Wiltshire Wills Project

The aim of this project, following a successful application to the National Heritage Lottery Fund, was the conservation and improved packaging of Wiltshire and Swindon Archives’ collection of some 100,000 wills and their accompanying probate papers prior to digitisation. 

The quality of the original packaging was totally inadequate.  The wills, mainly folio sheets, had been folded and tightly packed into unsuitable 19th century, lined wooden boxes with an average of 200 wills per box. As well as being archivally unsound, the boxes were also breaking up, making them dangerous to handle. 

An old cardboard box sitting on a table packed tightly with papers     A collection of wills in their original packing

Conservators conducted a survey to roughly ascertain how many documents would require conservation and to determine the most suitable storage format, taking into consideration that after digitisation only limited access to the original material would be required. It was estimated that between three and four thousand individual papers would require full conservation treatment prior to filming.   Those with only minor damage, that could still be safely handled, were not considered for treatment. 

Project funding did not include extra conservation staff, but did allow for the purchase of a leaf-casting machine, which works on the principle of a paper pulp mixture being drawn through the holes in a damaged document.  The pulp fills in the missing areas and as it dries new paper forms creating a uniform and stable repair. The acquisition of this equipment will benefit the Conservation Service’s capability beyond the wills project, enabling us to exploit the process, where suitable, for the repair of other collections within Wiltshire Archives. 

Two pieces of paper with writing on them on a blue background. The paper on the right hand side is yellowed and torn with areas missing.     A will before and after treatment

For the re-packaging and storage of the wills, individual enclosures were the desired format.  However, the cost and increased shelf space required rendered this option prohibitive.  It was therefore decided that the wills would be opened out to their original folio format, then, fifty at a time, put into 650 micron acid-free boxboard enclosures.  These folders were then placed in groups of eight into substantial archive boxes. With help from several volunteers, the re-packaging has been completed, while conservation work and digitisation continue.

A cardboard box sitting on a table with rows of blue boxes inside it        Wills re-packed after treatment

For more information about the Wiltshire Wills Project click here.