Since 1858, all wills in England and Wales have been administered through the civil courts; prior to this, the proving of wills came under the jurisdiction of the Church. This article is concerned with wills proved after 1858.
The Court will issue a Grant of representation which enables the person(s) named to deal with the assets and belongings (the Estate) of the deceased. There are three types:
Probate: granted to the executors named in the Will;
Letter of Administration [with Will]: granted to someone other than an executor when the deceased left a valid Will;
Letters of Administration: granted when the deceased did not leave a Will. In such cases, as there is no Will the only details provided are details of who was granted administration.
The Grant is usually a single page giving the details of the deceased and the executors or administrator – this is an example for John Daglish of Bell’s Close, Newburn who died in 1862:
The will itself can often give interesting insights into the family – the following is a short extract from the will of John George Daglish of Gateshead, who died in 1913; in it he sets out his personal possessions to be shared between his sister Mary Ann and his brother Robert:
It is possible to buy a copy of any will for a fee of £5.00. To do this you need the name of the deceased person, the name of the court and the date on which probate was granted.
To find these details a search of the National Probate Calendar is usually necessary. This is an index of Wills and Admons proved in each year. Prior to 1973, these are in book form; after this they are on microfiche and more recently held on computer. A project is underway to digitise these records to improve access to the indexes, and eventually to make it possible to order online.
For now, the only complete set of indexes from 1858 to date is held in the public searchroom at First Avenue House in Holborn, London. I spent some time there last year extracting the details for Daglish, and these are now included in the Daglish Archive for the period 1858 to 1998.
Local District Probate Registries usually have indexes covering the last 50 years.
The amount of detail shown in the index has changed over the years, but every entry shows the full name and address of the deceased, the date of death, the type of grant, the date of grant and the Registry at which it was issued, the gross value of the Estate.
Wills can be purchased either by:
- A personal visit to Court of Probate at High Holborn (which offers a one-hour service, or a 7-day postal service);
- From your local District Probate Registry;
- By post from the Probate Registry at York (which includes a four-year search).
More details can be found on on the H.M. Courts web site.