Aristos and Family history

Siberechts-Longleat HouseHave you caught the TV series about Longleat House and the Thynn family on the BBC? Its called All Change at Longleat and had me gripped as we witnessed the tensions that revolve around the eccentric Marquess of Bath and his son and daughter-in-law who have taken over the running of the house and estate.

Lord Bath, we discover, has handed over the control of the £190 million estate to his son, Ceawlin, but the handover isn’t going smoothly. Ceawlin, whose title is Lord Weymouth but only uses this on formal occasions, prefers to be known by his first name. With such an uncommon name as this I am sure that he is never mistaken for one of the members of the lower echelons of society.

In the first programme in the series we find out that Ceawlin has upset his father by removing some of the murals painted by the latter in the apartments where they had all lived once lived and the pair are no longer on speaking terms. In the village on the estate, there’s further unrest after Ceawlin puts up the villagers’ rents.

Meanwhile, Ceawlin’s glamorous wife Emma is settling into life at Longleat as Lady Weymouth.

In the safari park, the animal keepers wonder how Ceawlin will compare to his father. Lord Bath is still a flamboyant, controversial figure and the village fair allows the viewer to witness the awkwardness of  a meeting between the son and his father. Although now in retirement, the Marquess continues to enjoy a famously open marriage. Various ‘wifelets’ still visit when his wife is away.

46 Longleat house (70)

For me the most telling part was when Ceawlin was asked whether his childhood was a happy one, growing up at Longleat. There was quite a pause as he considered what his answer should be, then he tellingly said “Happy bits and not so happy bits.” Another pause and “it was what it was.”

He admitted that as a child he would definitely have preferred to have lived in a cottage in the village like most of his friends did. We heard how, in his teenage years, members of the public traipsed not just through the main house but also through the private apartment where he lived.

For those of us from a less privileged background, who may have occasionally dreamed of life in the upper classes, then this insight into one such family may make us realise that the grass is definitely never greener on the the other side of the hill.

 

Many more of us than we think may be descended from aristocratic ancestors. Be it from junior lines that have fallen away from the main family, to those who are fruits of liaisons between an aristocrat and another.

If you want to explore this fascinating part of family history research then Pen and Sword books have published Anthony Adolph’s book: Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors.

Tracing Your Aristocratic AncestorsClick this link to read more:

http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Tracing-Your-Aristocratic-Ancestors/p/3827?aid=1101

Compensated affiliate links used in the post above http://paidforadvertising.co.uk/

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Jewish Seatholders go online

 

I got this piece from TheGenealogist this week.

Seems like a great resource for anyone with Jewish ancestors from London.

 

TheGenealogist has released online 99,500 records of London synagogue seat-holders spanning the years from 1920 to 1939.

Covering the records from 18 Synagogues around London with many connected guilds, societies and charities etc.
Additional information found in these records include names of gentlemen eligible for office, life member of the council, women who are seatholders in their own right and seatholders who are not eligible to vote.
Fully searchable by name, keyword, synagogue and address, the Jewish Synagogue Seatholders has been extracted from various years of: “Seatholders for Synagogues in London”

Those with Jewish ancestors from London will welcome this fascinating new release from TheGenealogist. Revealing details of positions held by forebears, researchers will be able to track ancestors who became wardens, council members, or served on committees of their synagogue, as well as seatholders in synagogues from around the capital city. These fully indexed records allow family historians to search by name, keyword, synagogue and address and with one click see an image taken from the pages of Seatholders for Synagogues in London.

The records include some synagogues that are no longer in existence; for example the Great Synagogue that once stood at Duke’s Place and which was destroyed in the Blitz.

Nigel Bayley, MD of TheGenealogist said: “These records will allow you to search for Jewish relatives amongst the London synagogue seatholders, it is now easier than ever to discover any official positions that your jewish ancestor held.”

Here is an example provided by TheGenealogist to illustrate these records:
Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, OBE (25 January 1882 – 28 January 1942) can be found in these records. De Rothschild was an English banker and a Conservative politician who was well known as the creator of Exbury Gardens near the New Forest in Hampshire. He was the eldest of the three sons of Leopold de Rothschild (1845–1917) and Marie née Perugia (1862–1937) and a part of the illustrious Rothschild banking family of England.
On 25 January 1910 he was elected to the House of Commons for the constituency of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire – his grandfather and namesake had been the first practising Jew to be able to take up his seat in Parliament.

Exbury House from wikipediaExbury House from wikipedia

His father, Leopold, died in early 1917 and Lionel and brother Anthony became the managing partners of N M Rothschild & Sons bank. However, Lionel de Rothschild had developed an interest in horticulture at a very young age and is said to have planted his first garden at the age of five. In 1919, he purchased the Mitford estate at Exbury in Hampshire where he devoted a great deal of time and money to transform it into one of the finest gardens in all of England with more than one million plants building Exbury House around an existing structure in a neo-Georgian style. Although he continued to work at the family bank, he is quoted as describing himself as “a banker by hobby — a gardener by profession”. Lionel Nathan de Rothschild died in London, aged sixty, in 1942 and was buried in the Willesden Jewish Cemetery.

Logging into TheGenealogist and selecting Jewish Synagogue Seatholders from the dropdown menu, we enter Lionel as a forename and De Rothschild as the surname. We can filter the results by date. This returns us several positions that De Rothschild held in three different synagogues in London, including the Warden of the Great Synagogue that once stood in Duke’s Place, north of Aldgate, until it was destroyed in the London Blitz. We can also see that he was the President of the United Synagogue in North Finchley.

Lionel de Rothschild United Synagogue

Selecting that record allows us to view the actual image of the page from the Seatholders for Synagogues in London 1920.

United Synagogue image

 

Check out the records with a subscription to this great website…

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Looking for ancestors in the Archives

 

Dudley Archives and local history centreI’ve been to the Midlands this week and while I was there I took the opportunity to do some research in the Dudley Archives & local history centre.

No matter what gets put online, and believe me I am a  keen user of online content, when I get the chance I still love to go to an actual archive and do some research in the reading room of one or other of these local authority depositories.

I spent my time in the one run by Dudley Metropolitan Council looking back at parish records in Halesowen and was fascinated, as always, by the extras that are to be found written in the margin of the parish records, or as notes in the front or back.

One note that I saw this week referred to a number of burials on the page and it mentioned that all of the above died of smallpox putting some context onto the conditions at the time. In other records down at the Devon record office I have seen a whole brood of children being baptised together after the family had returned to England after many years in the fishing fields of Newfoundland and a helpful side note by the vicar explaining this.

Another great benefit of a visit to a record office is that they often have books on their shelves that can be helpful finding aids. I was able to make use this week of a set of indexes to the parish records, published many years ago, but with them I could narrow down the dates that I wanted to look at on the microfilm reader.

In my Family History Researcher Academy course on English/Welsh ancestors I have a module specifically about the treasures that can be found in a County/City Record Office. The course can be done at your own pace and comes in 52 weekly downloads that build into a great resource for busting those brick walls in family history.

 

In England and Wales the Record Office is where the records of the local government administrative area are kept. In many cases they also house the ecclesiastical diocese records and, from a family historian’s point of view, they are the keepers of the old Parish Registers collected from the churches of the area, which was my reason for visiting Dudley Archives this week.

A Record Office:

– collects and preserves historical records of all kinds relating to its county,

– makes these records available for research of all kinds by all interested individuals and groups, and

– encourages and promotes awareness of the value and importance of its documentary heritage.

Usually a Record Office will also preserve a great deal of other archival material such as the records from independent local organizations, churches and schools.

There may be papers donated by prominent people from the community, leading families, estates, companies, lawyers and more. If you are in the area where your ancestors lived then go on an pay them a visit. The staff are usually very knowledgeable about their records and the district and so they can be a huge help to the family historian.

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Don’t Rely Only On The Internet.

Devon County Record Office
Devon County Record Office

Don’t rely on the Internet only, I was once advised, go and look in the County Record Office for the actual records, you may find something else interesting there that you won’t be able to see online.

Since that day I have become a fan of our various archives and I believe that we need to support them by visiting when possible.

Usually a Record Office will also preserve a great deal of other archival material such as the records from independent local organizations, churches and schools. There may be papers donated by prominent people from the community, leading families, estates, companies, lawyers and more.

Some County Record Offices are also the Diocesan Record Office for the area and hold the ecclesiastical historic records as well. In some of the larger cities the local government may run its own City Record Office on the same principles as a County Record Office.

Archives may have been acquired by the record office either through donation from the original owner, or the documents may be deposited for safe keeping on long-term loan.

All of which may, or may not, be useful to you in finding out the story of your ancestors. But if you don’t go and look you will never know!

From the family historian’s point of view, the record office is a goldmine of original research documents which are valued as primary sources in the tracing of our ancestors.

The staff can offer direct access to documents or microfilmed copies in their public search rooms and provide a secure and supervised comfortable environment for research on these treasured documents.

So don’t just rely on the Internet, good as it is, but get out there and plan a visit to a record office or other archive this spring!

 

Family History Researcher Academy
CLICK IMAGE above for FamilyHistoryResearcher.com

I am putting together an email course that teaches beginners about English and Welsh Family history. The tutorials are downloaded from a link that I send members weekly and one of the lessons will be on the subject of archives and repositories that I have written about above.

If you are starting out in tracing your English and Welsh ancestors and are finding that your forebears are hiding from you, behind those brick walls that we all encounter, then why not join me to learn how to get around those problems in Family Tree research?

Read all about my new site at www.FamilyHistoryResearcher.com

Nick

 

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My Ancestors and The Great Western Railway

I believe myself lucky to have ancestors that hail from very different backgrounds as it makes my research all the more interesting.

On the one hand I have the ubiquitous Ag Labs, some small business men, dressmakers, mariners, landed gentry,  the odd Victorian Army officers of various ranks and if I go back far enough down one branch, Scots Aristocrats who trace their lineage back to Normandy.

Looking at the records of The Great Western Railway, sometimes affectionately refereed to as “God’s Wonderful Railway”, I find that one of my great-great grandfathers was an employee of the company at the end of its Dartmouth link. Henry Thomas Thorne was the Captain of the paddle steam ferry that ran across the Dart from Kingswear, serving the GWR and its predecessor companies for more than 40 years. In today’s world of  job uncertainty this seems like a very long time!

Captain Henry Thomas Thorne on the GWR Dolphin, Dartmouth, Devon.
Captain Henry Thomas Thorne on the GWR Dolphin, Dartmouth, Devon.

I found him in the Ancestry.co.uk records for UK Railway Employment earning 5 shillings and tuppence in 1897 up from 4/8d in previous years.

In my maternal branch I have discovered one of my other great-great grandfather’s in the list of shareholders of the GWR at findmypast.co.uk as one of the owner’s of the gilt-edged stock.

The Society of Genealogists produced its GWR Shareholders Index from ledgers created by the Great Western Railway and now in the Society’s possession. The Great Western Railway’s original ledgers were compiled by the company for transactions relating to all shareholdings which changed hands other than by simple sale.

The GWR called the ledgers Probate Books, which reflects the fact that the great majority of such share transfers (approximately 95%) were as a result of the death of a shareholder and their shares changing hands during the administration of the deceased’s estate. The proportion of the GWR’s total number of shareholders included in the Society of Genealogists’ GWR Shareholders Index is not known but is estimated to be between 50% and 75%; this is because the railway shares were regarded as gilt-edged stock to be held for the long term. Source:Find My Past

To search the records of shareholders you have to either belong to the Society of Genealogists or they can be viewed at Find My Past website where you can get a 14 day free trial!

 

Click  below for a 14 day free trial..

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Researching Scottish and Irish Ancestors

 

I’ve notice in my post bag a few of my correspondents asking for help with Scottish and Irish Ancestor research. For some it would seem that all the advice is very English centric and so today I thought I’d write a short piece for those beginning to look in Scotland and Ireland.

Scotland, in comparison to England, can be a simpler place to look for vital records because of the long established Scotlandspeople website that allows us to browse for records for free and then download the image on a pay as you go basis. You can, therefore, get access to not only the Scottish census records, but also Scottish wills, birth certificates and death certificates.

The Statutory Index, on this site, has entries from the indexes to the civil registers of births, deaths and marriages for all of Scotland, as far back as 1855 up until 2009.

The Old Parish Register Index, on the other hand, contains the entries of births & baptisms, banns & marriages and deaths/burials from the church  registers of some 900 parishes of the Church of Scotland from between 1553  and up to 1854.

The Census Indexes are name indexes to the 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901and 1911 censuses for all of Scotland. You will be able to find that each index entry will list the surname, forename, sex, age, registration district and county of the people of this part of the U.K. while the 1881 census index entries additionally contain the address.

The wills and testaments index, that can also be accessed here, contain over 611,000 index entries to Scottish wills and testaments dating from 1513 to 1901. Each index entry lists the surname, forename, title, occupation and place of residence (at least where they have been given) of the deceased person, with the additional information of the court in which the testament was recorded, along with the date.

The Coats of Arms Index, is another database on the Scotlandspeople website and this contains entries from the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland from 1672 to 1907. Each index entry lists the full name, date on which the arms were granted, and the volume and page number in the register.

A point to remember, when researching in Scottish old parish records, is that the Established Church north of the border is the Church of Scotland. As a Presbyterian denomination they do not have Bishops and hence, unlike in England, there are no Bishop’s transcripts to act as a back up should you not find the record you are looking for in the parish register.

Kirk Session Records are the equilavent of the Parish Vestry records south of the border and these are all digitised and made available in Scotland at county record offices with the plan to have them online in the future at Scotlandspeople.

Scottish marriages can be of interest to English families whose ancestors ran away to partake in an irregular border marriage when Lord Hardwicks Marriage Act of 1753 compelled English marriages to be in Church of England churches unless it was a Quaker or Jewish marriage. In Scotland a couple could declare themselves to be married and to find a pdf on the extent of irregular marriages and where the current location of the records are, visit www.gro-scotland.gov.uk.

 

For Irish ancestors www.rootsireland.ie is a good place to start your research, while www.irishgenealogy.ie has coverage of other counties.

It is often said that Irish Family Tree research is very difficult and time-consuming and one of the main reasons is that there are a lack of records. One major missing plank is the lack of any complete Census records before 1901.

For this reason any records that have data within them which had been taken from the Irish Census are obviously of vital importance in Irish ancestral research.  One such source of this data is the Old Age Pension Claim Forms held in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (P.R.O.N.I). These give researchers absolutely essential information from the 1841 & 1851 censuses for Northern Ireland & Co. Donegal. Similar records are held by the National Archives in Dublin. These here are referred to as Census Search Forms and they contain the same essential information as the Northern Irish ones but cover the whole of Ireland, including some additional records for Northern Ireland

Researchers from www.ireland-genealogy.com have spent two decades transcribing these hand-written pension claim/census search forms. In some cases they are difficult to read and are in no particular order while the records held by P.R.O.N.I. are not indexed.

Their database allows a researcher online to search these records easily and so will save you both time and money. All you need to do is enter the surname you are researching and from the list provided decide which records you think relate to your family and then just click the order button.

As they point out on their site, these  records were hand written, and so in many cases the handwriting is very difficult to decipher; this coupled with the fact that much if it was written in pencil resulting in some words or letters having faded before the transfer to microfilm, has made the job of transcribing particularly difficult. Ireland-Genealogy.com  have not corrected spelling mistakes nor have their transcribers tried to amend anything that may not make sense. They have simply transcribed all of the information contained on each form. When they were in any doubt about whether or not they were reading a particularly untidy or faded record correctly they have put a question mark. A question mark has also been used when it was impossible to read.

Findmypast.ie

Recently we have had the very welcome addition of Findmypast.ie to the family history fold. This site collects together birth, marriage and death records and so features details of over 400,000 births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials from Ireland covering the whole island of Ireland and include over 150,000 newspaper obituaries and four indexes to wills, dating back as far as the 13th century. Many of these records are particularly interesting as they include more than just names, they also feature addresses and occupations. Vital records often make the best starting point for researching your Irish family history.

At findmypast.ie they have almost 150,000 names in census substitutes to help you fill in those missing gaps from the destruction of the census. You’ll find fragments dating from 1749 to 1901, as well as 19th century electoral registers. Anyone researching their 19th century Dublin ancestors will find a wealth of information in the 1851 Dublin City Census, which includes names and address of approximately 59,000 heads of households. We can also access the 1749 Census of Elphin, which lists all households, names of household heads, their addresses, occupations, numbers of children, adults and servants, by age and religious denomination – a remarkable document for such an early date. The Dublin City Census 1901: Rotunda Ward details 13,556 people residing in 1,334 properties across a 67-street space of the Rotunda Ward area of the city.

There are many other data sets including Land and Estate, Court and Legal, Military and Rebellion, Travel and Migration along with Directories dating back to 1814.

Take a look at this great website now by clicking the image below. (This is a compensated affiliate link.)



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Tracing my Great-Grandfather in Trade Directories

Directories1869 at TheGenealogist.co.uk

I’ve used trade directories before, when I was tracing my tradesmen ancestors down in Plymouth. At that time I’d found one enterprising forebear, of mine, who had been a Victualler and Brass founder on the 1861 census employing  one woman, six men and some boys in this Devon City. This had lead me on to use the University of Leicester’s site, Historical Directories at www.historicaldirectories.org to find him and his advertisement in a Plymouth Trade Directory. Its great fun to see how polite were the requests of a Victorian era businessman, asking for trade, in an advertisement from this time.

This week I had turned my attention to my maternal great-grandfather. In a book, complied on the family, that I was lucky enough to have found on the shelves of the Society of Genealogists, in Goswell Road, London, my ancestor was given a brief mention in between his more illustrious brother’s, cousin’s and forefather’s. What I was able to glean, from this book, was that Edward Massy Hay had been a merchant in London for a period in the 1860’s, after a short spell in the army.

The book had been complied by his Father, Charles Crosland Hay and completed by his cousin on the death of the former. It gave me a clue that all was not well in the business world of Edward, as a line simply said: “Partner in the firm of Stevens & Hay, Merchants in London; on its failure he became a tea-planter in Ceylon.”

My first reaction was to see if the business went bankrupt and was mentioned in the London Gazette. I checked the website at www.london-gazette.co.uk, where it is possible to search back through the archives for free, but I found nothing on the business. I’d read a tip that it was always worth checking the Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes, in case the bankruptcy had been hidden in one of these publications. The results came back negative and so it looks as if the business was wound up without going bankrupt.

Recently, on taking a look around TheGenealogist.co.uk‘s data sets, I came across the 1869 Kelly’s Post Office Directory for London on their site. By entering “Stevens and Hay” I was eventually able to locate their business to an office at 65 Fenchurch Street, London. EC3

Moving on, to a Kelly’s Directory for 1880 London, I found my great-grandfather listed as living in Princes Square, Bayswater, London. Also at that address was his sister, Mrs Mary Ann Webster, whose husband was in the Madras Civil Service. But I had already begun investigating the move to Ceylon (today known as Sri Lanka), by my ancestor. By 1880 he was appearing in a directory for that island, as well as at Bayswater!

From a website, dedicated to the history of Ceylon Tea (www.historyofceylontea.com), I found there are links to many years of the Ferguson’s Ceylon Directory. In 1880 Edward M. Hay was an Assistant for R.Books & Co of London, in the British Colony. He appears in several of the directories, one of which has him as Chairman of his local area’s planters association and in 1905 he was listed as the owner of a tea estate called Denmark in Dolosbage, Ceylon.

This little peep into my great-grandfather’s life was made possible by the use of various trade directories and the fact that they have been scanned and uploaded to websites on the internet. But before I turned off my computer, on a whim I decided to enter the address that he had shared with his sister in London into Google street view. I was rewarded with the Georgian fronts of Princes Square and easily found the house where he lived. It is now a small hotel and so its address is on the internet.

A search for 65 Fenchurch Street, and the offices, shows that they have been replaced by a modern vista. Lastly, I did a Google search for the Denmark Tea Estate in Sri Lanka and by chance it still exists! Using Google Earth I was able to use the satellite view to see, from the air, the hillside estate that once was where my great-grandfather cultivated tea.

It seems to me to be well worth using some of these alternative tools, available to us, when doing family history research. They may add just a little bit of flesh to the bones of facts gained from the census data or the birth, marriage and death records for our ancestors.

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Administrations in England & Wales up to 1858

If one of your ancestors, in your family tree, died without making a will, then their next-of-kin could apply
to the church courts for Letters of Administration to be granted to them. What would happen is that they
would then be bound in law by entering into a bond to administer the goods of the deceased. As well as family it is sometimes possible to find that a creditor is granted the letters of administration, but in all cases they are referred to as an Administrator, if they are male, whilst a female is known as an Administratrix.

A will and testament from the 19th century
A Will from the 19th century, online

You may well notice that administrations, or sometimes admons,are generally less informative for the family historian than wills are. That said, however, If you have found that one of your ancestors left no will, but their effects were dealt with by and administration, then at least the document will include: the name of the administrator(s) and bondsman, as well as the the relationship of the administrator(s) to the deceased. This could indeed be valuable to someone tracing their family tree. In addition to which, the administration may often include a date of death and the value of the deceased’s estate, that could help you fill in some gaps.

As in the case of wills, until 1858 it fell to the church courts  to be responsible for granting administrations. So for that reason you will need to use the same system to find administrations as you would do for finding wills of the same period. The main point to remember was that it is the same two provinces – the Prerogative Courts of York and of Canterbury – each controlled by an archbishop, that England was divided into.

A subdivision then occurs into several archdeaconries, and then further divisions again into rural deaneries. What all this means to the researcher is that there are over 250 church courts who were responsible in some way for the granting of letters of administration.

So where do we make a start? One answer is to take a look at the A2A website (Access 2 Archives) on the National Archives website:
www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a

It is a fantastic database covering a myriad of records from over 400 record offices across not just England, but the whole of the UK.  Some of their records go back as far as the eighth century, while some come right up to date.

It is possible to search it by name, or a place and also by a topic and while it may not cover every single record office, by the very nature of its substantial coverage it can be used to search for probate material by using the key words ‘wills, administrations or inventories’ plus the region of the country that your ancestor died within.

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Well Worth Family Historians Looking For A Will

A will and testament from the 19th century
A Will from the 19th century

It was not just the rich who would leave a will in the Britain of the past. For this reason, family historians looking into their family tree, should consider it worth researching whether their ancestor did so. This area of family history research is often recorded as Wills and Administrations. I will write about Administrations in another post concentrating today on Wills.

Technically what we refer to in common speech as a ‘will’ is in fact a joint deed that is legally known as ‘The Last Will and Testament’ of the person who has died and it was in 1540 that in England it came into existence. From that date on a party could now devise, or gift, their ‘Freehold’ land by the means of a will.

In order for a deceased’s wishes to be carried out an executor, or executrix, would need to be appointed by the departed to administer and distribute their estate after their death. The executor/executrix would need to apply to a court for the will to be carried out and that court would have to be satisfied the will was valid and that it was the deceased’s final will, and testament. This is the process known as “proving a will”. When satisfied the court then issues a grant of probate that allowed the executors to finally carry out the will’s terms and distribute the deceased’s property.

Before 1540, in England, a testament was only concerned with what is known as “personality” or personal property, which is a person’s moveable goods and chattels. This was because a person’s interests in any “real property” (that is the land and any buildings that they owned) would automatically descended  to the
deceased’s immediate heir, normally the first son. Ecclesiastical law, however, held that at least one-third of a man’s property should pass to his widow as her dower and then another one-third should go to all his children.

As you delve into this area of family history you may possibly come across something called a nuncupative will, or perhaps you will see it referred to as an oral will. If you consider that in some places, in years gone by, very few people other than the clergy could read and write. So if your ancestor was dying, with no one available with the skill to write down his wishes, then the court may have relied on the deceased’s oral declaration of their last wishes to another party. Probate would only be granted after the courts had listened to the sworn evidence of those persons who had heard that declaration being made.

As I am sure we can all imagine, this sort of will would often lead to disputes. Needless to say nuncupative wills were made invalid in England by the Wills Act of 1837. There being one exception, however, and that is in the case of members of the armed forces on active duty, for whom they are still legal today.

You can tell such wills apart in the records, as they can usually be identified because they start with the word: Memorandum.

A holographic will, on the other hand, is a will and testament that has been entirely handwritten and signed by the testator. In the United Kingdom, unwitnessed holographic wills remained valid in Scotland up until the Requirements of Writing Scotland Act 1995. This Act of Parliament abolished the provision and so such wills written after 1st August 1995 are now invalid in all of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Family historians, may well find that the ancestor that they though would just not have written a will, may well have done so. Consider that even if your ancestor was not wealthy, but a person who owned the tools of a trade, then they may well have wanted to make sure that these were passed on to the right person.

Another lesson that I have learnt is that finding wills can be difficult. I had searched many times, over the years, in various online places before I found the probate for my 2x great-grandfather on the recently available Ancestry Wills & Probate data.

Henry Thomas Thorne, for forty years worked on the River Dart first as the steersman of the railway ferry the Perseverance and then as captain of the GWR Steamer The Dolphin making the short crossing between Kingswear and Dartmouth. He died in 1908 and left effects of £202 17 shillings. That’s about £15,700.00 now, using the retail price index.

As with all family history research, don’t give up on blanks in your family tree, simply resolve to return to unfruitful searches at regular intervals as more data becomes available all the time.

The Nosey Genealogist.

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Wills & Administrations in English Family History

Wills can be of great use to any family historian for a number of reasons. They can furnish you with names of relatives, give you a description of the property that your ancestor owned at the time of their death and even reveal their favourite charity. Or though in my case I suspected that the charity that my aunt chose to leave the residue of her estate to was really her solicitor’s favoured charity and his suggestion!

Wills are one of the few documents written by your ancestor. For this reason they may give you an insight into their attitudes, social standing and their lifestyle. Perhaps, if you are lucky they can also explain family feuds and even expose scandals.

If, however, you discover that one of your ancestors seems to have been cut out of the will, you should always consider that this may not necessarily mean that they were disinherited. You should be open to considering that other arrangements had already been made for them in the lifetime of the deceased.

Quite a few family history researchers assume it is not worth checking if their ancestors left a will because they think their ancestor’s background precluded them from doing so. It is, however, wrong to believe that only a minority of people from the top of society left wills. Yes, it may be true that most people who left wills had some property of some kind or another. But wills can be found for people from amongst the very widest range of backgrounds.

Whilst it is perhaps true that only a small percentage of the population left a last will and testament, you should remember that for every person who did so means that there will be at least one other person mentioned in the document and this at least doubles your chance of finding a connection to your family tree, even if they are a distant relative.

It is possible, but not all that common, to find a will belonging to your family that pre-dates the parish registers, or even better where parish registers and the other primary sources have been destroyed or gone missing over the years.

You should know that before 1858 wills were generally proved in the church courts. In order to find a will in this time period will need you to have some understanding of the church hierarchy and how this bears relationship to the place or area that you are researching within.

So, what is a will?

It is a formal document stating exactly what a person desires should happen to their possessions after they have passed on. The person making a will is referred to as the Testator and they make a Last Will and Testament. This is actually a joint deed, the Will and the Testament.

Last Will and Testaments became the legal means of passing on one’s property in England in the year
1540. This was because it was only from that date that ‘Freehold’ land could be gifted or “devised” through a will. Before this date a “testament” was legally only concerned with what the law knows as “personality”. this is a term referring to personal property, that is a person’s moveable goods and chattels.

Why wasn’t it possible to pass on land? The answer lies with the fact that interests in “real property”, or the land and buildings your ancestors owned, would descend automatically to the deceased immediate heir. The church law, however, stated that at least one-third of a man’s property should pass directly to his widow as her dower and then one-third to all his children.

In theory these rules could not be broken, however property owners found ways that they could get around them. As an example, whilst “Copyhold land” – land held from the Lord of the manor – could not be left in a will before 1815, it could still be given up or “surrendered” to be used in a will. This effectively meant that it could be left to whomever a person wanted! Other methods of circumnavigating the rule was to transfer one’s property to trustees who would hold it during the owner’s lifetime as per that person’s instructions.

If you are lucky and find your ancestor has left a will you will see just how useful it is to the family historian.

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