Guide Four: Probate Records
A will is a document which sets out a person’s wishes about the disposal of his or her property. The legal process of proving a will and administering and distributing the estate in accordance with those wishes is known as probate.
Probate documents can be remarkably helpful to family historians and it would be a mistake to assume that only wealthy people made a will. If you are lucky, wills can be found from the fourteenth century up to the present day and no matter what the date, if they do exist, they can provide a tremendous amount of information. Probate records are personal and these documents might provide one of the few instances when you will “hear” the actual wishes and words of your ancestor.
What can be found on a will?
A probate document will usually record the following:-
• Name, address and occupation of the testator
• Date the will was made and signed
• Indication of the health of the testator when the will was made
• Details of the family – i.e. married daughters, sons’ wives, grandchildren, in-laws. Elder children may have been provided for earlier and so might not be named
• Details of property leased and owned
• Date the will was proved and sometimes the date of death. Although the testator has died by this date, probate might not be granted for some considerable time after the death, sometimes many years later.
Terminology and procedures
The legal language used in probate documents can be formulaic and difficult to understand. A will is a document that deals with a TESTATOR’S wishes concerning the disposal of property after death. The testator is the person who made the will. The WILL deals with the person’s real property (land and buildings) and a TESTAMENT provides for the personal property (goods and chattels). In England and Wales, the Will and Testament are usually contained in the same document and the terms gradually came to mean the same. An EXECUTOR (male) or EXECUTRIX (female) is appointed by the testator to prove the will and satisfy a court that it is a valid. Typically there would be one, two or three named executors. The court GRANTS probate that permits the executor to carry out the testator’s wishes. This decision is recorded in the probate ACT BOOK. REGISTERED COPIES of wills may also be copied into the records at the time probate is granted, although sometimes the original will is retained by the court. Should a testator change his mind after the will has been drawn up, amendments or additions might be made in the form of a CODICIL which is attached to the end of the will rather than the whole document being re-written. In the case of INTESTACY, where no will has been made, a relative or creditor can apply for letters of ADMINISTRATION or an ADMON and so will be known as the ADMINISTRATOR or ADMINISTRATRIX. An administration might also be granted if the executor of the will predeceases the testator or renounces (refuses to act in such a capacity). Not all wills were probated and some might take a long while to come to court. There may be documents amongst family papers that were never presented before a court. Early wills might have accompanying documents such as INVENTORIES, listing in detail the value of the testator’s property room by room or ACCOUNTS rendered by executors. The court might also provide for the education/TUITION of children or guardianship/ CURATION of orphans. Where no legal will was drawn up, the last death-bed wishes of the deceased could (before 1837) be recorded as a NUNCUPATIVE or spoken will noted by a witness, friend or relative in attendance at the scene of death. Children, lunatics and criminals were prevented from leaving wills and, before the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act, married women required the permission of their husbands to make a will.
Finding wills and admons
Finding wills and admons
Registered English and Welsh wills and administrations are public records and the original records are broadly speaking to be found in one of three places:
1. The Principal Registry of the Family Division (PPR), which since 2014 only makes wills available through online ordering and no longer maintains a public search room. (See the Find a Will website below).
2. The National Archives (TNA), Kew, Richmond, Surrey. TW9 4DU (before 1858):
3. Local church court records in local record or diocesan offices (before 1858).
Addresses and websites can be found via TNA’s Discovery website:
Records after 1858
From 12th January 1858, the Civil Court of Probate proved wills and granted administrations in England and Wales in the probate registry in London and local offices around the country. Copies of all wills and administrations recorded by local registries were sent to the Principal Probate Registry (PPR). Original wills and office copies are now stored for the Court Service in Birmingham. If a copy of a document is required, this can be ordered via the Court Service’s Find a Will Website https://www.gov.uk/search-will-probate at a cost of £1.50. Scanned copies are made in Birmingham and emailed as a PDF file to the applicant.
Notes on using the post 1858 Annual indexes or calendars
The original paper indexes were arranged annually for the year when probate was granted which is not necessarily the same year as the death. After 1870 both wills and admons are listed together alphabetically under the name of the testator. Before that date there are two alphabetical sequences in each year, one for wills and one for admons. The indexes from 1858 are quite full noting the name and address of the testator; dates of death and grant of probate; the name of the executor and the value of the estate. Before 1892 the relationship of the executor to the testator is often noted. From 1968 the name of the executor(s) is not currently included in the indexes.
The Government Find a Will website https://www.gov.uk/search-will-probate replaces printed calendars; microfiche indexes from 1993-1998; a computer index from 1996 and the Willfinder database all formerly used at the PPR.
Note that while TNA, SoG, LDS and some local record offices and local probate registries may have copies of the old indexes from 1858 up to 1930 or 1943 (or even the mid1970s) on microfilm, microfiche or in books, these often do not contain any marginal notes or amendments that were to be found in indexes in the London search room and which were used to make the Find a Will website.
The Find a Will website https://www.gov.uk/search-will-probate currently consists of three searchable databases
• Wills and Admons probated from 1858-1995
• Wills and Admons probated from 1996 to date
• Soldiers Wills
Having found an index entry for an appropriate will or administration you can order a PDF of the will to be made available to download online at a cost of £1.50. This can take up to ten working days.
Images of the probate indexes from 1858-1966 can be searched online at www.ancestry.co.uk but this website does not make copies of the wills themselves available. Images of the probate indexes from 1858-2019 can also be searched on www.findmypast.co.uk. FamilySearch has created an index from the calendars 1858-1957
If you do not wish to order a copy of the will online, the Leeds Probate Registry will take postal requests and arrange for searches to be made and copies of the wills or administrations to be posted on from the Birmingham repository.
Leeds District Probate Registry
Postal searches and Copies Department
Leeds LS1 2BA
Tel: +44 (113) 389 6133
Fax: +44 (113) 247 1893
The Leeds Registry does not allow searches to be made in person at its offices.
Originally in 1858 there were over 40 local registries but now there are only 11 registries and 18 sub registries plus the PPR in London. Copes of wills probated locally are sent to PPR and stored at the Courts Service Birmingham repository. Each local registry has a set of indexes but those from the defunct registries or indexes over 50 years old are often transferred to local CROs and libraries and hence partial sets of indexes exists elsewhere. Local probate registries may order wills for you, but you need to contact them in advance to establish how searches can made and have a pretty good idea of when the will would have been probated if you want the staff to search for you. Addresses of local probate registries can be obtained from the Courts Service website: www.justice.gov.uk (and follow the hypertext contact link to find a court or tribunal).
As a FamilySearch Affilliate Libary the Society of Genealogists has access to digital and microfilm copies of all the wills proved at London and in all of the local registries from 1858 to 1925. Having noted the date of probate and probate registry from the various online indexes, copies of the will can be made there. It does not have the grants of probate or the administrations. The FamilySearch Wiki Guide to English Probate Records is a useful page to bookmark as it has useful links to online resources and will indexes and provides helpful guided searches within the FamilySearch Catalogue
Records before 1858
To find wills and admons before 1858, it is necessary to have some understanding of the hierarchy of the various church courts in which a will might have been proved or an administration granted. Ecclesiastical courts came under the control of the following church officials:
1. An Archbishop
The Archbishop’s chancellor or registrar presided over the Prerogative Courts. The North of England (Northumberland, Westmorland, Cheshire, Cumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire) fell within the Province of York and hence the Prerogative Court of York (PCY). The remainder of the South of England and Wales fell within the Province of Canterbury and hence the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC).
2. A Bishop
Presided over a diocese. The diocese may cover all or parts of several counties such as the Diocese of Lichfield (Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire and Warwickshire) or the Diocese of Norwich (Norfolk and Suffolk). Alternatively a diocese may cover only part of a county such as the Diocese of Rochester that covered West Kent. The Bishop’s Diocesan Court was known as a Consistory Court (or in some instances as a Commissary Court).
3. An Archdeacon
Presided over a part of a diocese known as an Archdeaconry. The archdeaconry may form part of a county, a whole county or indeed cross county boundaries.
4. Peculiars (sometimes written as Peculier)
For historical reasons certain parishes or groups of parishes were independent of the formal control of a local church court. These areas were known as Peculiars and their probate activities were governed by a different official from those outlined above - perhaps by a Rector of another parish; the Dean and Chapter of a local cathedral; a Bishop or Archdeacon of another diocese or archdeaconry; the Lord of the Manor; a University; the Crown.
Each Church Court or Peculiar that operated a probate practice reserved the rights to grant probate on wills or letters of administrations in return for charging court fees.
Which Ecclesiastical Court?
The jurisdiction of a church court depended on where the testator held property and the value of that property, not necessarily where he lived or died. While there were rules governing which courts might have jurisdiction in a particular case, in practice it is sensible to search all the potential courts.
1. Land/property all in one archdeaconry = ARCHDEACONRY COURT
2. Land/Property in more than one archdeaconry but within one diocese = CONSISTORY/COMMISSARY COURT
3. Land/Property in more than one diocese but all in Province of York = PCY
4. Land/Property in more than one diocese but all in Province of Canterbury = PCC
5. Land/Property in both Provinces = PCC (senior to PCY)
6. Outside archdeaconry but still in jurisdiction of Consistory or Province = PECULIAR
The following titles may help to establish which were the relevant courts:-
• Probate Jurisdictions: Where to look for Wills by Jeremy Gibson & Else Churchill
• Phillimore Atlas & Index of Parish Registers
• Maps of counties showing local courts jurisdictions including peculiars are published by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, Canterbury and can be found on Ancestry and findmypast websites
• The online England and Wales 1851 Jurisdictions also identify appropriate ecclesiastical probate boundaries and can be found as part of FamilySearch historical maps http://maps.familysearch.org/
How to use wills
Wills can often be very long and difficult to read. You may have to undertake a palaeography course to learn to identify certain forms of handwriting and to recognise common forms of letters, words and phrases. A will before 1858 will almost always begin with the phrase In the name of God Amen. Use this common phrase to learn to recognise how the clerk wrote certain letters. Look for each new instruction or bequest to begin with the word Item. Rather than transcribe the whole document, make an abstract of the document noting the following salient details:
• Name, address and occupation of the testator
• Date the will was made
• Details of executors
• Details of the family – i.e. married daughters, sons’ wives, dead brother’s children. Remember elder children may have been provided for earlier and so might not be included.
• Draw up a rough pedigree of the family mentioned within, making notes if anyone was described as deceased or living elsewhere
• Details of any other names mentioned in the will such as witnesses, business partners etc
• Details of bequests
• Details of property leased and owned
• Date the will was proved, by this time the testator had died
• Date of death if it is given
Often the testator might express a preference for his place of burial. He may mention several places where he owns property and this might be a clue when looking for records of baptisms, marriages or burials. You might even discover whether the testator got on with his family. Extra information, especially about executor, may sometimes be found in the grant of probate or letters of administration.
Generally it is sensible to search the records of the local church court and work up through the higher church courts. However it may be easier to start with the records of the highest church court - the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) when searching for wills as these records in series PROB 11 are indexed online through The National Archives (TNA) Discovery Catalogue.
By the early 19th century, many people went straight to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury for probate matters and the business of the lower courts declined. If an index reference is found on the TNA Discovery Catalogue, PDF copies of the PCC wills 1384-1858 can be downloaded from the site (£3.50 per document). Alternatively they can be viewed, free of charge at TNA or SoG where copies can be made. This is not currently an index to all PCC administrations. PCC Admons 1750-1800 are indexed on the MySoG members’ area of the Society of Genealogists website.
The Society of Genealogists holds all published and some unpublished indexes that will tell you if a will exists. Many of these indexes are published by the British Record Society or by local record societies. The wills themselves, found in the records of the Consistory Courts, Archdeaconry Courts and Peculiar Courts are located in county or diocesan record offices. Some record offices (e.g. Chester, Dorset, Essex, Gloucester, London Metropolitan Archives, Durham, Canterbury, and Truro (Wiltshire) have published indexes to their wills and in some cases images of the documents themselves on the Internet or in partnership with commercial databases.
An updated guide to online resources and recent indexes and finding aids for wills is maintained by Andrew Millard https://community.dur.ac.uk/a.r.millard/genealogy/probate.php.
FamilySearch had microfilm and diital images of the calendars and indexes to the wills proved and administrations granted by many local church and peculiar courts along with the orginal documents themselve. There is also a very good collection of films of the wills and administrations themselves. As the SoG is FamilySearch Affilliate Library all these documents can be viewed at the Society of Genealogists. If the document, which you require, is available, it can be read or copied and this will prevent the need to visit that repository or apply for a copy by post or e-mail. Again the FamilySearch Wiki Guide to English Probate Records is a useful page to bookmark as it has useful links to online resources and will indexes and provides helpful guided searches within the FamilySearch Catalogue to identify the probate documents it makes available
The Borthwick Institute in York holds the records of the Prerogative Court of York and other courts for Yorkshire. There are indexes to wills and administrations from 1383 to 1688 for the PCY published by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society (YAS). Those volumes as well as the online index to the wills and administrations from 1689 to 1858 can be searched as part of the National Wills Index now part of www.findmypast.co.uk. That database and search engine can also be used to access several other probate indexes and many of the British Record Society index volumes which have been digitised on that website.
Wills recorded in the records of the London church courts (below the level of the PCC) can be difficult to find as they may be held in various record offices, LMA, Westminster Archives, Lambeth Palace etc. David Wright’s London Probate Index, now on www.findmypast.co.uk provides an index to all wills and administrations of those courts from 1750 to 1858. Wills at LMA are indexed on www.ancestry.co.uk and those at Westminster are due to be indexed on www.findmypast.co.uk.
FindMyPast online collections include for example the Cheshire Wills and Probate records 1942-1911; Hertfordshire Probate Records Index 1515-1858; West Kent Probate Index 1750-1858; the Northamptonshire and Rutland Probate Index 1462-1857; the England and Wales Published Will & Probate Indexes 1300-1858 and the index to Bank of England Wills Extracts Index 1717-1845. This collection is growing all the time.
Often, however, the only finding aid that might tell you if a will exists is an unpublished card index at a record office or a nineteenth century manuscript calendar (a partial index that is arranged more by date and initial letter rather than strictly alphabetical). Sadly, some wills for the counties of Devon and Somerset were destroyed during the Second World War. Details about the indexes for the above can be found in Probate Jurisdictions: Where to look for Wills by Jeremy Gibson & Stuart Raymond. A website updating this book, including any online indexes to wills or administrations, can be found at:
The records of the Inland Revenue or Estate Duty tax on estates 1796-1903 can be found at TNA. These accounts might be useful in discovering extra information about the beneficiaries of wills or for supplementary information about the property of the testator.
Indexes to the accounts are on film (IR 27) at TNA and SoG. The IR27 calendars are now indexed fully on line at: www.findmypast.co.uk.
Note the indexes are arranged as follows:
1796-1811 annual index volumes to
• PCC wills
• PCC admons
• Separate listings for each of the other courts’ wills & admons. These are now indexed and can be searched for both wills and admons using TNA Discovery or through a guided search from http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/country-court-death-duty-registers-1796-1811/
1812-1903 annual index volumes for:
• wills of PCC & other courts grouped together;
• PCC administrations;
• administrations of other courts grouped together
The accounts themselves are to be found at TNA in IR 26 to 1857. The post-1857 accounts require three days notice for production.
The Society of Genealogists holds the following:
• 1858-1930 Will indexes on film
• IR 27 Estate Duty Indexes 1796-1858
• All published indexes pre 1858
• British Record Society Index Library Vols (BRS)
• MS calendars on film
• Abstracts – e.g. Bank of England Wills 1717-1845 (abstracts of wills referring to government stock))
• Copies of probate documents and index listings in its various Document Collections. An index to those copies and abstracts deposited with the SoG is being published on the MySoG members’ area of the SoG website.
- Acces to digital and/or filom copies of wills 1858-1925 and all pre 1858 church court probate documents
Scotland and Ireland
While the legal system in Scotland is significantly different, finding Scottish testaments is a lot easier. All documents proved in the Commissariot and Sheriffs Courts up to 1901 are to be found through a free index at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.
Ireland had a hierarchy of church courts similar to that of England. Sadly, many original Irish records were destroyed in 1922 but some had been indexed or abstracted before this destruction. The following may be of interest.
• Prerogative Court of Armagh - indexed
• Lesser church courts – some indexed
• Private collections at National Archives, National Library, Genealogical Office
Edited and updated by Else Churchill and Geoff Swinfield 2017. Revised bby Else Churchil 2020
©. Society of Genealogists 2020
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