(written by Di Bouglas)
Some interesting information has been revealed about the long-awaited online access to the probate calendars for England and Wales. At two meetings for users held on 17 April, John Briden of the Probate Service outlined plans for the calendars to be put online, some hopefully by the end of 2012. John was accompanied by a team from Iron Mountain, the archive facility which currently holds the contract for storing post 1858 wills and providing copies on demand. They gave a demonstration of how it will work, although some final details of the search are still to be decided.
The calendars, which exist in paper form up to 1996, have already been scanned and will be available to browse by the first few letters of a surname. There will also be the facility to jump from one year to the next. This will not be a completely searchable index, as is the case with the data for 1861-1941 currently on Ancestry. It will be much like using the books and fiche at the registries. The search will be free and there will then be the possibility to order copies for delivery online. From 1996 onwards, the format will be a redacted version of the Probateman database, with details of potentially living executors being omitted for privacy reasons. We were assured that the flawed and incomplete Will Finder system will be abandoned.
Another exciting piece of news was the digitisation of 300,000 wills of solders killed in action, which are held by the Probate Service but never included in the calendars as they were dealt with by the War Office and later the Ministry of Defence. We understand that they cover casualties from all conflicts from the Crimean War onwards. They do not include officers.
The soldiers wills will be the first to be released online, so we should see them later in 2012. They will be searchable by surname, regimental number and year of death. Again, copies may be ordered online.
Also discussed was the withdrawal of the one-hour service at the London search room and its possible future reinstatement. At the moment, this looks distinctly unlikely, but following the introduction of a replacement 48 hour service, which has been much easier to deliver, there seems to be the possibility of a 24 hour service being introduced at some time in the future.
The Probate Service is eager to receive feedback, so they can understand the differing requirements of a wide range of users. More meetings are planned, beginning on 8 May.