In England and Wales they were created in 1894 (by the Local Government Act 1894) along with urban districts. They replaced the earlier system of sanitary districts (themselves based on poor law unions, but not replacing them).
Rural districts had elected rural district councils (RDCs), which inherited the functions of the earlier sanitary districts, but also had wider authority over matters such as local planning, council housing, and playgrounds and cemeteries. Matters such as education and roads were the responsibility of county councils.
Originally there were 787 rural districts in England and Wales, as they were based directly upon the sanitary districts and poor law unions which had preceded them. Gradual urbanisation over the following decades led to some rural districts being redefined as urban districts or merging with existing urban districts or boroughs. Other rural districts proved to be too small or poor to be viable, and under the Local Government Act 1929, 236 rural districts were abolished and merged or amalgamated into larger units. Further mergers took place over following decades and by 1965 the number of districts had been reduced to 473.
The typical shape of a rural district was a doughnut shaped ring around a town (which would be either an urban district or a municipal borough). A good example of this is Melton and Belvoir Rural District, which surrounded the town of Melton Mowbray. Some rural districts were fragmented, consisting of a number of detached parts, such as Wigan Rural District. Some rural districts had a more rounded shape and had a small town or village as the administrative centre.
A few rural districts consisted of only one parish (for example, Tintwistle Rural District, Alston with Garrigill Rural District, South Mimms Rural District, King's Lynn Rural District, Disley Rural District and Crowland Rural District). In such districts there was no separate parish council, and the rural district council exercised its functions.