Attorney and Client – Copy of Illustration from Bleak House by Charles Dickens

It was a time of celebration for genealogists when just a year ago, in the summer of 2019, the price of wills proved from January 1st 1858 in England and Wales, came tumbling down. I had already collected a number of key wills for my research, (usually those for direct ancestors only), but the price of £10 a copy kept a cap on the number I was willing to purchase. In addition, in order to obtain a copy of a will, you had to apply by post to the Postal Searches Office in Leeds, or visit in person the Principal Registry Office at First Avenue House in Holborn, London, or a local registry office. Quite a lot of money and effort was needed to find and obtain probate records. It therefore seemed too good to be true when the price was reduced from £10 to a mere £1.50 and a service that enabled you to order wills online was launched. I’ve been pinching myself ever since. Surely prices always go up, not down! Well a year has passed and the probate records that I have been ordering online keep arriving without too much strain on my purse strings. I thought I would therefore write a blog to explain the process of locating and ordering these probate records and share my experiences in the hope of encouraging you to seek out these wonderful records too.

In England and Wales, prior to 1858, the search for probate records of any description can be complicated. No centralised system was set up for the purpose of dealing with people’s estates but instead, probate was in the hands of the church. Many different ecclesiastical courts took on the task, often at a local level, so discovering which court was used to prove an ancestor’s will and where those records are currently kept or viewable can take some time.  However, in January 1858, the Principal Probate Registry was established in London, supported by a number of district registries around the country.  The granting of probate was now a much simpler process and with the records under the umbrella of one court, it is consequently easier to discover the existence of relevant probate records after this date.  

The indexes to the records of the Principal Probate Registry are viewable on the new “Find a Will” probate search website launched by the government: https://probatesearch.service.gov.uk/#wills

Home Page – https://probatesearch.service.gov.uk/

There are three separate sections: Wills and Probate 1996 to present, Wills and Probate 1858-1996 and Soldiers’ Wills.

Since the probate search website is relatively new, and in Beta mode at the moment, Wills and Probate 1858-1996, the section used most heavily by family historians, is a little basic, with just the Year of Death and the Surname as the search fields. Note that the year of death is not necessarily the same as the year of probate, though it was usual for a will to be proved relatively soon after a person’s decease. Although it may only be necessary to search the indexes for a few years to locate a relevant record, in some instances, probate could be delayed.

The original indexes are arranged alphabetically, (by calendar), with a different volume for each year. The original printed indexes have been scanned and there may be quite a number of pages to search through, depending on the rarity of the name. Not all of the pages will necessarily contain the name you are seeking so some patience is needed.  The years 1858 to 1860 are particularly tricky to search and the website explains why this is the case:

“Calendar pages displayed for searches within these year ranges are amalgamated from 4 separate calendar books. This is a reflection of the nuanced documentation for that period. You are likely to find that results pages displayed are non-consecutive and we recommend scrolling through all pages returned in order to locate the required entry.”

A ‘Previous Year’ box and a ‘Next Year’ box on the results page facilitates the search.

In the example below, there are five pages to search for the surname Hooper in 1883:

The indexes are in the form of abstracts and from them, it is usually possible to identify the person you are seeking. Their format and the precise information recorded can vary, but the following details are usually found:

  • Full Name of Deceased
  • Address or Residence of Deceased 
  • Marital Status (if a woman)- ie. spinster, widow
  • Occupation
  • Date of Death
  • Place of Death
  • Probate Date
  • Name of Registry
  • Names of Executors/Administrators (often relationship if a family member i.e. widow)
  • Status or Occupations of Executors/Administrators
  • Value of Estate

Note that administrations are also indexed along with the wills. An administration was produced when an application was made to officially administer an estate. Even though a will had not been found, interested parties deemed it necessary to distribute the estate through due legal process. It is unlikely that an administration document will contain any more information than that found in the indexed abstract, so you may consider that it is not worth obtaining a copy.  

Irish and Scottish wills and administrations, for individuals that had some property in England, were also registered in London, so it may be worth searching the Principal Probate Registry indexes, even if your ancestor resided in Ireland or Scotland, particularly if they were wealthy.  Similarly, the indexes will include wills and administrations for individuals who lived overseas but had property in England and Wales.

To order a copy of a document, you will need to first register with the service. Going forward, it is then only necessary to sign in, providing your email address and password. Armed with the relevant information extracted from the indexed abstract, you fill in the blank boxes on the right of the screen: Date of Probate, Date of Death, Surname, First Name, Registry and Folio Number (if recorded). If there is a folio number, it is usually handwritten beside the abstract but many entries do not have one. Click on Add to Basket, which will lead you to the payment screen, the cost being £1.50 for each document ordered.

When the new service was announced last year, it was initially taking a long time to obtain the documents because of high demand. However, the aim is that a document should be produced 10 working days after ordering and certainly, documents are now ready for downloading much sooner than before. An email should be received informing you that a document is ready to be downloaded in your folder, My Wills. However, recently, I have not received an email, despite the fact that a document is ready for downloading online. It may be worth checking the website after a few weeks, even if you have not received any notification. Each document is available for 30 days online after a copy has been first downloaded.  

For more recent probate records, Wills and Probate 1996 to present, there is an Advanced Search function, so apart from the Surname and Year of Death search fields, you can also add optional information to additional search fields to pinpoint the entry you are seeking. These search fields are: First Name, Month of Death, Day of Death, Year of Probate, Month of Probate and Day of Probate.

Soldier’s Wills is a separate index for the probate records of soldiers who died whilst serving in the British armed forces between 1850 and 1986. Apart from surname and year of death, other optional search fields are First Name, Month of Death, Day of Death and Regimental Number. It is therefore straightforward to see if, for example, an ancestor who died in the First World War left a will. With common names, the additional search fields can prove useful but with a rarer name, (such as Nock below), there will be just a few entries:

Of course, if you know the date of death of a soldier but not his regimental number, the indexes may be a useful way of finding out this information.

If you have a subscription to Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk) or FindMy Past (www.findmypast.co.uk), two of the big genealogy websites, it is often better to look for a probate record on one of these websites first. They both have calendar indexes for the period 1858-1995. Their search engines will often locate the entry you are seeking quickly, without too much labour on your part. You will then need to go to the probate search website to actually order a copy of the document. Check on this website to see if there is a folio number, as this must be added if it is present.

Incidentally, it is still possible to order probate records by post from the Postal Searches Office in Leeds for a fee of £1.50, though there is an additional charge of £10 if a search is needed. It may take up to four weeks for your document to be received. Here is the relevant form. Wills can also be obtained in person from the Principal Probate Registry, or from any district probate registry. 

If no probate record is found in the first few years after death, it is likely that the person concerned did not leave a will and it was deemed unnecessary by interested parties to go through the legal channels of having an administration produced.  However, in a small number of cases, a dispute over a will, or an executor unwilling to act, could result in years of legal wrangling so probate might be delayed. It can therefore be worth searching the indexes for a longer period of time.  It is also worth noting that the National Archives at Kew has a 7% sample of papers relating to disputed probate cases between 1858-1960.  They can be found by searching the catalogue by name in the series J 90 and J 121.  These cases are listed by the full name of the testator whose will was being disputed, and the name of the suit.  

Over the past year, I’ve started to go through each branch of my tree, looking for wills that might tell me a little more about my family. I’ve gone about it fairly systematically, looking to see if the siblings of my grandparents, and my great grandparents, and so on, left any wills. I’ve then turned to their descendants and tried to find wills for them too. I’m the sort of girl that likes to read a magazine from cover to cover systematically, not dot around everywhere, so this approach works well for me. Some wills I have obtained are very short and business like, with little personal information. Others are detailed and contain numerous bequests to friends and family. Some are typed, others are hand-written. You never know what you will find until you have obtained a copy. Typically, more well-off individuals are likely to have left a will but in some families, it was a tradition to leave a will, regardless of wealth so you may be surprised!

A particularly useful will I obtained this year was the will of my husband’s 3 times great grandfather, John Ford, a mathematical instrument maker of Wapping. (He appears in my story “The Mathematical Instrument Maker Part 1“). John Ford died in November 1857 and his will was proved a few months later in February 1858, the first year of the Principal Probate Registry. The executors were his two sons, John Ford and William Ford, who were left houses in Wapping and Poplar, though only after the death of their mother, Mary Ford. Similarly, their married sister, Esther Cronmire, was to receive the rents from property in Wapping during her lifetime. However, the big surprise was the mention of another son, Robert. He was completely unknown to me. When searching for children of John and Mary Ford, I had found several couples with these names who were having children in the Wapping area in the appropriate period. Many of the baptisms I had found were only indexed entries and did not record the father’s occupation, making it difficult to know which children belonged to my John and Mary. I could now identify the baptism of Robert.

Until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, all property belonging to a wife automatically returned to her husband at her death so married women did not usually make wills.  However, widows sometimes leave wills. My 2 times great grandmother, Ann Waters Thorndike, was a widow when she died in 1919 and left a will. She ran a pub called the Victory Inn, in Cliffe, Kent, carrying on with the business after the death of her husband in 1890, nearly thirty years previously. Ann had appointed her eldest surviving son, Thomas, who was helping with the business, as her executor, when she wrote her will in August 1917. Sadly Thomas died in December 1918 but Ann had failed to update her will before her own death just under a year later. An administration was therefore produced because with the death of her executor, her will had been invalidated. Fortunately, I was still able to read of Ann’s wishes, as her will was annexed to the administration and both were filed together.

Spinsters with no direct heirs were often keen to pass on their estate according to their own wishes and are more likely to leave individual legacies.  This was certainly the case when I ordered the will of a niece of my great grandfather. She was the daughter of his younger brother and died in 1985. She was not known to my branch of the family, as she had moved away from the area. As a spinster with no close family living at the end of her life, she was keen to distribute her possessions to many of her lady friends. Her treasures included a black, oak gate-legged table, a cut glass cake stand, a willow pattern tea set, a blue china bread dish, a silver and china jam pot, a Chippendale sideboard, an over-mantle looking glass, a set of Dutch vases, a red and blue case with a lid and a grandfather clock. What really caught my eye was the family Bible, which she left to Trinity Church in Witney, Oxfordshire. Had this been passed down to her from my two times great grandparents? I am tracking this down to see if I can find out more.

One of my most wonderful discoveries was the will of my grandmother who died when I was a small child. I realised that I had never considered that she might have left a will before: perhaps I was too busy focussing on earlier ancestors! I searched the indexes and found that she had indeed left a will. When a copy arrived, I discovered that as one of her grandchildren, alive at her death, I had been left a bequest that was no doubt invested on my behalf. What was particularly poignant for me were the words she had dictated, right at the beginning of the document:

I wish to thank my four dear children for the love and affection shown to me in my loneliness and pray that we may all be united as a family in Heaven.

My grandmother had been widowed thirteen years prior to when she had made her will, but had chosen to live on her own ever since in the big old farmhouse that was the family home. She had also lost a son in World War II. She was a woman of deep Christian faith and it was very touching to hear her acknowledging the love of her family and her belief that after her death, they would all be reunited in heaven.

Apart from direct ancestors, it is also worth searching for wills of the wider family for proof of relationships and information on legacies and property.  They may be the key to breaking down a brick wall in your research.  Although your own ancestor may not have left a will, perhaps he or she was the beneficiary of a brother or sister, uncle, aunt or cousin.  Maybe they acted as an executor.  If a surname is sufficiently rare, it can be worth searching for all entries in the probate indexes in the hope of locating useful information on relatives and the family as a whole.  For family historians conducting a one-name study, probate records can be used to trace the descendants of multiple different branches.

Another bonus is that probate indexes can be used to identify the correct death certificate. If you are searching for the death of a person with a common name, it can be difficult to pinpoint the correct entry in the indexes of the General Register Office, especially if their place of death is unknown.  Rather than go to a lot of expense ordering irrelevant certificates, a search of the probate indexes may help you identify the death certificate you are seeking.  

So, are wills really a fantastic source of information for the family historian? The answer is a resounding yes. They provide details about family relationships, information on addresses, occupations, property and wealth.  Dates and places of death are particularly useful and may lead to other sources, such as burial records. Even an administration, produced when a person died without leaving a will, (intestate), can provide some basic facts. What I particularly appreciate is the personal nature of wills. A person was dictating their last wishes and sometimes, you can see into their heart and find out what and whom was important (or not important) to them.  One should always bear in mind that a will could be written may years before the person died, so any information in it pertains to the date it was written, not the date of probate when it was proved by the court. 

I hope that I have now convinced you both of the value of wills and how the search for them after 1858 can be relatively straightforward.  They provide an unparalleled insight into a person’s final wishes regarding their estate and are packed full of useful information for the family historian.  I hope you will be encouraged to see what probate records you can find for your own family. 

© Judith Batchelor 2020

8 thoughts on “Where there’s a Will … there’s information!

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