I use wills all the time for my family history research, and for local history research too. They might come from county archives, or from the National Archives’ Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills, they might come from the National Library of Scotland. And sometimes, they might be from the centrally-managed collection of wills for England and Wales, which have been accumulating steadily since 1858 to the present day.
The government’s plan, in order to save money, is to digitise all of the wills and ditch the originals, apart from wills of famous people, and with a rolling wall to avoid binning anything that’s too recent and could cause upset (“sentimental reasons”), as they put it, or because the original needs to be referred to in case of a dispute. It’s a bit confusing because recent wills are originals – you get a scan of a document that’s been typed or printed, but older wills are clearly from a register of wills and I assume the originals of those are long gone. It’s unclear whether they mean to bin the registers of historical wills too.
There are several problems with the proposal.
I’m including historians and family historians under this heading, because neither group has been considered in the proposal. Wills are used all the time by people researching historical figures, who may or may not be famous (see below), and of course by family historians, who are, in the main, not researching anyone famous at all. It actually shocked me that the government failed to mention how important wills are as historical documents. You can glean information on family and business relationships, you can look at wills from the point of view of class and gender or geographical area or occupation – what did people from particular groups leave behind them? Who was important to be remembered in a will? What about charitable giving? There is so much in these wills that can tell us about the people of England and Wales in the past, and yet this angle has been completely ignored (wilfully or accidentally, I don’t know) from the consultation, and that’s very worrying because it suggests that a large group of stakeholders having been considered.
We don’t know, in 2024, which historical figures will be “famous” in 2100. Someone famous now might not be considered famous in the future, whereas someone currently obscure could become famous decades after their death. And how do you define “famous”, anyway? Politicians, film stars, pop stars? People who’ve won the Booker or an OBE? It’s very woolly and indistinct.
Scanning for preservation
Relying entirely on digital versions of originals is a terrible idea. Look at what happened when the British Library was hacked last year – imagine hackers got inside a server full of the digital images of all these wills and held them hostage for millions of pounds, or even worse, recklessly deleted them because they could.
And that’s if the images are good quality and exist in the first place – I’ve requested scans of wills and had the wrong thing sent to me. It’s possible for the people scanning them to miss pages, cover something with their finger (if Google Books is anything to go by) etc etc etc. But once the issue has been raised, they can go back and scan the right pages. Without the originals, they won’t be able to.
I’ve been making use of the GRO’s £2.50 birth and death certificate scans. It’s great to get the certificates on demand, and for a cheaper price than the cost of a PDF or paper certificate, but some of the scans have been wrong, or the image is wonky because the page was, and information has been missed. They’ve given me a refund and told me to order the more expensive PDF version instead, which requires a human to go back to the registers and scan the right entry. No one is talking about binning the GRO’s original certificates because they’ve been digitised, so why are wills any different?
The controversial disposal of the Windrush Generation’s immigration records has caused dreadful problems for people trying to prove that this country is their home, and has been for decades. Those records weren’t even digitally “preserved” first – they were just binned. Surely the government could have learned from that mistake, and yet it doesn’t appear that they have.
Perhaps we could sort out taxation and make sure that our history and heritage is adequately funded, rather than binned. I find it sad that the Conservative party play on ideas of history and heritage to win votes, but when it comes down to it, proposals like these (and funding cuts to museums, archives, etc) show that when it comes to it, they’re not particularly interested in history and heritage when it requires them to put their hands in their pockets.
Currently, it costs only £1.50 to request a will, which is very cheap. Obviously, I’d be happy to go on paying £1.50 per will, but if lack of money means that the originals will be binned, then why not increase the price per will to help cover costs? I seem to remember that before wills could be ordered online, and came through the post as photocopies, they cost about £5 each. I don’t know how many requests are made per year to view wills, but why not put up the price to £3 or £3.50? That’s still a small sum, so won’t put off the people who want to access them, and thousands of requests would recoup thousands of pounds.
Destroying original wills and relying solely on digital images of them is a dangerous risk to the historical record of England and Wales, and it must be stopped.