I’ve been looking back at an ancestor’s will this week. These family history records are fascinating. Seems that one of my two times great grandfathers left a little money and his house to his wife. In his life he had changed occupations from being a Hatter in Tavistock to being a grocer in Plymouth and it makes me wonder about the economic and social forces at work which made him chose this path.
Another ancestor, on my mother’s family side, seems to have cut his eldest son out of the will, everything being inherited by the children who were next in line! What was the story there, I wonder?
These wills, however, are from the start of the records created by the Probate Registry, which took control of proving wills and administrations in 1858. Before this, four different types of ecclesiastical (church) courts dealt with these cases.
Ancestry.co.uk has recently published online over a million probate records, featuring the last will and testament of some of histories most famous names including William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Sir Francis Drake.
Ancestry bill this as being “the most comprehensive UK collection of its kind available to view online”. Certainly I have found that other providers give access to these records on their own sites, for example The National ArchivesÂ on Documents OnlineÂ and TheGenealogist.co.uk has a substantialÂ collection of Wills and Will indexes available online, including the index of the Court of York and full Wills for the Court of Canterbury.
The England and Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) Wills 1384-1858 covers nearly five centuries worth of history and details how much people owned and who they left it to.
Up until January 1858, the church and other courts proved wills in England and Wales. The PCC was the most important of these courts and was responsible for the probate of wills where the value of assets was greater than five pounds, equivalent to Â£526 today.
Searchable by name, probate date, residence and estimated death year, each record contains information about the final assets of the deceased. Additional notes on their occupation, property and overall standard of living may also be included.
Many famous names can be discovered in the records including world famous playwright William Shakespeare. Dated 25th March 1616, Shakespeareâ€™s will details how he left a sum of one hundred and fifty pounds to both his daughters (over Â£380,000 today) as well as his wife the pleasure of his â€˜second best bedâ€™.
Pride and Prejudice author Jane Austen also appears in collection. Upon her death on 18th July 1817, she possessed assets totalling around Â£800 (Â£60,000 today). The majority of this was given to her sister Cassandra aside from Â£50 to her brother Henry and a further Â£50 to a Madame Bigoen â€“ who had previously acted as a nurse to her family.
The records also reveal that the privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake was somewhat of a real life Robin Hood. Having plundered many Spanish naval vessels and earned a fortune during his adventures in the Americas, Drake left forty pounds to the ‘poore people’Â of the town and Parish of Plymouth in 1596 – the equivalent of Â£150,000 today.
The original records are held at The National Archives and some of the earliest records in the collection cover males as young as 14 and girls as young as 12. This changed in 1837, when it was decided by the court that both genders must be over the age of 21 to have a will proved.
On top of monetary matters, these records tell us more about the private lives of some very public figures and will help historians discover more about the dynamics of their personal and familial relationships.
The majority of records in the collection also pre-date civil registration, the government system established in 1837 to keep accurate accounts of citizensâ€™ lives in documents such as censuses. As such, the collection is a valuable resource for anybody looking to trace an ancestor living before the mid-19th century.
Ancestry.co.uk Content Manager Miriam SilvermanÂ comments: â€œThese probate records provide fascinating insight into the final fortunes of some of our nations most famous names, right down to who should get their bed.â€
â€œThey are an incredibly valuable family history resource, covering a period in history from which few official documents remain.â€
Disclosure: Some links are compensated affiliate links.
This week I have been having a play with a great new family history resource that has been developed by Steve Archer. The aim of his site is to build on the work of Hugh Wallis by providing a way to search the IGI using batch numbers.
Though the Archersoftware site doesn’t offer all the information that the wonderful IGI Batch Numbers website created by Hugh Wallis in 2002 once did, it does update and certainly augments much of that information. For some time the Hugh Wallis site seems to be broken, which is a real shame.
The main differences from what had been on the Hugh Wallis’s site and the Archersoftware site, as listed on Steve Archer’s own site are these:
The inclusion of the British batches added since 2002, especially the “I” batches.
The new site doesn’t list North American batch numbers.
It contains a detailed analysis of “Mixed” batches – those containing data from more than one place.
Places are assigned to historic counties as at the mid-19th century, e.g. entries for ‘London’ are assigned to the City of London, Middlesex, Surrey or Kent.
Listings have been substantially cleaned, and incorporate many corrections to place-name syntax.
Listings include the number of entries (events) in each batch and the covering dates, both derived from the actual data.
Some summary statistics are provided.
Steve Archer’s website lists the Extracted batches for the British Isles that previously formed part of the IGI (International Genealogical Index), the on-line database created by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and available at www.familysearch.org.
While Steve Archer’s FamilySearch: a Guide to the British batches website is still under construction it is well worth taking a look at it now: http://www.archersoftware.co.uk/igi/
That great institution, The British Library, is joining up with family history website findmypast.co.uk in a project that I find exciting, as some of my Scots ancestors went out to British India to find their fortunes in the 1860s, while others stayed put in the UK.
What has been announced, by these organisations, is their intention to digitise a veritable treasure trove of family history resources held by the British Library and so making them available to us online and fully searchable for the first time.
To be scanned are the United Kingdom electoral registers that span the century which followed on from the Reform Act of 1832, along with records of baptisms, marriages and burials that have been drawn from the archives of the India Office.
These collections are going to allow us the possibility of tracking down details of our forebears from our computers instead of making a trip to London and the British Libraryâ€™s Reading Rooms.
The British Library houses the national collection of electoral registers covering the whole of the United Kingdom and contain a vast range of names, addresses and other genealogical information, so you can see their importance.
â€œDigitisation of the electoral registers will transform the work of people wishing to use them for family history research,â€ said Jennie Grimshaw, the Libraryâ€™s curator for Social Policy and Official Publications. â€œPrinted electoral registers are arranged by polling district within constituency and names are not indexed, so the process of finding an address to confirm names of residents is currently incredibly laborious. Digitisation represents a huge breakthrough as users will be able to search for names and addresses, thereby pinpointing the individuals and ancestors theyâ€™re looking for.â€
Also to look forward to, in this large-scale digitisation, are records taken from the archives of the East India Company and the India Office and thus my excitement as so many of my Scottish ancestors were employed in the H.E.I.C.S. The data that we are promised relate to Britons who lived and worked in the Indian sub-continent during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to Independence in 1948. Including over 1,000 volumes of births, marriages and burials, together with applications for civil and military service, and details of pension payments to individuals.
Antonia Moon, curator of post-1858 India Office Records said, â€œThese records are an outstanding resource for researchers whose ancestors had connections with British India, whether as servants of the administration or as private inhabitants.â€
We can expect to see five million pages of UK electoral registers and India Office records digitised over the next year. The resources will become available via findmypast.co.uk and in the British Libraryâ€™s Reading Rooms from early 2012; online access will be available to findmypast.co.uk subscribers and pay-as-you-go customers â€“ access to users in the British Library Reading Rooms will be free.
Simon Bell, the British Libraryâ€™s Head of Licensing and Product Development, said: â€œWe are delighted to announce this exciting new partnership between the British Library and findmypast.co.uk , which will deliver an online and fully searchable resource that will prove immensely valuable to family history researchers in unlocking a treasure trove of content that up to now has only been available either on microfilm or within the pages of bound volumes. The Library will receive copies of the digitised images created for this project, so as well as transforming access for current researchers, we will also retain digital versions of these collections in perpetuity, for the benefit of future researchers.â€
Elaine Collins, Commercial Director at findmypast.co.uk, said: â€œWeâ€™re very excited to be involved with this fascinating project. The electoral rolls are the great missing link for family historians: after censuses and civil registration indexes, they provide the widest coverage of the whole population. To have Irish and Scottish records alongside England and Wales is also a huge advantage. These records will join the 1911 Census, Chelsea Pensioner Service Records and many more datasets available online at findmypast.co.uk, which enable people to make fantastic discoveries day after day.â€