The outstanding Salisbury Diocesan Probate collection contains 105,000 wills and inventories and approximately 400,000 individual documents dating from Tudor to Victorian times c.1560-1858. This unique collection covers the whole of Wiltshire and Berkshire, and those parts of Dorset, and Uffculme in Devon which came under the jurisdiction of the Dean of Sarum.
In January 1858 civil registries became responsible for probate matters. The Salisbury Diocesan wills were sent from Salisbury to the new Principal Probate Registry in London. Conditions were far from ideal and in 1874 the wills were moved to Somerset House. Somerset House was not able to cope with the volume of documents it received and after the Second World War, a new county record office opened in Wiltshire and this was a sensible alternative place of deposit for the wills. In the 1950s the office was approved as an authorised place of deposit for probate records and the Salisbury Diocesan wills were transferred to the Record Office at Trowbridge. With the closure of the old Record Office in 2007 the wills were moved with the rest of the archive to our current purpose-built facility in Chippenham.
After receiving substantial Heritage Lottery (and other) funding, the Wiltshire Wills Project was inaugurated in 1999, to re-index and digitise the records. They have all been catalogued onto a computer database, flattened, re-packaged and (where necessary) repaired. This has ensured that they will be cared for better than ever in the future–particularly since digitisation means that the originals will not normally be handled anymore. Digitisation, which proved a lengthy process, was carried out by ourselves until last year when the company Ancestry took over. The whole collection will be available online (hopefully from mid November 2017) through the Ancestry website.
A will or testament is the documentary instrument by which you regulate the rights of others to your property and your family after your death.
A person's formal declaration (usually in writing) of his intention as to the disposal of his property or other matters to be performed after his death. Oxford English Dictionary, 1933
Originally a will dealt with real estate – land and buildings - and a testament with personal property - for example, clothing, furniture, stock, money, books - but they have been combined into one document since the 1500.
The preamble to an Act of Parliament of 1529 (21 Hen. VIII, c.4) detailed the purpose of will-making, explaining that testators should pay their debts, provide for their wives, arrange for the care of their children and make charitable bequests for the good of their souls.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, wills were increasingly used to provide for each member of the family left behind. George Beverstock senior of Bradford on Avon demonstrated that principle in his will of 1689, leaving two looms to his son-in-law thereby giving him a livelihood, and distributing his cows amongst his sons and daughters.
Writing a will was thought of as a spiritual duty as well as a worldly one; from 1552 clergy were required when visiting the sick to remind the dying of their duty to make a will.
To encourage will-making, the church made no direct charge for proving the wills of the very poor. There was just a cost of 6d for making a copy of the will and a further 6d if an administration bond was required.
There were rules on what constituted a valid will. Technically the following elements were required: • the date • the testator's mark or signature - duly witnessed • the nomination of an executor.
They also may include some or all of the following: • the testator’s name, residence and occupation • a statement of health and mental capacity • the “religious preamble”, a statement of faith • a preferred parish of burial • details of bequests/legacies • provision for the widow • provision for the children • special funeral instructions • appointment of overseers to supervise executor • codicil
Having said that, not all the wills in the collection follow these rules, for if no formal written will existed or it could not be found, other evidence could be used. Holograph wills (in the testator’s own handwriting) were generally accepted so long as they were agreed to be genuine. Henry White’s will is a lovely example of an informal hand-written will, found on the reverse of an old letter:
This is a sad blog to be writing, as I’m writing this the day before I leave the History Centre for pastures new. I thought it would be a good way of rounding up what I’ve done over the last four years.
I started at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre as a timid (?) newly qualified archivist, fresh from a course at University College London and all prepared to work a full time job and write my dissertation for my Masters in Archives and Records Management. I had got a job as the project archivist for the high-profile HLF funded project Lacock Unlocked, and started my project in June 2013 working with up to 25 volunteers and the Lacock community to catalogue, make accessible and promote the Lacock archives.
I was certainly thrown in at the deep end with the project – I remember having a very serious meeting with the Devizes U3A group, who knew the archive very well and had listed much of it prior to my arrival, and training volunteers on how to use the database and how to read old handwriting. I wouldn’t have had it any other way, however. I learnt a lot very quickly: I learnt how to manage volunteers, and also how to tackle a large and important archive. I had to do talks to the public, both at the History Centre and externally, about the Lacock archive.
Towards the end of the project I was luckily enough given the opportunity to stay on in a permanent role, joining the rest of the archives team in searchroom duty, accessioning, cataloguing, general talks and so on. It was wonderful to be part of this team, join the rota and have a variety of tasks which have taught me more about the local area. It also enabled me to keep working on the Lacock project, retaining many of the volunteers who even now are still coming in weekly to do work for the History Centre.
I have never made any secret of the fact that I am passionate about the archives of private schools. I wrote my Masters dissertation on the use of school archives and have volunteered in a range of them. So it was a wonderful surprise to be told by Claire Skinner that there was an uncatalogued school collection which I could work on if I wanted to. I grabbed the opportunity eagerly, and immersed myself for the next few months in the archives and history of the Godolphin School in Salisbury, whose archives had been deposited with us and needed cataloguing. I was able to visit the school to put the records in context, which was a great day out. I loved starting working on a collection from scratch, combining two separate deposits of material into one, and finding out so much about the school and its history at the same time. The Godolphin School collection is a wonderful one, combining business records of the school, staffing records, beautiful old photographs of staff and students, and headmistress’ diaries which are extremely interesting – like school log books. These are currently being indexed by a volunteer and will be a great resource for anyone whose family member studied or worked at the school.
Following Godolphin, I then started working on a collection within a collection. Steve Hobbs has been cataloguing the extensive Merriman collection (a solicitors’ firm based in Marlborough) for some time and thought it might be nice for me to work on part of it – a succinct series of material relating to the Popham family of Littlecote. This was an estate collection like Lacock, although a lot smaller, but was another great chance for me to get my teeth into something new and uncatalogued, and find out some really interesting things about local families and local areas. I was able to use my experience from Godolphin to catalogue the Popham archive in the most effective way possible (hopefully), not helped of course by the occasional addition tossed to me by Steve as he was perusing other boxes of Merriman material (I was able to toss some to him too, luckily). I had volunteers who had been working on Lacock material working through estate letters which helped me to allocated letters to the various different estates: the Popham family owned Littlecote as well as properties in Churchdown in Gloucestershire, Hunstrete in Somerset and Puckaster on the Isle of Wight, among others.
My next mini project was to work on the collection of the Moulton family of Bradford on Avon, and I have just completed this. It’s been a fascinating collection because as well as lots of deeds of Bradford and other places in Wiltshire, information on the business started by Stephen Moulton in the mid 19th century in Bradford and family papers, there are also many papers relating to other families, particularly the Greene family of Stratford-on-Avon whose daughter Beryl married John Coney Moulton in 1914. Her brother Downes Greene spent many years in Sarawak and we have lots of letters from him to his parents about his life there, which give a wonderful indication of life abroad in the early 20th century. There are also letters from World War One soldier Charles Eric Moulton, who was killed in 1915.
Other projects I have been involved in are: being the acquisitioning archivist for the Creative Wiltshire project, which has allowed me to advise on and catalogue archives of creative people in Wiltshire: namely Roger Leigh, Ken White, Penelope Ellis and the Pelham Puppets business based in Marlborough. The most extensive collection from this was that of Roger Leigh, whose many photographs of his sculptures make up an interesting archive alongside his early diaries, condolence letters and cards to his widow after his death in 1997, and a dream diary that he kept as a young boy which is just a wonderful example of the extent and detail of somebody’s imagination. Becoming involved in Creative Wiltshire also gave me the opportunity to speak at the Creative Histories conference in July this year, in Bristol, about how the project has helped access to archive and museum collections. It has been wonderful to see first-hand how many more archive collections and objects by creative people have been made available for the public as a result of the project.
Away from the practical archives work, I have also been getting involved in writing articles for Local History News, involved with the South West Region of the Archives and Records Association and attending the Fundraising for Archives course run by the National Archives, which has given me lots of ideas on how to raise money for archive services. I have attended lots of courses and conferences, spoken at some and organised others, and I can really safely say that I wouldn’t have done any of this were it not for the encouragement given me by the managers and staff at the History Centre who have given me opportunities to develop my own career, improve the service here, and benefit the development of archives in general.
I had a room full of interested attendees for my first History Revealed day. For those of you who are familiar with our Interpretation courses at the History Centre, this is a variation on a theme. I would like to extend the scope of this type of event which to date has been reliant on the morning study session being within easy reach of the field visit in the afternoon, tying us to the Chippenham area. My grand plan is to use our wonderful public libraries as a base for the study session to allow us to explore further afield.
This was our first ‘test case’, although not much further afield I grant you! However, it did coincide with Calne Heritage week which was very fitting.
Calne Library proved a great venue for hosting the morning session where attendees enjoyed a presentation beginning with guidance on what to think about when tracing the origins of a village. I continued by explaining how to make the most of secondary sources, including material by local authors, academic works, the census, local directories and much more. Bremhill was used as a case study with examples and details highlighted to prove how much can be gleaned from these types of sources. They are a good place to start as the legwork has already been done for you!
I continued with a look at maps – the enclosure award was a big hit and rightly so, the field names in particular are fascinating to look at, especially when studied in conjunction with older and more recent written and map sources.
My colleague, Archivist Ally McConnell, then shared a number of archive sources for Bremhill with the group, explaining just how they can be utilised for local history research. These included plans, school records, sales particulars and more.
We concluded the morning session with a look at a number of online sources which can aid research into village history and attendees got hands-on with a number of books available at Calne Library which can help with local history research in general and at Bremhill.
I was interested to read a recent news story which described scientific work to extract DNA from parchment using a non-destructive technique, giving us remarkable and unexpected source of information about the animal the page was created from. It has also proved possible to extract DNA of people who have touched or kissed the manuscripts over the years (devotional prayer books for example).
Thinking about the physical fabric of the archives led me to consider our more common archive material; paper. We see paper as a prosaic item nowadays and take it for granted, but it used to be much more valuable and remained expensive until the advent of the steam-driven paper mill.
There is limited documented evidence about paper making before the 18th century and the knowledge and skills would primarily have been shared directly between family members and master and apprentice. We have records of apprenticeships in our parish collections including Edward Hayword from Bradford-on-Avon who was apprenticed to a Gabriel Sweet, Weston, Somerset in July 1745 and a Thomas Whale from Chippenham, apprenticed to a Charles Ward, papermaker at Doncombe, North Wraxall in November 1804.
The process of making paper was a complex one involving many stages and can be read about in more detail in various publications including The British Paper Industry 1495-1860 by D.C Coleman available in our local studies library (shelfmark 338.476). The cellulose fibres in plant tissues were macerated and mixed with water until the fibres separated and were lifted from the water using a sieve-like screen, leaving a sheet of matted fibres on the screen’s surface. This then required pressing, drying, sizing, and finishing before it could be used as paper.
We have several wills in our collection left by papermakers. These can give some indication of the kind of wealth and social standing of the profession.
In the 1792 will of John Lewis, paper maker of Yatton Keynell he bequeathed all his household goods and furniture to his wife, Mary Lewis. He also left an annuity of £8 to be paid to his sister, Elizabeth Parker, to be paid in equal quarterly instalments every year until her death. John Lewis makes it explicit that this money ‘is not liable to the debts or engagements of my said sisters husband or any other husband he may hereafter have and that her receipt alone…’ He also bequeathed to Thomas Vincent, a grocer of Calne (named as executor alongside his wife), all his real estate at Longdean and Yatton Keynell. It is pleasing given his profession that he sees fit to mention the paper that the will is written on:
“… to this my last will and testament contained in two sheets of paper set my hand and seal as follows (that is to say) my hand to the first sheet thereof and my hand and seal to the last sheet and my seal at the top where both sheets join”.
Another will belonging to Thomas Bacon, papermaker of Downton, dating to 1679 includes an inventory of his goods. These include materials and goods from the mill house including scales and weights, paper moulds and their respective values.
As my Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Skills for the Future: Transforming Archives’ traineeship draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on all the new, unique and exciting experiences I’ve encountered over the past 10 months, which have made this time so memorable. My personal focus has been on learning and acquiring valuable skills to carry forward into a future career – and in this sense the traineeship has more than served its purpose. The fact that I’ve been able to undertake the journey surrounded by such kind, interesting and supportive people has been a bonus!
I still clearly remember the day I started at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. Completely new to the world of archives and heritage, I was briefed by the previous trainee, Jess, who provided me with tables, spreadsheets, logs and lists that she had kindly prepared to help me manage my day to day activities. (Jess is very good at this sort of thing). Despite nodding calmly in response to her, my internal state was one of sheer anxiety – ‘There’s so much to cram in!’. In hindsight, the year has been nothing but smooth, engaging and fun… there was really nothing for me to have worried about.
If you’ve read my previous posts about coming to the traineeship and some of the interesting insights I’ve had along the way, you’ll get a sense of all I was up to in those early days. In truth, the time hasn’t become any less busy! From attending a training week at the National Archives of Scotland to visiting the City of London Police Museum, with pit-stops at various digitisation conferences, fundraising training days, and of course, the (world-famous) Museum and Heritage show at Kensington’s Olympia.
Closer to home, I’ve continued my training in traditional archive skills, looking at the typical content and uses of education records, parish registers, manorial documents, wills and testaments, local government records, and even lunatic asylum records. Whilst learning about the latter with archivist Margaret Moles, I decided to conduct a small project, researching a name which had come up in a separate oral history interview I’d conducted. My interviewee had shared the story of his great aunt, who had suffered mental health issues in the 1920’s and was hospitalized at Roundway Mental Hospital, Devizes. Using what I’d learned, I traced the patient’s actual medical records from the time – with permission - and read about her day to day experiences at the hospital. I was able to learn about the nature of her condition, what her doctors had to say, and even glean some information about her relatives at that time. From there I sourced a book in our local studies library called ‘Down Pan’s Lane’, written by Philip Frank Steele, a historian fascinated by Roundway Hospital. This enabled me to get a sense of what life was like for patients at the time – from their food and sleep routines to gardening activities, and even the programme of entertainment laid on by medical staff! It was absolutely fascinating, and proved a valuable resource for putting this one lady’s personal story into a wider historical context.
Working at the History Centre a little bit like being a Timelord… with access to the archives you can be transported through time and space.
The strong-rooms are our very own Tardis (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) since despite their relatively small footprint they contain around eight miles of archives.
Over the last two months I have been joined in my “travels” by GCSE and A-level students who have been on work experience at the History Centre.
The first port of call for the youngsters as they ventured into the strong-rooms was 12th century Messina in Sicily. One of the earliest documents in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is a letter (with Great Seal attached) from Richard I – Richard the Lionheart – confirming a gift of land to Stanley Abbey (WSA 473/34PC).
It is dated 3rd April 1191 and was sent by Richard from Sicily just days before he set sail with a fleet of ships to the Holy Land. (He had set out in 1190 to join the Third Crusade.) The letter came at a busy time for Richard who was not only on crusade but was about to be married to Berengaria of Navarre who had made her own epic journey across Europe with Richard’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to be with her future husband.
The students’ introduction to the archives continued with a jump to the Tudor period via a grant of arms, followed by a brief stop in restoration England and a splendid portrait of Charles II on an illuminated document.
With each new group of students I set myself and the students the challenge of searching our collections for documents relevant to their particular GCSE and A-level courses. The two world wars, the Cold War, and the Tudors are well travelled historical paths but what of 19th century China and Japan or American history?
At A-level, students at the end of Year 12 are making decisions about coursework so a placement at the History Centre was an ideal opportunity to begin their research. We had students who were looking at the American civil rights movement, antisemitism in England during the 19th and 20th centuries, the opium wars in 19th century China and western influence on 19th century Japan and the demise of the Samurai tradition.
In our pursuit of the American civil rights movement we took a detour into the history of the fledgling United States of America. The archive has a number of collections that, through letters and other documents, connect Wiltshire with the English colonies in the Americas, the war of independence and the American civil war and trade with the USA.
We were all rather excited to be handling two particular documents signed by James Madison and John Quincy Adams who served as the 4th and 6th presidents of the USA. Both documents (WSA 1498/4) were passports for Thomas Shorthouse who became an American citizen in 1797. The Shorthouse family lived at Little Clarendon, Dinton and the passports, letters from Philadelphia and citizenship document for Thomas Shorthouse are part of the family papers (WSA 1498/1-6).
The citizenship document was drawn up in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and instructs Thomas to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever and particularly the allegiance to the King of Great Britain to whom he was heretofore a subject.”
The passports show that Thomas maintained his connections with his family in Britain. The first was signed by James Madison, as Secretary of State, in Washington on 27th September, 1805. Madison, one of the founding fathers of the USA, became President in 1809 and later became known as the ‘father of the constitution’.
In 1815, Thomas Shorthouse received a second passport, this time signed by John Quincy Adams who was then the United States Envoy in London. Adams went on to be the 6th President in 1825.
We could have spent all our time in North America reading letters and documents about rebellion in the colonies, American Independence, the civil war and abolition of slavery, but other countries beckoned.
Our search for documents relating to the Opium Wars yielded instant and fascinating results in the Public and State papers of Sidney Herbert (1810-1861), Baron Herbert of Lea, who from 1841 to 1860 was successively Secretary to the Admiralty, Secretary of War and then Secretary of State for War.
His papers are part of Wilton House and Estate archive and are a fascinating insight into 19th century British political and military history. The journey into this immense collection was brief but rewarding as we discovered a wonderful document that summarised the issues surrounding the opium trade (“Neglect of Government to take steps as to opium trade”, WSA 2057/F8/I/G/1), and several letters and despatches describing the taking of the Peiho Forts – a joint British and French military action in China in the 1860s (WSA 20157/F8/V/B/192ee).
From China in the 19th century we ventured into the 20th century and a world at war.