The Essex Wills Beneficiaries Index – what it is and how to use it

I first heard about the Essex Wills Beneficiaries Index (EWBI) in a newsletter from the Essex Society for Family History. It’s a remarkable index compiled over 15 years by Thora Broughton, who went to the Essex Record Office and combed through all the wills held there from 1675-1858, noting the beneficiaries – people named in the wills. Thanks to Thora’s efforts, you can look someone up by name and if they’re mentioned in a will held at the Essex Record Office, they will pop up in the index. They could be a daughter, a grandchild, an executor, someone who happens to live in a house owned by the testator – there’s all sorts of people who’ll come up. It’s been a really useful tool for knocking down brick walls in my family tree, so here’s some tips and information based on my own use of it.

If you’re in the Essex Society for Family History, you can ask for a look-up, but a few years ago, the EWBI was added to Findmypast (FMP). All the pages of the index have been scanned, and it’s indexed, so that when you type in a name, it should come up. You can look by the beneficiary’s name, or by the testator’s name. When you click to see the image, you’ll be shown the original typed page of the index – not the will.

Most, if not all, the beneficiaries have different surnames from the testator (the person who made a will). So if John Freer makes a will and names his son William Freer in it, William won’t appear in the index. But if John’s married daughter Dorothy Alston is in his will, then searching for Dorothy Alston will lead you to John’s will – the point being that the index helps you find people with different surnames to the testator and thus helps you find extended family, married names etc.

As to the testator’s details, which you’ll need in order to track down the will – you’re given the date the will was written, the testator’s surname and initial, and the archive reference.

The year in the index is the date the will was written, not the probate date. But the dates for ERO’s wills are the probate date. So it can sometimes be a bit tricky trying to match up the reference from the index with ERO’s catalogue (Essex Archives Online – EAO). That said, probate will have taken place either the same year the will was written, or a few years later. When I’m trying to find a will from the EWBI, I use the date range boxes on EAO, starting with the date from the EWBI and going twenty years afterwards.

Initially, the only wills on EAO were original wills. So if the original was lost, you wouldn’t find it on EAO and would need to use the printed indexes (see below). However, I’ve noticed recently that registered copies are now on EAO. I don’t know if this is all of them or not, but it does mean that whether the original or only the registered copy survives, you should be able to find the will on EAO.

If the beneficiary’s abode is written in brackets, I’ve found from my own use that it tends to be the testator’s abode and that the beneficiary’s abode isn’t given in the will. So if you search for someone as a beneficiary and their abode comes up in brackets, but it’s not where you know, or think, they lived, don’t discount them. It’s worth checking the will (and other sources) anyway.

Note that the EWBI only includes wills held at ERO. It doesn’t include Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills, or wills held at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). You can find LMA wills in Ancestry’s LMA collection. There’s a similar, but smaller, index for Suffolk on FMP called the Suffolk Beneficiary Index 1847-1857, which was compiled by the Suffolk Family History Society. The Eureka Partnership have a beneficiaries index in a booklet for people mentioned in wills from the Peculiar Court of Bierton in Buckinghamshire.

Published wills and probate indexes

If you’re using the EWBI on Findmypast, then it’s worth using another collection on there: England & Wales Published Wills & Probate Indexes, 1300-1858. You can find it if you go to search and “all record sets”, then start to type in the collection’s name.

There are three printed books for ERO’s wills, covering the periods 1400-1619, 1620-1720 and 1721-1858. If you visit ERO, you can look at this books in person, but you can search them via FMP. There are similar books for other counties too although Suffolk’s cover a smaller time range – you’ll find all of ERO’s in the books. There’s also printed indexes to PCC wills, and wills held at York – try it with an area you’re interested in and find out!

While EAO should have all the wills on it for you to search, I find it helpful to use the printed books because they bring together different spellings under similar headings (eg Freer, Fryar, Frier, etc). It can give you a good idea of what to look for on EAO.

I hope this will help you to make the most of your FMP subscription, vanish down rabbit holes as you trace extended family and come to love reading old wills and discovering the sometimes bizarre bequests in them (unicorn’s horn, anyone?) just like I do!