We were recently contacted by a man whose father had served in the U.S. army during World War II and who he had recently discovered had fathered a baby in Wiltshire, whom he was considering tracing. In this instance, he had a letter which had likely been written by the mother of the baby to the family of his father in America thanking them for sending some baby clothes. This provided a date, a first name and an address. A good starting point! This enabled us to undertake some preliminary work to start off the search for the unknown sibling.
Under our paid research service we first searched electoral registers in order to find the name of the family living at that address in Swindon around the date of the letter. The name, as it later turned out was one that cropped up in one of the letters written by the U.S. serviceman – it seemed we were on the right track! Once we had established this, we were able to use records of registrations of births available on Ancestry to find some possible candidates for the birth of the baby. There were a couple of likely options, and it was also possible to find a couple of later marriages meaning that it might still be possible to try and trace the person today even though their surname may have changed through marriage. This obviously needs to be done with care – it is a sensitive situation and it is possible that the person would not want to be found or may not be aware of their history.
It becomes more of a challenge once we reach this point, but there are various options available. Some of the key sources that can be used are records of education and professional bodies, media publicity (writing a note for a local paper or magazine to find someone with local knowledge), specialist search services and nowadays a social media search can prove the most fruitful.
Have you got a question you would like us to try and solve for you? Or perhaps you would love to visit us and use the records we have available but are unable to do so for logistical reasons? If your enquiry requires more than ten minutes research, we offer a paid research service which can undertake prolonged searches for you, charged at £30 an hour.
We can, amongst other things: • Research aspects of family history • Investigate matters of local or community history • Search for documents relating to the history of a house or building • Find maps and plans relating to businesses • Take digital images of most records within our archives
From overnight on 30 Jan 2018 the probate collection of the Diocese of Sarum alias Salisbury, more popularly known as the Wiltshire Wills collection, is being published by Ancestry in partnership with Wiltshire and Swindon Archives. This collection of over 500,000 images of wills and related records from the whole of Wiltshire and Berkshire, part of Dorset and the parish of Uffculme in Devon, is being made available online in its entirety for the first time, thus completing the work of the HLF-funded Wiltshire Wills project which began in the early 2000s. There are around 118,000 wills plus related records mainly dating from the 1560s to 1858 although there are one or two earlier wills dating back to the 15th century within the archives. The related records are things like inventories of goods, administration bonds, and bonds for tuition or guardianship of children. The wills vary tremendously in length – some might only be one sheet; others can be up to thirty sheets long.
What’s a will?
A will is a way of regulating the rights of other people to your property after your death. Originally a will dealt with real estate (ie lands and buildings) and a testament dealt with personal property, eg clothing, furniture, money etc, but they have been combined into one document since the 16th century. Under an Act of Parliament of 1529 the purpose of a will was for the testator (person making the will) to pay debts, provide for their spouse, arrange for care of children and make charitable bequests for the good of their souls. They usually have a standard format and structure, starting with ‘In the name of God Amen’ and going on to commit the testator’s soul to God and their body to be buried in a named location; they go on to list the various bequests the testator wishes to make; any debts they owe; and then they name their executor(s) and sign or make their mark. Last of all there may be a probate clause in Latin, written by the court which proved the will, often just a few months after the date the will was written. It is important to remember that under the pre-1752 calendar a document dated Jan-Mar would be dated the previous year, so a will dated 17 Jan 1713 is actually 1714 under the modern calendar. If someone died without making a will the court could administer their estate under what are called ‘letters of administration’ instead.
The Value of Wills for Family History
In the 16th and 17th centuries wills were increasingly used to provide for each member of the family left behind, making them particularly useful for family history. A good will for demonstrating this is that of John Baker of Pitton in south Wiltshire, made in 1688, (P26/387), in which he bequeathes 20 shillings to his daughter Elizabeth Pilgrem, £4 each to his grandchildren John, Stephen, and Diana Seward, Anne Toomer, and William, John, Anne and Elizabeth Smart; 20 shillings to his son in law John Seward; and the residue of estate to his daughter Ann Seward, the wife of John Seward of Pitton – as you can see, three generations are mentioned in the same document, a real boon to family historians! Wills also usefully include the occupation of the deceased – in this case a yeoman farmer – and may be accompanied by an inventory of their goods which can be very useful in showing the possessions of the deceased and their relative wealth.
Not all families were harmonious, of course - a mother who clearly had serious misgivings about what would become of her sons after her death was Margery Williams of Baydon. She added this codicil to her will in 1797: “Whereas it is the Misfortune of my sons Benjamin and Joseph to be very indiscreet and imprudent and as they have expended their Fortunes and I am extremely apprehensive any Other Property would be in like Manner Wasted and Yet unwilling that they should be left intirely Destitute...” she wills that her son Francis Williams should pay them 2 shillings a week for life! (P5/1799/27)
People weren’t just concerned about their human relatives. Mary Goddard of Swindon included an unusual bequest for the care of her pets after her death: in 1788 she left £2 11s to her servant Grace Buckland “to take care and protection of my Cats and Dog, which I desire she will do with tenderness.” (P3/G/748)
Wills were also used to give instructions for the funeral: the 1681 will of Mary Beake, P5/1681/7 states: “I doe order that there be forty shillings layed out in Cakes and bread and that there be a Kilderkin of beer at my burial.” (A kilderkin was 16-18 gallons).
Sometimes wills tell us a lot about the personality of the testator and their sense of humour, something which you often won’t get from other records, for example this instruction in the will of Nicholas Daniell of Sutton Benger, 1726, for the inscription on his tombstone speaks volumes:
“From Gout and Pox and Plague and Women free From Law and Physick and Divinity And Knaves and Foole of every Degree From care, fear, pain and hard necessity am freed. In what a happy state am I.” (P3/D/314)
An unhappy lovelife is also obvious in the will of Henry Hunt of Enford, 1773 (P1/H/1231) whose wife “with great Clamour, Violence & Outrage, endeavoured to hinder his making any will, declaring positively that he should make none.” Henry replied “Then this must be your will, not mine” and added “Thus it was she made her first Husband’s will”, meaning no will at all. Nevertheless Henry did succeed in making his will – he had no time to make a formal document but the testimony of his friends and a scribbled note made at his sickbed by one of them proved sufficient for the court.
Who could not make a will prior to 1858?
There were four main categories of people who could not legally make a will. 1) Children (boys under 14 and girls under 12) 2) People of unsound mind or lacking senses (only in the latter case if it meant they could not understand the will) 3) Those lacking full freedom – ie slaves, prisoners and married women without their husband’s consent (the latter before 1882) 4) Traitors, heretics and apostates (eg atheists)
Normally a will had to have certain elements to be legally valid: the date, the testator’s mark or signature (witnessed), and the nomination of an executor, but if no will in this format existed then other forms of will might be accepted by the courts. For example, Henry White’s lovely informal handwritten will of 1835 found on the reverse of an old letter was accepted:
Mary Ann you are My Wife The Joy and comfort of my life What Provedense has given to me When I’m Dead I’ll leave for thee. (P4/1835/4)
Wills could be made on any material though normally they are on paper. Parchment wills are normally the probate copy made by the court, rather than the original.
Since making a will was possibly regarded as ‘tempting fate’ making a will was often left till the last moment when a testator was ill and facing death. If it was too late to make a written will a testator could give their wishes in the form of a verbal will, copied down – otherwise known as a nuncupative will. An interesting example of this is that of Nicholas Perry, senior, a carpenter of Salisbury St Edmund, who rode over to Combe Bissett where one of his sons lived, to tell him his will orally, because of ‘Contagion in Sarum’ in other words the well known outbreak of the Black Death in Salisbury in 1627. (P4/1627/4.)
Women and wills
Prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 a married woman could only make a will with her husband’s consent or if there was a pre-nuptial agreement which allowed her to do so. There were no restrictions on widows and spinsters making wills and therefore there are far more of these than wills of married women. These include the inventory of goods of Jane Forget, dated 1588 who had been a nun at Wilton Abbey – the will shows that even though the abbey had been dissolved for fifty years, Jane continued to live a devout life and gave away all her clothing to the poor in her will. (P5/1588/19) Women usually appear in their husband’s will as the executor of his estate, at least until the 18th century.
During the Middle Ages the church gradually gained the right to prove or validate wills and grant administrations of the estates of the dead in all but a few places in England and Wales. The church took responsibility for validating wills and making sure the wishes of the deceased were adhered to through its courts. The church continued to hold authority until 1858, except for the Commonwealth period when the church courts were temporarily closed down in the 1640s and 50s – the wills for this period are with the Prerogative Court of Canterbury ie at the National Archives in Kew. When someone died their will had to be taken to the appropriate court – this could be quite complicated to determine. In some years a larger court might take responsibility for a smaller one and have the right to prove their wills. Within the Diocese of Salisbury there were 28 probate courts, including the bishop’s, the two archdeacon’s, and many peculiars. If goods or land to the value of £5 were held in areas covered by the jurisdiction of more than one court, the will would be proved in the higher court. Thus if it fell into two archdeaconries it would be proved at the bishop’s court; if it was in more than one diocese it would be proved at the appropriate archbishop’s court eg Prerogative Court of Canterbury or York. Therefore wills of rich or famous people are unlikely to be found in the Diocesan collection – the PCC was also seen to confer a certain prestige so people like Jane Austen, who didn’t own a lot of property but were of a gentry background, had their will proved there.
Once in court, the executor and witnesses swore that the will was definitely the testator’s last one, and the judge, if satisfied, would grant probate. Probate had to begin within four months of the death, and often would be much sooner. If the executor refused, or if the person died without making a will, the court would appoint administrators to sort out the estate. The court kept the original will and it is the originals which form the Wiltshire Wills collection. A second copy would also be entered into the court’s register, which is why you may find two wills for the same person – they should be identical except they will lack the original mark or signature of the testator.
The executor had to arrange the funeral of the deceased, and pay for those costs, and then make an inventory of the goods. The goods were valued at their ‘second-hand’ price and gave the executor an idea of the size of the estate available to administer – debts had to be paid before any legacies could be paid. For example William Trahare of Sherborne in Dorset, a retired soldier who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars, left his pension in 1802 to William Spooner, inn-keeper, “to discharge myself of my just debt due to him.” (P5/19Reg/4)
From 1858 the proving of wills became a civil, rather than ecclesiastical, responsibility and post-1858 wills have not been included in the Wiltshire Wills project although wills of Wiltshire people dated 1858-1928 are available from Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre – see www.wshc.eu. English and Welsh wills after 1858 can also be found online at: https://www.gov.uk/search-will-probate
We are pleased to be running another six-week course this year, this time on 'Sources for Local History'.
The course is designed to help you discover the wealth of archives and published resources available for researching local history led by our team of professional archivists and the County Local Studies Librarian.
The sessions will take place on Tuesday mornings from Tuesday 1 May to 5 June 9.30am-1pm.
The cost is £40 for 6 sessions. Places are limited to 20 so book your place now on 01249 705500!
An early Christmas present! We are delighted to announce that over 400,000 additional Wiltshire records have been added today to the Ancestry website.
These records comprise bishops’ transcripts (prior to 1812) which contain the same information as parish registers and can help to fill in gaps in the original registers, as well as, for the first time, the parish registers of Ludgershall and Sherston Magna.
We hope that you enjoy using these records free of charge at your local Wiltshire library or at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre – or via a subscription to Ancestry of course!
Where possible it is best to transfer your photographs from damaged or acidic albums to archival paper binders or ready-made archival albums.
Things to avoid: • Gluing or taping photographs into an album as the adhesive can be damaging to the photograph instead use archival quality photo corners
• Self- adhesive albums and poor quality paper albums can cause deterioration of the photographs inside due to acids in the paper and chemicals in the adhesives instead mount photographs on acid free paper in an archival or a ready-made archival photographic album
• plastic pockets can be unsuitable for photographs as the plastic degrades releasing damaging chemicals Instead try acid free photo safe paper envelopes or archival polyester pockets (polyester pockets are only suitable for photographs without any surface damage as static created by the polyester can lift loose or damaged areas)
• Touching the surface of a photograph as oils from our fingers can damage the delicate photographic surface instead handle by the edges
Wiltshire Conservation and Museum Advisory Service is based at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. We preserve the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives and provide support to help museums, heritage organisations and individuals care for and conserve historic collections and meet professional standards. http://www.wshc.eu/conservation-home.html
Please contact us for further information or come to one of our conservation roadshows to find out how to look after your precious family keepsakes, photographs and treasures. Get advice on the best materials and techniques to care for your items at home and when to seek help from an expert.
If you have items in need of a little TLC see if our conservators can give you hints and tips for cleaning without damage or a quote to get them repaired.
Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, Chippenham - October 12th, 2-4pm – booking required on 01249 705500 Salisbury Library – November 9th , 2-4pm – drop in County Hall, Trowbridge - December 14th, 2-4 pm – drop in