Map of Middlesex, drawn by Thomas Kitchin
, geographer, engraver to H.R.H. the Duke of York, 1769.
The name means territory of the middle Saxons and refers to the tribal origin of its inhabitants. The word is formed from the Anglo-Saxon, i.e. Old English, 'middel' and 'Seaxe' (cf. Essex, Sussex and Wessex). In an 8th-century charter the region is recorded as Middleseaxon and in 704 it is recorded as Middleseaxan.
The Saxons derived their name from seax, a kind of knife for which they were known. The seax has a lasting symbolic impact in the English counties of Essex and Middlesex, both of which feature three seaxes in their ceremonial emblem. Their names, along with those of Sussex and Wessex, contain a remnant of the word "Saxon".
There were settlements in the area of Middlesex that can be traced back thousands of years before the creation of a county. Middlesex was formerly part of the Kingdom of Essex It was recorded in the Domesday Book as being divided into the six hundreds of Edmonton, Elthorne, Gore, Hounslow (Isleworth in all later records), Ossulstone and Spelthorne. The City of London has been self-governing since the thirteenth century and became a county in its own right, a county corporate.[notes 3] Middlesex also included Westminster, which also had a high degree of autonomy. Of the six hundreds, Ossulstone contained the districts closest to the City of London. During the 17th century it was divided into four divisions, which, along with the Liberty of Westminster, largely took over the administrative functions of the hundred. The divisions were named Finsbury, Holborn, Kensington and Tower. The county had parliamentary representation from the 13th century. The title Earl of Middlesex was created twice, in 1622 and 1677, but became extinct in 1843.
The economy of the county was dependent on the City of London from early times and was primarily agricultural. A variety of goods were provided for the City, including crops such as grain and hay, livestock and building materials. Recreation at day trip destinations such as Hackney, Islington, Highgate and Twickenham, as well as coaching, inn-keeping and sale of goods and services at daily shops and stalls to the considerable passing trade provided much local employment and also formed part of the early economy. However, during the 18th century the inner parishes of Middlesex became suburbs of the City and were increasingly urbanised. The Middlesex volume of John Norden's Speculum Britanniae (a chorography) of 1593 summarises:
This is plentifully stored, as it seemeth beautiful, with many fair and comely buildings, especially of the merchants of London, who have planted their houses of recreation not in the meanest places, which also they have cunningly contrived, curiously beautified with divers[e] devices, neatly decked with rare inventions, environed with orchards of sundry, delicate fruits, gardens with delectable walks, arbours, alleys and a great variety of pleasing dainties: all of which seem to be beautiful ornaments unto this country.
Similarly Thomas Cox wrote in 1794:
We may call it almost all London, being chiefly inhabited by the citizens, who fill the towns in it with their country houses, to which they often resort that they may breathe a little sweet air, free from the fogs and smoke of the City.
In 1803 Sir John Sinclair, president of the Board of Agriculture, spoke of the need to cultivate the substantial Finchley Common and Hounslow Heath (perhaps prophetic of the Dig for Victory campaign of World War II) and fellow Board member Middleton estimated that one tenth of the county, 17,000 acres (6,900 ha), was uncultivated common, capable of improvement. However William Cobbett, in casual travel writing in 1822, said that "A more ugly country between Egham (Surrey) and Kensington would with great difficulty be found in England. Flat as a pancake, and until you come to Hammersmith, the soil is a nasty, stony dirt upon a bed of gravel. Hounslow Heath which is only a little worse than the general run, is a sample of all that is bad in soil and villainous in look. Yet this is now enclosed, and what they call 'cultivated'. Here is a fresh robbery of villages, hamlets, and farm and labourers' buildings and abodes." Thomas Babington wrote in 1843, "An acre in Middlesex is worth a principality in Utopia" which contrasts neatly with its agricultural description.
The building of radial railway lines from 1839 caused a fundamental shift away from agricultural supply for London towards large scale house building. Tottenham, Edmonton and Enfield in the north developed first as working-class residential suburbs with easy access to central London. The line to Windsor through Middlesex was completed in 1848, and the railway to Potters Bar in 1850; and the Metropolitan and District Railways started a series of extensions into the county in 1878. Closer to London, the districts of Acton, Willesden, Ealing and Hornsey came within reach of the tram and bus networks, providing cheap transport to central London.
After World War I, the availability of labour and proximity to London made areas such as Hayes and Park Royal ideal locations for the developing new industries. New jobs attracted more people to the county and the population continued to rise, reaching a peak in 1951.