Local administration in England has a history which stretches back over a thousand years. The Ancient Counties were derived either from Anglo-Saxon kingdoms whose size made them suitable administrative units when England was unified in the tenth century, or as artificial creations formed from larger kingdoms. The ancient counties were divided into Hundreds, but their later reorganization and sub-division into Parishes as the centuries progressed, and their gradual loss of administrative importance, are matters too complex for these notes and much has necessarily had to be omitted. Further information about the history of ecclesiastical and civil parishes, with particular reference to London, can be found here:
Towns within a parish might have the status of a Borough. The English borough is a unit of government of ancient origin. Originally it might mean a walled town or similar place of safety. Gradually the borough came to be understood to be ‘corporate’, that is, a body with corporate action and identity in its own right, entitling it to have legislative and administrative powers. In more recent years ‘borough-privilege’ could only be granted by means of a Royal Charter, though in earlier times such rights could be granted in other ways too.
The atomised state of local administration in England through most of the nineteenth century was well summarized in 1933 by A E Lauder, Charter Town Clerk for Southgate Urban District Council, writing in Southgate’s Charter Day, the commemorative booklet and programme for the presentation of the Charter of Incorporation to Southgate for its formation as a municipal borough, 30th September 1933:
The history of local government in England shows the national characteristic of tardy adaptation to changing circumstances. In 1881, when Southgate achieved self-government, the Boroughs of England were either large towns which owed their existence to the expansion of industry and commerce, or ancient small Boroughs to whom reigning monarchs had granted Charters in recognition of their loyalty or their political or financial assistance. There was then a wide difference between the municipal powers exercised by the Councils of Boroughs and those of ordinary Urban Districts. There were also other local authorities in the field. Parliament had the habit when new duties were required to be performed, of setting up a special body to do the work. Thus, we had Boards of Guardians for the relief of the poor, Overseers for the assessment of properties for rating, Commissioners for managing Public Baths, School Boards for elementary education, Highway Boards for the care of the roads, and Burial Boards for the interment of the dead. Gradually, this administrative anarchy gave way to order, and nearly all local government is now carried out by the County Council and the Borough or District Council.
The gathering together of monopoly control of local administration is attractive to politicians and bureaucrats, if not necessarily to the general public (as it usually involves loss of basic freedoms at greater public expense), and its gradual progression is marked by a number of Acts of Parliament passed during the nineteenth century. It must be acknowledged that in most instances until recently the public benefit outweighed the disadvantages.
Perhaps one of the earliest moves away from the long-standing system of local administration by the parishes and the vestries was the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. This established Poor Law Commissioners for the creation of poor law unions throughout the country. These were usually groups of local parishes and were responsible for looking after the old and poor in their district. The health concerns in the 1840s largely engendered by cholera epidemics led to the passing of the Public Health Act 1848, which established Local Boards of Health in towns. The 1848 Act was replaced by the Local Government Act 1858. The act came into force in all existing local board of health districts. It made some changes to the procedure for constituting a local board and gave them some additional powers. The authorities created by the 1858 Act were simply entitled Local Boards and their areas as Local Government Districts. Whether the existing local boards of health eventually abbreviated their titles in everyday usage, or whether those created by the 1858 Act sometimes added the words ‘of health’ to the name unnecessarily, is difficult to determine from the surviving evidence. Additional local boards continued to be formed in new districts until the early 1890s.
Industrialization and increasing populations in urban areas meant that public health remained an important issue and further measures were introduced by the Public Health Act 1873 and the Public Health Act 1875. The latter designated local government districts as Urban Sanitary Districts with the local board becoming the urban sanitary authority. The titles of the district and board did not change, however, the local board assuming extra duties as a sanitary authority. Rural Sanitary Districts were formed in all areas without a town government and followed the boundaries of existing poor law unions formed in 1837, less the areas of urban sanitary districts.
The Local Government Act 1888 (effective 1889) brought in a new scheme of Administrative Counties, based on the ancient counties. It also conferred the status of County Borough on a number of the more important boroughs, this entailing the complete independence from the surrounding or adjacent county from which it had once been dependent. In January 1889 the County of London became a county by an amendment to this Act. It took over the former Metropolitan Board of Works area (whose boundary was established in 1855) and involved the loss of significant parts of Middlesex, Surrey and Kent to the new county.
The Local Government Act 1894 (effective 1894) was a significant item of legislation and one of its most important elements was the creation of Urban Districts and Rural Districts, their areas being based on the existing sanitary districts whose boundaries had themselves usually followed the existing parish boundaries. Representation on the Urban District Councils and the Rural District Councils was by popular election as distinct from the methods used for the superseded local boards, which were by weighted elections by selected freeholders or by appointment. Women could now stand for election to the councils, though women (over 30) were not entitled to vote until 1918, universal suffrage (at age 21) not following until 1928.
The London Government Act 1899 (effective 1900) divided the County of London into 28 Metropolitan Boroughs, replacing the 41 parish vestries and District Boards of Works previously administering the area. Further details can be found in the section on the Inner London Areas History.