Devon wills in the Society of Genealogists’ family history library

Anyone researching their family history in Devon will regret the loss of much of the county’s probate material in the 2nd world war. However the Society of Genealogist’s family history library in London holds indexes and transcripts of a number of Devon wills that were made before the loss, and some of these have now been made available on the Members’ Area of the Society’s website.

The Fothergill collection is a typical example. It was compiled in the early 1900s by Gerald Fothergill (1870-1926), an eminent genealogist and historian who lived in London. It is not clear why he compiled abstracts of sundry Devon wills, but he evidently went to Exeter and Taunton to study and abstract them, since almost all were proved and kept in one or other of those places. The abstracts can be found in the Middle library and an online index can be searched here.

Another book at the Society lists wills and administrations proved or granted at the Peculiar Court of the Dean of Exeter, from the 1630s to 1857.  All the original probate copies of wills proved in this court were destroyed in 1942.  This list therefore presents (with a few exceptions) the only surviving evidence that well over a thousand Devon individuals did in fact leave wills or had their estates administered.

The jurisdiction of the Dean’s Court covered the parish of Braunton (north-west of Barnstaple) and the Cathedral Close.  The latter area seems not to have been an actual parish, but merely the area immediately around the cathedral in Exeter.  Many of those who lived in the Cathedral Close worked in or for the cathedral in some way. The index can be searched here.

A third work lists wills and administrations proved or granted at the Peculiar Court of the Vicars Choral of Exeter, from the 1630s to 1857.  How and why the singing men in the choir at Exeter Cathedral came to have their own court is not known. Woodbury, the only parish which came under their jurisdiction, is a large one, not far south-east of Exeter.  An average of about four wills/administrations per year were dealt with, though this varied depending upon the time period. The index can be searched here.

The Devon Wills Project is seeking to gather details of as many Devon wills as possible and the Society is grateful for their help in compiling these indexes..

Tim Lawrence

Head of Library Services

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