Wills at the Society of Genealogists Library
The Society of Genealogists Library is probably the best place to look for wills and related probate documents. In addition to holding all published and many unpublished indexes and finding aids to tell you if a will or administration exits, the SoG also has copies of the documents themselves by being an affiliate library with FamilySearch. The SoG provides access to view the records that FamilySearch makes available on microfilm and/or in digital form through the FamilySearch Catalogue.
The SoG Genealogist Else Churchill recently gave two online talks on probate records and related douments. If you couldn't book onto these they have been recorded and we hope that you will be able to book to hear and see the recorded talk shortly. Email our events manager Lori on firstname.lastname@example.org to ask for details about the recorded talk. In addition there is a free genealogy beginners course in the Member's Area Learning Zone with Emma Jolley which includes wills.
Use SoGCat and FamilySearch Catalogue to find wills
The Society’s online Library Catalogue SoGCAT can be searched using the name of the pre 1858 church court as a subject to find all the relevant finding aids or indexes we hold and many will be published by the British Record Society and found on the wills book shelves in the upper library, though many older BRS volumes can be found online on Ancestry and Findmypast or the Internet Archive. Having established from the index that a will or admon exists you can find the records of post 1858 wills to 1925 or probate records of the church courts to view at SoG using the FamilySearch Catalogue.
The Society’s Document Collections of miscellaneous manuscript research notes arranged by surnames contains thousands of wills listings and copies and abstracts of probate documents. The SoG’s Special Collections (which are usually too large to split up by surname and have an integrity in themselves) also contain similar probate copies and abstracts. Often the copy of the will or administration found in the collections is the working copy used by the executors in settling an estate.
For example, our copy of the wills of Dame Fern Norris probated in 1893 bears the stamps of the various institutions she had invested in and held stock such as the Gas Light and Coke Company, the Bank of England and the Trust and Loan Company of Canada.
The wills often come to the library as part of a collection of personal family research papers or via the British Record Association (BRA) which acts as a clearing house directing documents to suitable places of deposit such as when solicitors are clearing out old deeds, probate documents and other unwanted documents. Both the Document and Special Collections are being scanned and we hope that will make them easier to catalogue and list and ultimately publish all for members on SoG Data Online in the future. Until then you have to use the quick surname lookup on the Search Records page of the Society’s website http://www.sog.org.uk/search-records to see if the document collection has information on the surnames you are researching but that list won’t currently tell if the item (s) is a will or other probate document. In the meantime, we have an ongoing project to index the wills in the Document and Special Collections as we come across them and that name index is made available to members on our website via SoG Data Online
Previously any will that came via the BRA would be dispersed into the document collection boxes in the lower library, but now the volunteers scan them immediately as a collection in their own right and the recent British Record Association will deposits all are indexed and available on SOG Data Online. The Society’s digital collection of wills relating to Tetbury and Malmesbury in Gloucestershire comes from a a deed delivery book containing references to documents such as wills, conveyances, deeds, leases, titles, agreements, conveyances and mortgages worked on we believe by solicitors in the area and deposited in the library.
While the Society of Genealogists is not a formal place of deposit, we do end up being the place of last resort as original records are frequently deposited with the library when no other institution wanted them. Hence when the Bank of England said they no longer wanted the 176 volumes of abstracts they held for the years 1717-1845 we readily agreed to take them in
As part of the project to digitise some of the many unique unpublished copies and abstracts of probate documents in the library, our volunteers set about looking at the 15 manuscript volumes housed on the wills shelves in the upper library entitled Evidences: Miscellaneous London will abstracts from before 1500 to 1838. Compiled by Percival Boyd (of marriage index fame) and others, the volume were thought essentially to be scrap books of cuttings and abstracts of documents; mostly relating to wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) and London Church Courts. Digitisation of these “evidence” volumes shows that they contain MORE than London wills. While undoubtedly there are handwritten notes and extracts of probate documents from various courts around the country, we have discovered the volumes also include some original 18th century documents such as ale house licences, bastardy examinations, court statements, inquisitions post mortem, and settlement examinations and certificates largely relating to parishes on the Worcestershire/Gloucestershire borders.
Copies or abstracts or wills are often provided to institutions as evidence and many wills are referred to in the online Great Western Railway Shareholders Registers Collection. This is not an index of railway staff, but of shareholders in the railway. The index currently contains details for approximately 440,000 individuals, with a total number of 570,464 records and 153,569 events entered into the registers. The online database accompanying the digital images of the ledgers includes not just shareholders but executors, beneficiaries and others involved in the transfer of shareholdings.
It would be wonderful if all beneficiaries and person mentioned in a will were shown in will indexed and not just testators. This can be done as we can see from the Society’s online collection called the Wiltshire Wills Beneficiaries Index, created by Mary Trace and Pat Wilson and donated to the Society of Genealogists. It records the wills, administrations & other probate records proved between 1800 and 1858 in 21 Peculiar Courts predominately in Wiltshire (though some of these peculiars crossed county boundaries).
The destruction of the probate registry in Exeter in an air raid in 1942 proved disastrous for anyone researching early wills for Devon and parts of Somerset. Luckily the British Record Society had published an index to the Devon documents which we hold in the library and, as it’s out of copyright and rare, we have published it on SoG Data Online and there is a link to this digital book from the SoG library catalogue. We also had so many copies or abstracts of probate documents created before 1942 in our library that have been listed as part of the GENUKI Devon wills project. Now our more important Devon collections such as the Devon wills abstracts contained in the Fothergill collection are also indexed on SOG Data Online. Unfortunately there was no published index to tell us about the Somerset wills which had been held at Exeter and destroyed in 1942 but the SoG had a unique set of unpublished manuscripts which indexed those wills from the Consistory and Archdeaconry Courts of Bath and Wells and associated peculiar courts. These have been digitised and put online and members working from home are creating a union name index to all the volumes.
The Devon will indexes were compiled by Ernest Alexander Fry the noted genealogist and antiquarian working in the west country at the end of the 19th century. Although not yet digitised, the huge Fry Collection in Store A contains thousands of wills and deeds and court cases abstracted and transcribed in many many volumes. This is what we might today consider a to be a one name study and was the basis of a small family history compiled and privately published by E A Fry. I was delighted to show this huge collection, to Stephen Fry, a relative who came to view the collection as part of his Who Do You think You Are? television journey
Wills and related documents can be found in many manuscripts, collections and books in the library. In 1996 SoG member Nicholas Newington-Irving produced a printed guide to Wills Indexes and other Probate Sources in the library of the Society of Genealogists. A copy of this is at the middle Library enquiry counter. While the Library has added many other probate sources and copies into its collections since then, and put some online, this guide can provide useful first steps to finding resources in the library for those who might find the online library catalogue SoGCAT rather daunting to use.
The Society's libray hoooods many useful texts and guides relating to wills. The following titles may help to establish which were the relevant courts:
Probate Jurisdictions: Where to look for Wills by Jeremy Gibson & Stuart Raymond
Phillimore Atlas & Index of Parish Registers
Maps of local courts jurisdictions including peculiars are published by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies
Ancestral Trails by Mark Herber
Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The Website and Beyond by Amanda Bevan
*Wills and Probate Records A Guide for Family Historians by Karen Grannum and Nigel Taylor
*Wills of Our Ancestors A Guide for Family & Local Historians by Stuart A Raymond
Those marked * are the best most recent guides though Grannum and Taylor is slightly out of date with regard to some locations and online resources/
The Law of Executors and Administrators by Sir Samuel Toller, 7th ed corrected by Francis Whitmarsh, 1838 is available from the Internet Archive and Google Books and is contemporary with most of the documents used by genealogists and so can explain what’s going on.
Else Churchill, 2020.