Wills – an Important Source
One of the most useful sources for family historians is probate documents. If an ancestor left a will, it will often contain information about members of the extended family, such as this one written by Henrietta Jones of New Southgate in 1945. Henrietta left monetary bequests to a whole list of relatives and friends.
We might also gain an insight into what kind of life the testator lived, what their occupation was, any property they owned, as well as details of their personal estate such as jewellery and household effects.
Even if an ancestor died without leaving a will, the next of kin or their representative would have had to apply for a grant of administration in order to dispose of the assets of the deceased.
Since 12 January 1858, all wills in England and Wales have been proved and letters of administration granted by a civil probate court, replacing the rather complicated hierarchy of ecclesiastical courts which had been operating since medieval times. Copies were sent from district registries to the Principal Probate Registry (PPR) and they compiled annual calendars.
These calendars can be searched at First Avenue House, 42-49 High Holborn, WC1V 6NP, with most of the more recent entries now available on computer, back to about 1920. Calendars for 1861 – 1941 (with a few years missing) have also been digitised by Ancestry and can therefore be searched online.
Copies can then be ordered, either by visiting PPR or by post. Full instructions are available on their website. Until September 2011, it was possible to get a same-day copy of any will or administration at PPR. This service was extensively used by intestacy professionals and ‘heir hunting’ firms. Unfortunately, the so-called one-hour service has now been withdrawn and the quickest option is to collect documents a week later.
It would be a mistake to assume that only our more wealthy ancestors left wills. This example shows that in 1948, George Ernest Tertius Swinfield left to his daughter, Frances Olive Payne, “one pair of steps, one deck chair, the hearth rug from my front room, one lamb wool bed cover, pots and saucepans and my ring…”. His other daughter, Sylvia, inherited her father’s bird cage.
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