Prior to the establishment of districts in the 1890s, the basic unit of local government in England was the parish overseen by the parish church vestry committee. Vestries dealt with the administration of both parochial and secular governmental matters. Parishes were the successors of the manorial system and historically had been grouped into hundreds. Hundreds once exercised some supervising administrative function. However, these powers ebbed away as more and more civic and judicial powers were centred on county towns. From 1834 these parishes were grouped into Poor Law Unions, creating areas for administration of the Poor Law. These areas were later used for census registration and as the basis for sanitary provision. In 1894, based on these earlier subdivisions, the Local Government Act 1894 created urban districts and rural districts as sub-divisions of administrative counties, which had been created in 1889. Another reform in 1900 created 28 metropolitan boroughs as sub-divisions of the County of London. Meanwhile, from this date parish-level local government administration was transferred to civil parishes.
The setting-down of the current structure of districts in England began in 1965, when Greater London and its 32 London boroughs were created. They are the oldest type of district still in use. In 1974, metropolitan counties and non-metropolitan counties (also known as "shire counties") were created across the rest of England and were split into metropolitan districts and non-metropolitan districts. The status of the London boroughs and metropolitan districts changed in 1986, when they absorbed the functions and some of the powers of the metropolitan county councils and the Greater London Council which were abolished. In London power is now shared again, albeit on a different basis, with the Greater London Authority.
During the 1990s a further kind of district was created, the unitary authority, which combined the functions and status of county and district.