Wills – how they’re indexed and where to find them

Snippet from the 1585 will of Margaret Starlinge of Dedham

Snippet from the 1585 will of Margaret Starlinge of Dedham. Image reproduced by courtesy of the Essex Record Office.

What? All that in one blog post? Erm… no… however, there’s been a couple of jumps forward with regards to the availability of wills and will indices recently, especially for Essex but for Suffolk in a way too, so that’s my topic for today. And because I’m a librarian who spends a lot of time trying to extract information from databases and catalogues, I want to share some of my search skills with you.

Wills are extremely useful for genealogists – not only do you get a picture of how wealthy (or not) your family were, but they’re usually full of relatives and friends. I’ve found them particularly useful when delving back beyond civil registration, especially once you get back to ancestors who never made it onto a census. They add flesh to the bones of the names you find in parish registers, and whenever I realise a relative left a will, I get quite excited….

I was especially excited recently to find out that Essex Record Office have digitised all of their surviving wills, up to 1720. This is a brilliant resource, so a big round of applause to them – in terms of accessibility it’s great because you can login with your Essex Ancestors subscription and read the will at once (without having to send off for a copy), and in terms of preservation, it means the will won’t have to be constantly manhandled for people to consult or copy. They’re in the process of digitising the rest of their wills, up to 1858, which is very good news for those of us with Essex roots.

Searching on Seax

The way Seax (ERO’s online catalogue) works means that you can search by keyword – so when looking for a will, the obvious approach is to search by name. There’s various ways to play around with this to get good results – you can be very specific, eg. first name and second name together in quotes with the word will and a placename, and occupation, so for instance:

“Thomas Newcomb” will Tendring blacksmith

Or just a surname and the word “will”:

Newcomb will

Or a placename and the word “will”:

Tendring will

This works fairly well if you’re looking for an unusual surname, or if the surname isn’t also a profession. Unfortunately, a lot of surnames are derived from occupations: try searching wills for people with the surname “Cooper” on Seax and you’ll see what I mean. And of course someone might have a surname which is also a placename: “Hempstead”, for instance. You can narrow your search down by years (from 1600 to 1650, for example), which might help to make it more focussed and return a less bewildering quantity of results.

Seax doesn’t seem to accept wildcards, although it will sometimes do basic soundex searching – eg. a search for:

will Starling Dedham

fortuitously returned the 1585 will of Margaret Starlinge of Dedham. It’s a very detailed will, wherein she leaves, amongst many other things, a gold ring with a death’s head on it, to her stepson.

But with Thomas Newcomb, things can get difficult – his surname has been rendered in all sorts of strange and unusual ways, such as Newcombe, Nucomb, Nucomer….. The Cardinalls are similarly challenging – with one or two l’s, perhaps “Cardynall”, “Cardinell” etc.

If you’re at ERO, you can consult their will indices in alphabetical books, published by the British Record Society. This will give suggestions for other surnames to check – “see also”, which is very helpful (for instance, I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to look for “Claxton” when searching for “Clarkson”). They’re online too – they’ve been available for a while at Origins.net, but since Find My Past bought Origins, you can now access them via Find My Past, as a new record set called “England & Wales Published Wills & Probate Indexes, 1300-1858”.

England & Wales Published Wills & Probate Indexes, 1300-1858

As they’re scanned books, they’re a little bit tricky to access (or at least, so I found). There are two ways that I’ve found to get to them:

  1. Go to “Search records” and then at the end of the list, select “A-Z of Record Sets”. Start to type in “England & Wales” (use the ampersand, rather than ‘and’) and it will come up in a list.
  2. Go to “Search records”, “Birth, marriage, death and parish records”, then in the box for “Record set”, start to type “England” and it should hastily appear.

I think the best way to get the most out of this resource is to try it the first way (and you can just jump straight to it). This will give you a box labelled “Publication title”, which is all important! (This box doesn’t appear if you use the second method). The indices are scans of the original British Record Society books, hence “publication title”, and are organised by county and years. There are three for Essex and three for Suffolk, with varying coverage. You need to consider that while the Essex wills are all housed in one archive in Chelmsford, Suffolk’s are housed between Ipswich and Bury St. Edmunds (see John Hoddy’s useful map which shows where the divisional boundary lay in Suffolk – this will dictate which archive your will shall be found in).

  • Essex, Chelmsford wills index, 1400-1619
  • Essex, Chelmsford wills index, 1620-1720
  • Essex, Chelmsford wills index, 1721-1858
  • Suffolk Archdeaconry Court, Ipswich Probate Index, 1444-1700
  • Suffolk, Court of the Archdeacon of Sudbury Probate Index, 1354-1700
  • Suffolk, Court of the Archdeacon of Sudbury Probate Index, 1800-1858

Once you’ve got the title you want (and of course, this isn’t just limited to Essex and Suffolk – this record set covers most of England and Wales), enter the surname you’re searching for. If you don’t get any results to start with, think of a common surname which is close in the alphabet to the one you’re looking for and try again. If it brings up a page result, then you can treat it as you would a ‘real’ book and turn the pages until you get to the place you want. I think a browse function on this record set would be very handy! Bear in mind the will might be a PCC will – you can select this too just as you can for the Essex and Suffolk ones.

Essex

If you’re looking for Essex, then, you’re home and dry, because the indices cover all of the wills held at ERO. My advice is, if you can’t find a will on Seax, check the indices at FMP or Origins.

There are two reasons for this: first of all, without a wildcard search being possible on Seax, surname variants will be easier to pin down by using the index.

Secondly, Seax only shows surviving wills. Those are, the originals that were written by or dictated from  your ancestor, which they then signed or marked. But at Chelmsford, there are big metal drawer units full of microfiche, of the registered copies. So, if the original of your ancestor’s will didn’t survive, the reference for the registered copy will be easy to find in the England & Wales Published Will Index. You won’t be able to view it online using your Essex Ancestors subscription, but you’ll be able to send off to ERO for a print-out from the fiche. Bear in mind though that the condition of fiche can be a bit variable, but it is still considered archive standard.

If we return to Thomas Newcomb – there is an entry for him in the 1721-1858 index as being a blacksmith in Tendring, with a will proved in 1762. Then there’s a reference: 217 BR 25. You need to fiddle with it:

  • Add D/ at the front
  • Add a letter A after the slash, then the two letters from the middle of the reference (in this case, giving you D/ABR)
  • Add the last numbers (in this case, yielding D/ABR 25)

This gives you the microfiche reference. You look for 217 on the microfiche, and then you’ll find the registered copy of the will. For some reason, the index doesn’t refer you to the original of Thomas’ will, which is D/ABW 100/3/128.1)It could have been at a different archive when the book was published, or perhaps that particular volume only gives you the registered copy reference, rather than that of the original. If you enter D/ABR 25 into the “Document Reference” search box on the top right hand of the screen on Seax, you’ll be taken to the catalogue entry for the register of wills from 1760-1767. Adding the whole reference (D/ABR 25/217) doesn’t bring up anything because not all of the registered copies are individually catalogued to that level.2)I have a feeling, based on my last visit to ERO, that any will starting with D/ABR is a registered copy, rather than an original – so anything in the will index with BR will be the copy on fiche. However, it’s probably best to check first, just in case.

So it’s best to start by entering the short version first, but if the search results are suddenly page after page of individual wills, rather than the “register of wills” microfiche result, then enter the full reference in the top right hand box and you’ll be taken (hopefully) straight to the original will itself (or just use the name and place name from the index in the main search box). This is what happens if you use the reference for Margaret Starlinge’s 1585 will: 316 BW 34  turns into D/ABW 34/316, and now, that all the wills up to 1720 have been digitised, you can find out just who she decided to leave her second-best copper pot to.

Saying all that, if you do find a will in the index and then you can’t work out if ERO have the original or if you’ll need the registered copy, it’s best to get in touch with the archive because they’ll be able to let you know for sure.

Suffolk

Oh dear, as you can see from the coverage, there are gaps! This is particularly a shame because Suffolk Record Office doesn’t have an online will index, unlike ERO. However, what we have, courtesy of the British Record Society, is certainly better than nothing. There are usually two references given for each will – one is the original and the other is the registered copy. Just let the relevant archive know what you want (original is the best, unless it’s deteriorated). When you order the will, make sure you apply to the right archive (Ipswich or, for the Archdeaconry of Sudbury, Bury St. Edmunds).

If you’re looking for a will in a year not covered by the England & Wales Published Will Index, then drop the relevant archive a line to find out if there’s any available (name, place and approximate year is useful, although I have been known to email them, asking “I don’t suppose you’ve got any wills in Suffolk for anyone called Pritchett?”). According to a fellow researcher, the will indices in Suffolk archives are in a card index, which the staff will consult in order to satisfy your query. You can then send off an order form for a digital image or a photocopy. If a will is particularly huge (larger than A3), you will have to order a digital image by default.

Since the England & Wales Published Will Index has “gone live”, along with Essex’s early digitised wills, my research into some corners of my tree has come along rather speedily. Another useful index at Find My Past is the Index to Death Duty Registers 1796-1903 – but that’s for another time! It’s really helpful sometimes to see what other resources are around which can help you to pin down the documents you’re after – while online catalogues are very handy, sometimes a slightly analogue approach (i.e. using a book – even if its digitised!) can be useful.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It could have been at a different archive when the book was published, or perhaps that particular volume only gives you the registered copy reference, rather than that of the original.
2. I have a feeling, based on my last visit to ERO, that any will starting with D/ABR is a registered copy, rather than an original – so anything in the will index with BR will be the copy on fiche. However, it’s probably best to check first, just in case.