Not only was Yorkshire by far the largest of the ancient counties of England, at 1,709,307 acres, but the West Riding alone exceeded in size every other county except Lincolnshire. The word riding is derived from the late Old English ‘thrithing’ or ‘thriding’, itself adapted from an Old Norse loan word, meaning a third part. Wapentake, similarly derived, was the equivalent of the Anglo-Saxon hundred, and came from the symbolic flourishing of weapons to signify agreement when decisions were made in open-air assemblies at convenient sites, such as a river crossing or by a stone cross. Townships varied enormously in size. The largest were frequently sub-divided into hamlets, a term that was used not in the present sense but to mean a defined small district, often with its communal townfields, common pastures and moorland. Some units in the hearth tax returns, such as Dikesmarsh in the parish of Thorne, were probably hamlets, for they were never recorded as townships. These hamlets have left few, if any, records, yet surprisingly some of them were fixed firmly enough in local memory for their names and boundaries to be plotted on the first edition of the six-inch Ordnance Survey maps of the mid-nineteenth century.
It is clear from these lists that the West Riding had numerous substantial houses that ranked amongst the finest in the land and that leading families played important roles in national affairs. At a lower social level, the modest prosperity of those districts where trade and industry flourished, in combination with agriculture, was reflected in the number of hearths on which householders were taxed and the quality of their vernacular architecture. The West Riding had a number of thriving towns, specialist urban and rural industries, and varied agricultural regions that set it apart from most of the rest of the North. It is true that, like every part of England, a large proportion of the inhabitants lived in one-roomed houses, especially in those districts where industries had not taken root. It is also true that the extent of poverty is underplayed in the hearth tax returns.