Boroughs had existed in England and Wales since mediæval times. By the late Middle Ages they had come under royal control, with corporations established by royal charter. These corporations were not popularly elected: characteristically they were self-selecting oligarchies, were nominated by tradesmen's guilds or were under the control of the lord of the manor. A Royal Commission was appointed in 1833 to investigate the various borough corporations in England and Wales. In all 263 towns were found to have some form of corporation created by charter or in existence by prescription. The majority had self-elected common councils, whose members served for life. Where there was an election, the incumbent members of the corporation often effectively nominated the electorate. Eleven boroughs were manorial court leets. Following the report of the royal commission, legislation was introduced to reform borough corporations.
The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 provided for a reformed form of town government, designated a municipal borough. The Act introduced a uniform system of town government in municipal boroughs, with an elected town council, consisting of a mayor, aldermen and councillors to oversee many local affairs. The legislation required all municipal corporations to be elected according to a standard franchise, based on property ownership. The Act reformed 178 boroughs. At the same time, a procedure was established whereby the inhabitant householders of a town could petition the Crown via the privy council to grant a charter of incorporation, constituting the area a municipal borough. The attempts to incorporate large industrial towns such as Birmingham, Bolton, Manchester and Sheffield by Whig and Radical "incorporationists" were bitterly contested by Tory "anti-incorporationists". The Tory objections to the legality of the charters led to them boycotting elections to the new boroughs until the enactment of the Borough Charters Confirmation Act 1842.
A number of further acts of parliament amended the 1835 legislation, all of which were repealed and replaced by the Municipal Corporations Act 1882. The 1882 Act and the consolidating Local Government Act 1933 provided the statutory basis for municipal boroughs up to their abolition. An important change in the 1933 legislation removed the right to petition for incorporation from inhabitant householders. In future, petitions could only be made by existing urban or rural district councils.
The boroughs unreformed by the Act were not immediately abolished. Several of them subsequently sought new charters as municipal boroughs; those that did not were finally abolished in 1887 by the Municipal Corporations Act 1886. Only the City of London Corporation survived as a local authority in an unreformed state; the City undertook a major reform of its democratic structure in 2005.
In 1873 the Association of Municipal Corporations was formed to represent the interests of the boroughs collectively; its membership included both county and non-county boroughs. The AMC was later to be a strong advocate for expanding county boroughs and unitary local government, and it was to the annual conference of the AMC in 1965 that Richard Crossman called for a reform of all local government. This speech eventually led to the Redcliffe-Maud Report recommending large unitary councils for all England.