality in sports.

For the record, though, my father, brother and I screamed and yelled in support of England in the 1966 World Cup, as loudly as the English, and were equally delighted at the result. The flags being waved at the time were Union flags, not English ones, which was OK, but I was really pleased when England supporters re-discovered and started using the flag of St George, which didn't happen for at least two decades. Progress, but there's still a long way to go.

Chris Paton said...

I actually wince just as much at the use of the word 'Ireland' to mean the Republic of Ireland. There isn't a country on the planet called Ireland any more - there is Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, previously the Irish Free State.

I too noticed when living in England after devolution the sudden re-emergence of St. George's flag. My thought was 'about bloody time'.
People have often commented on the return of the flag to represent English identity. I've often wondered why it was ever allowed to be lost to the far right in the first place?

I suppose the key question though Audrey is - why did you leave Fermanagh out?!!! My poor wee ancestors from Magheraculmoney will be turning in their graves! lol :)

Great presentation.

Incidentally, I did also blog on the identity question in the census - see


Sandy Payne said...

The jurisdictions in Canada would be Country, Province, County. Canada, Nova Scotia, Yarmouth County. Your Country is called United Kingdom of Great Britian and Northern Ireland, England, Dorestshire. What are your equivelant of provices for your jurisdiction of England, Wales, Scotland (as they are not countries as some people think. All of my Newfoundland ancrstors are from southern England and wasn't sure how to name places. Poole, Dorestshire, United Kingdom of Great Britian and Northern Ireland or if England as a province type should follow Dorestshire.

Chris Paton said...

The UK is a country or sovereign state, but it is also comprised of four countries. There are no provinces. Even in Northern Ireland, where it is often referred to as "the Province", that is misleading. Ireland was divided into four provinces (and at one point five). The northern historic province of Ulster in fact contains nine counties, Northern Ireland only contains 6 - Ulster was partitioned as much as Ireland was, so Northern Ireland only holds two thirds of the historic province.

Just to confuse matters, there are actually no counties in Britain any more - they were abolished in 1975. There now exists a system of unitary authorities. However, the "historic counties" are still referred to in everyday parlance. But my authority, for example is North Ayrshire, not be confused with East Ayrshire or South Ayrshire, or the historic county of "Ayrshire".