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:
One of the best things about my job is visiting different museums around the county, seeing behind the scenes and finding out about all the exciting things that are happening. Last week I was lucky enough to go to two museums and get a peek at things not normally seen by visitors.
First up was a visit to the Fox Talbot Museum https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lacock-abbey-fox-talbot-museum-and-village/features/learn-about-the-history-of-photography in Lacock, with the Wiltshire Museum Group. The Museum tells the story of the history of photography, from the very first photographic chemical processes to the modern smartphone. It also celebrates the life and work of William Henry Fox Talbot who lived in Lacock Abbey. A Victorian pioneer of photography, Fox Talbot created the earliest surviving photographic negative, taken in 1835, of a window of the Abbey. Upstairs there’s a gallery with a changing temporary exhibition programme, which explores photography as an art form.
Curator Roger Watson, told the group about a current project to acquire and manage the Fenton Collection. Thousands of photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries were collected by James Fenton, along with a wide range of photographic technologies – including cameras, exposure meters and stereoscopic viewers. He displayed them in his own Museum of Photography on the Isle of Man, before donating them to the Museum of the Moving Image in 1986. All the items had been in storage since the museum closed in 1999 and last year the British Film Institute had donated them to the National Trust’s Fox Talbot Museum.
Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund www.hlf.org.uk and the Prism Fund www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/prism the project has brought the collection to Lacock, where it is being catalogued and cared for, including being re-housed in a newly created store.
The new store is built inside one of the traditional buildings in Lacock – from the outside you wouldn’t be able to tell what’s kept within. A room has been built inside the barn to house the objects. This is insulated to help keep the environment stable and the conditions the best possible to ensure the preservation of all the treasures kept within.
Some of the later buildings we investigated in Kingston Deverill may well have replaced the earlier timber-framed houses that were on the same site. Stone started to be used for vernacular, that is traditional, building from around 1550, possibly because decent timber that was usually preferred was getting scarce, and the local greensand rubble was plentiful. Humphrey’s Orchard seems to have started as a rubblestone farmhouse dating from the late 16th or early 17th century. The slightly peculiar name comes from a former owner. It had a heated hall, or living room/kitchen at the west end, and an unheated parlour for storage to the east. In C1700 the house was further extended to the west, doubling its size and providing further service rooms. When the rear range was added the whole house was ‘gentrified’ – a term meaning that the humble farmhouse was updated with some smart new architectural features inside.
With the help of our Sheldon 6th Form volunteer Laura Bailey and our work experience students we have been making great inroads into our vast collection of uncatalogued postcards from the early 20th century. The aim is to give each an entry on our electronic catalogue alongside a digital image to enable easy access for the public via the online site Wiltshire Treasures (see link at end of this article). At present we have over 4,000 postcards catalogued. I thought it would be interesting to discover a little more about the history of postcards in this country and just why they became so popular during this period.
This week I’ve been changing my census lecture into a census workshop for a family history course we’re running at the History Centre. It’s reminded me how really useful the census is to local, social and economic historians, as well as to people looking for their ancestors. However if used properly you can also find information about the living conditions of past generations of your family. You really need to look at a complete parish – easy for a village but for a town you may only be able to look at two or three enumeration districts. Perhaps easier to do using the census on microfiche than on line.
Since Victorian times, schools across Wiltshire have kept a weekly or daily account in rather fancy log books. During our week working at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, we had the privilege of looking through a selection of the log books kept in the archives, some more battered than others.
Once we were able to read the copperplate handwriting used in these books, we were able to unlock the secrets of historical schools within these books. Focusing mainly on 1914-1918 (looking for any mention of The Great War) we read about children and teachers almost one hundred years ago.
Of course, there were some immediate differences that we noticed: fires in the classrooms, measuring and weighing at schools and excluding of pupils when there were epidemics of illnesses. However we also noticed some other things that have changed over time: we are no longer sent home for being dirty, nor are we caned but unfortunately, we no longer get granted holidays for blackberry picking, going sliding in icy weather or afternoons off for tea parties.