Genealogists will be delighted that Ancestry.co.uk has just launched the England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations),1861-1941 - an index to more than six million wills proven across the 19th and 20th centuries .
A free information leaflet for using wills as part of your family history can be found on the Society of Genealogists website
‘Probate’ refers to the court’s authority to administer a deceased estate, including granting representation to a person or persons to administer that estate.
In 1857, the Court of Probate Act saw the power to administer estates transfer from the church to the state and it is the probate calendar books, in which grants are summarised and collated annually by the state, that are now on Ancestry.co.uk. Note there are some gaps in the coverage of the calendars found on Ancestry’s site but they hope to add the missing volumes when they get the chance. Currenty the following are not covered :
“the books for the years 1858-1860 and there are some gaps for the years 1863, 1868, 1873, 1876, 1877, 1883, 1888, 1899-1903 and 1910-1911″
In addition to the material value of the estate, probate calendar books provide a rich source of information for family history enthusiasts as each entry may also include the name of the deceased, the date and place of death, the name of the executer and, in some cases, bequest recipients. The calendars lokk like this
Included in the index are numerous famous names such as once-rich polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who died in 1922 leaving an estate of just £556 (£20,000 today), having lost his fortune in failed money-making schemes while allegedly trying to recapture the adventure of his youth.
Fittingly, the anti-capitalist Karl Marx died in 1883 almost as poor as Shackleton, leaving just £250 (£23,000 today) to his youngest daughter Eleanor.
In contrast, Thomas Holloway, a man who made his fortune selling medicines and ointments, left one of the largest estates in the index, worth £600,000 in 1883 – the equivalent of £55 million today.
Anyone able to locate an ancestor in the England and Wales National Probate Calendar, 1861-1941 will be able to delve further into that person’s life, learning more about their social standing and worldly possessions.
As more than two million living Britons claim to know of a wealthy ancestor or a lost fortune in the family, for the first time many of us will now be able to go online and trace our own family’s missing millions.
Individual entries may also reveal details about the fate of the deceased. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that of Edward John Smith, captain of the ill-fated Titanic, reveals that he was ‘lost at sea’, as do the listings of first-class passengers Benjamin Guggenheim and John Astor, and ship’s builder Thomas Andrews.
Other notable names include:
- Charles Darwin – the acclaimed naturalist Charles Robert Darwin is listed as having left a personal estate worth £146,911 (around £13 million today) when he died in 1882
- John Cadbury – the ‘King of Chocolate’ John Cadbury died with a personal estate of £43,773 (around £4.2 million today) when he died in 1889
- Charles Dickens – the famous Victorian author Charles John Huffham Dickens died leaving ‘effects under £80,000’ (around £7.1 million today) when he died in 1870
Also included are legendary cricketer W G Grace (in 1915 with £7,278 – £620,000 today), former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (in 1940 with £84,013 – £3.5 million today), scientist Michael Faraday (in 1867 with £6,000 – £500,000 today), and authors Lewis Carroll (in 1898 with £4,145 – £450,000 today) and Arthur Conan Doyle (in 1931 with £63,491 – £3,000,000 today).
Those using the England and Wales National Probate Calendar, 1861-1941 can obtain a full copy of the wills listed from the Probate Registry, (address on the SoG information leaflet on Wills) which will help them to uncover further information such as details of the deceased’s family and additional detail about the estate.