The division of land into ancient parishes was linked to the manorial system: parishes and manors often covered the same area and had the same boundaries. The manor was the principal unit of local administration and justice in the early rural economy. Later the church replaced the manor court as the rural administrative centre, and levied a local tax on produce known as a tithe. In the medieval period, responsibilities such as relief of the poor passed increasingly from the Lord of the Manor to the parish's rector, who in practice would delegate tasks among his vestry or the (often well-endowed) monasteries. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the power to levy a rate to fund relief of the poor was conferred on the parish authorities by the Act for the Relief of the Poor 1601. Both before and after this optional social change, local (vestry-administered) charities are well-documented.
The parish authorities were known as vestries and consisted of all the ratepayers of the parish. As the number of ratepayers of some parishes grew, it became increasingly difficult to convene meetings as an open vestry. In some, mostly built up, areas the select vestry took over responsibility from the entire body of ratepayers. This innovation improved efficiency, but allowed governance by a self-perpetuating elite. The administration of the parish system relied on the monopoly of the established English Church, which for a few years after Henry VIII alternated between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, before settling on the latter on the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558. By the 18th century, religious membership was becoming more fractured in some places, due for instance to the progress of Methodism. The legitimacy of the parish vestry came into question and the perceived inefficiency and corruption inherent in the system became a source for concern in some places. For this reason, during the early 19th century the parish progressively lost its powers to ad hoc boards and other organisations, for example the loss of responsibility for poor relief through the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. Sanitary districts covered England in 1875 and Ireland three years later. The replacement boards were each entitled to levy their own rate in the parish. The church rate ceased to be levied in many parishes and became voluntary from 1868.
Civil and ecclesiastical split
The ancient parishes diverged into two distinct, nearly overlapping, systems of parishes during the 19th century. The
Poor Law Amendment Act 1866 declared all areas that levied a separate rate: C of E ecclesiastical parishes (until then simply known as parishes), , townships and their analogue, chapelries, to be "civil parishes". To have collected rates this means these beforehand had their own vestries, boards or equivalent bodies.
The Church of England parishes, which cover more than 99% of England, became officially termed "ecclesiastical parishes", and after 1921 each has been the responsibility of the parochial church councils (PCCs).
In the late 19th century, most of the ancient irregularities inherited by the civil parish system were cleaned up, and the majority of exclaves were abolished. The United Kingdom Census 1911 noted that 8,322 (58%) of parishes in England and Wales were not identical for civil and ecclesiastical purposes.
In 1894 civil parishes were reformed by the Local Government Act 1894 to become the smallest geographical area for local government in rural areas. The act abolished the civil (non-ecclesiastical) duties of vestries, set up urban districts and rural districts, established elected civil parish councils as to all rural parishes with more than 300 electors, and established annual parish meetings in all rural parishes. Civil parishes were grouped to form either rural or urban districts which are thereafter classified as either type. The law coincided with negligible boundary changes overall save that further progress was made at the time to deal with the growing problem of the remaining cross-county parishes (see List of county exclaves in England and Wales 1844–1974).
Urban civil parishes continued of sorts; most being smaller than or co-terminous (geographically identical) with the urban district or municipal borough in which they lay, which took over almost all of their functions. Large towns usually split between civil parishes were generally consolidated into one. In urban areas ad-hoc, unelected parish councils became most common, convened only for electing guardians to the poor law unions. The unions took in areas in multiple parishes and had a set number of guardians for each parish, hence a final purpose of urban civil parishes. With the abolition of the Poor Law system in 1930, urban parishes which were co-terminous had virtually no function and most others also became defunct.
In 1965 civil parishes in London were formally abolished when Greater London was created, as the legislative framework for Greater London did not make provision for any local government body below a London borough. (Since the new county was beforehand a mixture of metropolitan boroughs, municipal boroughs and urban districts, no live parish councils were abolished.)
In 1974 the Local Government Act 1972 retained civil parishes in rural areas and low-population urban districts, but abolished them in larger urban districts, especially boroughs. In non-metropolitan counties, smaller urban districts and municipal boroughs were abolished and succeeded by establishment of new successor parishes, with a boundary coterminous with an existing urban district or borough, or if divided by a district boundary as much as was comprised in a single district. In urban areas that were considered too large to be single parishes, the parishes were simply abolished, and they became unparished areas. The Act, however, permitted sub-division of all districts (apart from London boroughs, reformed in 1965) into civil parishes. For example, Oxford, whilst entirely unparished in 1974, now has four civil parishes, which together cover part of its area.
Nowadays the creation of town and parish councils is encouraged in unparished areas. The Local Government and Rating Act 1997 created a procedure which gave residents in unparished areas the right to demand that a new parish and parish council be created. This right was extended to London boroughs by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 – with this, the City of London is at present the only part of England where civil parishes cannot be created.
If enough electors in the area of a proposed new parish (ranging from 50% in an area with less than 500 electors to 10% in one with more than 2,500) sign a petition demanding its creation, then the local district council or unitary authority must consider the proposal. Recently established parish councils include Daventry (2003), Folkestone (2004), and Brixham (2007). In 2003 seven new parish councils were set up for Burton upon Trent, and in 2001 the Milton Keynes urban area became entirely parished, with ten new parishes being created. In 2003, the village of Great Coates in mainly urban North East Lincolnshire regained parish status. Parishes can also be abolished where there is evidence that this in response to "justified, clear and sustained local support" from the area's inhabitants. Examples are Birtley, which was abolished in 2006, and Southsea, abolished in 2010.