The Mystery of Middlesex: Our County’s History

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For many – certainly for myself – Middlesex is an enigma of sorts. A name on the post, a term thrown around when you’re talking about you’re address; but nothing concrete, nothing that you could effectively discern. Indeed, Middlesex becomes even more problematic in that it rarely appears on any modern map. You wouldn’t be far out of order were you to say that this fabled Middlesex doesn’t exist at all. Yet it does, and as the county in which Harrow falls under – at least when it comes to any official address within the borough – it is perhaps something that we should know more of, and something, as it turns out, that has quite the history of its own, least of all in its expansiveness.

Established in the ninth century, Middlesex has its roots in early medieval England and the regional, often violent, politics of this period of history. The name, like much in England – including Harrow itself – derives from the Anglo-Saxon language, in this case meaning the territory of the middle Saxons. Some of the earliest records we have refer to it as ‘Middleseaxon’ or ‘Middleseaxan’ – from which it isn’t hard to see how the word was contracted into the county name that we now use today. During this time, Middlesex was a part of the Kingdom of Essex, until the Danes overran the kingdom and captured London in the mid-century. A few years after, however, Alfred the Great retook London and, so as to settle the disputes of the time, permanently set the boundary between the Saxons and the Danelaw as being along the River Lea. In this, Middlesex changed hands, and thereafter, Middlesex would remain a part of the Kingdom of Wessex, not Essex – until the Norman Conquest occurred in 1066 AD.

In the years – or rather centuries – that followed, Middlesex has remained largely intact, even as the kingdoms of old faded gradually away. As London grew, so did Middlesex – and this was particularly true as the decades neared the nineteenth century and the industrial revolution began to kick into gear. At this time the county, Harrow included (indeed, we’ve looked into this in more detail in the past) underwent considerable development – the suburbs swelling and modernising as London’s general population grew. As this occurred, Middlesex County Council was established in 1889 for the purposes of local government. Yet as Middlesex continued to grow only larger and larger in the twentieth century, this council began to pose a problem.

With the 1960s, the likes of Harrow now had population that was high enough to grant them city borough status – yet in doing so, places like Harrow would leave Middlesex County Council’s jurisdiction, and leave the population of Middlesex’s administrative county reduced by nearly a million, practically gutting the county. This left Middlesex – by now over a thousand years old – in a state of limbo, its continued relevance, as something intrinsically from the medieval past, in question. At the Royal Commission which followed, evidence was submitted suggesting that Middlesex should be divided into two counties – North Middlesex and West Middlesex.

It’s curious to think how things may have been different had such an idea been accepted, but instead, the commission proposed to abolish the county as a bureaucratic institution in its own right – and in the London Government Act 1963, this came to pass, coming into effect two years later. It should be stressed, however, that this marked only the end of Middlesex’s independence as a form of local government. Far from the county itself being lost, it was only the County Council that was abolished – hence why we continue to use Middlesex when it comes to writing addresses.

With this in mind, then, it is perhaps made more significant that Middlesex, unlike Harrow itself, has its own day in the year: May 16th – its origins lying in the Napoleonic Wars of the nineteenth century. It was in this century in 1811, that the Middlesex Regiment were a part of the British forces fighting under the Duke of Wellington. This local regiment had the important task of stopping the French advance into Portugal and avoiding the British forces there from being pinned. At the town of Albuhera, on the Spanish-Portuguese border, the regiment made its stand, fighting against overwhelming enemy forces in an effort to give their allies more time to prepare and retrench. “Die my men, die hard” was the phrase that the commanding officer was supposed to have shouted out in the chaos of the battle, and ever since, the regiment has been known as the Diehards – on their badge ‘Albuhera’ being inscribed  to commemorate their sacrifice. Thus, May 16th remains Middlesex Day – a remembrance of not just the work of the Middlesex Regiment in 1811, but also the soldiers from the county that had fought in the wars before and since, from the Battle of Hastings through to the Korean War.

Perhaps, then, when May next comes around, it might pay to reflect on these events – now over a hundred years old – and consider the state of the county to which we all belong today. Indeed, when it comes to commemorating the soldiers of Middlesex, Harrow has plenty of such soldiers to offer – as past articles have shown. At the very least, it would be worth a thought to what this term Middlesex actually means – especially when we find ourselves writing it out so often, be it on letter or envelopes.

 

Written by Harry Turner.

Image Credit: YouTube: ‘Dji Phantom 3 – Harrow Town Centre’          

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