Its boundaries roughly correspond to the present ceremonial counties of West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and the Craven, Harrogate and Selby districts of North Yorkshire, along with smaller parts in Lancashire (for example, the parishes of Bracewell, Brogden and Salterforth became part of the Pendle district of Lancashire and the parishes of Great Mitton, Newsholme and Bowland Forest Low became part of the Ribble Valley district also in Lancashire), Cumbria, Greater Manchester and, since 1996, the unitary East Riding of Yorkshire.
The southern industrial district, considered in the broadest application of the term, extended northward from Sheffield to Skipton and eastward from Sheffield to Doncaster, covering less than one-half of the riding. Within this district were Barnsley, Batley, Bradford, Brighouse, Dewsbury, Doncaster, Halifax, Huddersfield, Keighley, Leeds, Morley, Ossett, Pontefract, Pudsey, Rotherham, Sheffield, Todmorden (partly in Lancashire until 1888, when fully incorporated into Yorkshire) and Wakefield. Major centres elsewhere in the riding included Harrogate and Ripon.
Within the industrial region, other urban districts included Bingley, Bolton on Dearne, Castleford, Cleckheaton, Elland, Featherstone, Handsworth, Hoyland Nether, Liversedge, Mexborough, Mirfield, Normanton, Rawmarsh, Rothwell, Saddleworth, Shipley, Skipton, Sowerby Bridge, Stanley, Swinton, Thornhill, Wath-upon-Dearne, Wombwell and Worsborough. Outside the industrial region were Goole, Ilkley, Knaresborough and Selby. The West Riding also contained a large rural area to the north including part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park (the remainder of the park being in the North Riding).
The subdivision of Yorkshire into three ridings or "thirds" (Old Norse: Þriðungr) is of Scandinavian origin. The West Riding was first recorded (in the form West Treding) in the Domesday Book of 1086.