Probate Archives

Probate Calendars to be Online Soon

(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.

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.