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A borough is an administrative division of various countries. In principle, the term borough designates a self-governing township although, in practice, official use of the term varies widely.

The word 'borough' derives from a common Indo-European language cognate, meaning fort: compare borough, bury (England), burgh (Scotland), burg (Germany), bourg (France), burgo (Spain), borg (Scandinavia), borgo (Italy), burcht (Dutch). The incidence of these words as suffixes to place names (e.g. Canterburymarker, Strasbourgmarker, Luxembourgmarker, Edinburghmarker, Hamburgmarker, Gothenburgmarker), 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 English-speaking 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. Londonmarker, New York Citymarker, and Montrealmarker). With New York City, for instance, each of the five counties which make up New York City are also called boroughs (New York Countymarker or Manhattanmarker, Bronx Countymarker, Kings Countymarker or Brooklynmarker, Queens Countymarker, Richmond Countymarker or Staten Islandmarker). 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 Alaskamarker, a borough does not designate a single township, but a whole region; Alaska's largest borough, the North Slope Boroughmarker, is comparable in area to the entire United Kingdommarker. 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 Irelandmarker and the United Kingdom, more specifically in Englandmarker and Northern Irelandmarker. Boroughs also exist in the Canadianmarker province of Quebecmarker and formerly in Ontariomarker, in some states of the United Statesmarker, in Israelmarker, and formerly in New Zealandmarker.


In many parts of England, "borough" is as an independent word, and as when a suffix of a place-name. As a suffix, it is sometimes spelled "-brough".

In the United States, "borough" is or . When appearing as the suffix "-burg(h)" in place-names, it's pronounced .

Uses of 'borough'

England & Wales

Ancient & Municipal boroughs

During the medieval period many towns were granted self-governance by the Crown, at which point they became referred to as 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.

Parliamentary boroughs

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 Commonsmarker was decided by the House itself, which resulted in boroughs being established in some small settlements for the purposes of parliamentary representation, despite their 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.

County boroughs

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.

Metropolitan boroughs

In 1899, as part of a reform of local government in the County of London, the various parishes in London were reorganised as new entities, the 'metropolitan boroughs'. These were reorganised further when Greater Londonmarker 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. Stockportmarker). 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.

Other current uses

Elsewhere in England a number of district and unitary authority councils are called "borough". Historically, this was a status that denoted towns with a certain type of local government (a municipal corporation). Since 1974, it has been a purely ceremonial style granted by royal charter, which entitles the council chairman to bear the title of mayor. Districts may apply to the British Crown for the grant of borough status upon advice of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Irelandmarker, local government was reorganised in 1973. Under the legislation that created the twenty-six districts of Northern Ireland, a district council whose area included an existing municipal borough could resolve to adopt the charter of the old municipality and thus continue to enjoy borough status. Districts that do not contain a former borough can apply for a charter in a similar manner to Englishmarker districts.



In Quebecmarker, the term borough is generally used as the English translation of arrondissement, referring to an administrative division of a municipality. Only eight municipalities in Quebec are divided into boroughs. See List of boroughs in Quebec.

It was previously used in Metropolitan Toronto, Ontariomarker, to denote suburban municipalities. The Borough of East Yorkmarker was the last Toronto municipality to hold this status, relinquishing it upon becoming part of the City of Torontomarker on January 1, 1998.

United States

In the United Statesmarker, a borough is a unit of local government below the level of the state. The term is currently used in seven states.

The following states use, or have used, the word with the following meanings:


In Mexicomarker as translations from English to Spanish applied to Mexico Citymarker, the word borough has resulted in a delegación (delegation), referring to the 16 administrative areas within the Mexican Federal District. (see: Boroughs of the Mexican Federal District)


In Australia, the term "borough" is an occasionally used term for a local government area. Currently there is only one borough in Australia, the Borough of Queenscliffe in Victoriamarker, although there have been more in the past.

Republic of Ireland

Under the Local Government Act 2001 section 10 (3) and schedule 6 part 1 chapter 1, the following continue to be known as Boroughs (though this is largely a matter of nomenclature) Clonmelmarker, Droghedamarker, Kilkennymarker, Sligomarker, Wexfordmarker. In Section 10 (7) continues the "use of the description city in relation to Kilkenny, to the extent that that description was used before (January 1, 2002) and is not otherwise inconsistent with this Act."

New Zealand

New Zealandmarker formerly used the term borough to designate self-governing towns of more than 1,000 people, although 19th century census records show many boroughs with populations as low as 200. A borough of more than 20,000 people could become a city by proclamation. Boroughs and cities were collectively known as municipalities, and were enclaves separate from their surrounding counties. Boroughs proliferated in the suburban areas of the larger cities: By the 1980s there were 19 boroughs and three cities in the area that is now the City of Auckland.

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 Kaweraumarker District, an enclave within Whakatanemarker District, continues to follow the tradition of a small town council that does not include surrounding rural area.


Under Israeli law, inherited from British Mandate municipal law, the possibility of creating a municipal borough exists. However, no borough was actually created under law until 2005–2006, when Neve Monossonmarker and Maccabim-Re'utmarker, both communal settlements (Heb: yishuv kehilati) founded in 1953 and 1984, respectively, were declared to be autonomous municipal boroughs (Heb: vaad rova ironi), within their mergers with the towns of Yehudmarker and Modi'inmarker. Similar structures have been created under different types of legal status over the years in Israel, notably Kiryat Haimmarker in Haifamarker, Jaffamarker in Tel Aviv-Yafomarker and Ramotmarker and Gilomarker in Jerusalemmarker. However, Neve Monosson is the first example of a full municipal borough actually declared under law by the Minister of the Interior, under a model subsequently adopted in Maccabim-Re'utmarker as well.

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.


The word borough derives from the Old English word burh, meaning a fortified settlement. Other English derivatives of burh include bury and brough. There are obvious cognates in other Indo-European languages. For example; burgh in Scots and Middle English; burg in German and Old English, borg in Scandinavian languages; parcus in Latin and pyrgos in Greek.

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 (in Catalonia there is a town named Burg), borgo in Italian, and burgo in Spanish (hence the place-name Burgosmarker).

The 'burg' element is often confused with 'berg' meaning hill or mountain (cf. iceberg). Hence the 'berg' element in Bergenmarker 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).


  1. 1881 census summary
  2. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition (2000)

See also

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