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 lead 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 following the passing of 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 was Melton and Belvoir Rural District (map) which surrounded the town of Melton Mowbray. Rural districts might often be, or become fragmentary, consisting of a number of detached parts, such as Wigan Rural District (map). 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.
All rural districts in England and Wales were abolished in 1974 (by the Local Government Act 1972) and were typically merged with nearby urban districts or boroughs to form a uniform pattern of districts, which contained urban and rural areas.
See List of Rural Districts in England and Wales 1894 - 1930 for the districts created in 1894; List of rural and urban districts in England, and List of rural and urban districts in Wales for a list of rural districts at abolition in 1974.
Following the division of Ireland, rural districts in the Irish Free State were abolished in 1925, by the Local Government Act 1925, amid widespread accusations of corruption. Their functions were transferred to the county councils (in County Dublin they remained intact until 1930). The former boundaries of the rural districts in the Republic of Ireland continue to be used for statistical purposes and defining constituences