One of the first original documents that I examined was the will of George Stebbing, the Portsmouth instrument maker who died in 1847. Aside from the fact that it was handily available to download from the National Archives website – more of that later – it was a terrible copy, in almost illegible handwriting, and full of awful legal jargon. That said, it was invaluable in my research, and wills can still be very useful for researching your family history.
A will is exactly what it says on the tin – somebody’s last wishes. It gives you an idea about that persons family, their possessions, and their wealth. Also, you can tell a lot about someones social circle by the executors that they choose.
Prior to 1858, the National Archives has the wills from the senior ecclesiastical court, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), plus supporting records. Supporting records include court cases about disputed wills, inventories of goods, and accounts of executors. These wills are mainly from richer people in the South of England, people who died overseas, and very few married women. Search and download them here.
Wills after 1858 are held only at the Court of Probate in London. Click here for more details. There is a detailed index to wills, called the National Probate Calendar, up to the year 1943 which is more widely available. This gives the date and place of death, and usually more information as well, including the address fo the deceased and the value of the estate. It can be seen on microfiche or microfilm, at The National Archives, The Society of Genealogists and The Guildhall Library, London.
At The National Archives, there is a 7% sample of papers relating to cases of disputed probate – that is, the validity of the will or administration. These are listed by the full name of the testator whose will was being disputed, and the name of the suit.
Many people left estates which were liable for death duties. From 1858, there should be a death duty record for all estates worth more than £20. However, unless the assets were valued at £1,500 or more, the taxes were often not collected, and so the register entry was not filled in with all the details. Tax was payable on bequests to anyone other than the husband or wife. Take a look at the National Archives Research Guide here.
Some local records offices hold wills and probate inventories. For an example, look at what Hampshire Archives have here. And who knows, you might always find some at home, in a dusty box in the loft!
Reading through wills can be quite tedious. Lawyers were very often paid by the line, and took the approach of saying in a paragraph what most people would say in a line! But if you can sift through the jargon, then you might be able to find some pretty interesting information. For example, if you know that somebody had 5 children, but only left something to 4 of them, was there a family feud going on? With some detective work, and combining them with all the other sources that we’ve looked at, wills add yet another strand to your research.