What did your ancestors leave behind?

England & Wales wills and probate records are much more than just lists of possessions your ancestors left when they died. They can provide details of a forebear's wealth and social standing; you can find out about their tastes and interests; and you can even discover the history of family heirlooms. Plus, details of the beneficiaries can reveal new relatives for you to explore.
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    England & Wales National Probate Calendar, 1861-1941

    The latest collection on our site is the single most important resource for tracing your English ancestors' wills – and you won't find it anywhere else online. As well as telling you where and when your ancestors died – and revealing the value of the estate they left – the England & Wales National Probate Calendar, provides a vital link to wills and probate records created in England and Wales between 1861 and 1941. Find an ancestor in this collection of over 6 million names.
    This is the first time the Calendar has been made available online. Previously, the only way to use it was to visit a district probate registry and comb through the pages manually. Our digitised collection lets you search for a particular name, and by the date and place where probate was granted, so locating your ancestors is a simple process.
    Search our records
    1. It's easy to search for your ancestors in the England & Wales National Probate Calendar. Simply enter a name plus, if you know it, the date and place where the probate court case took place. These won't be the same as the date and place of death. However, you can use our death indexes to get an approximate idea of the correct year, and use the +/- options to widen your search.
    2. You'll see a list of results that match your search. To view the original Calendar entry, just click 'View original image'. This will usually tell you the deceased's name, their date and place of death and the name of the executor – who may be another family member. Perhaps the most enlightening information, though, is the value of the estate. You may also find the deceased's occupation, and their relationship to the executor.
    3. Once you've found an ancestor in the Calendar, you can contact the London Probate Department to source copies of the original probate records, often including a will, from the Principal Probate Registry. The Registry will most likely provide an application form and will probably require payment, in their local currency. Contact them today for the full details.
    4. When you receive the full records, examine the details for useful information. Perhaps they mention a particular location, which you can then pinpoint in censuses and county directories? Maybe the possessions suggest an occupation or hobby? Also look at the names of the beneficiaries and witnesses – these are often other family members, who you may not have come across before.
    The England & Wales National Probate Calendar is available to World Deluxe members.
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    Top Tip

    The England & Wales National Probate Calendar mainly covers deaths in England and Wales. However, several entries relate to people who died abroad, or in Ireland or Scotland. Many of these deaths won't appear in the official indexes – so you might be able to solve mysterious disappearances in your family tree.
  • Related Collections

    Trace earlier wills
    Looking for England & Wales wills from before 1861? We have records to help you there, too. Finding original documents is more difficult than for later years, as they're kept in a variety of sources around the country. However, with a little perseverance, you can trace your ancestors' last testaments.
    National database
    The pre-1861 collection with the widest scope is undoubtedly UK Extracted Probate Records. This is an index to almost 2 million wills and probate documents from around the UK from the 16th to the 19th century. The information was collated from a variety of different sources, so specific details vary from record to record. However, all of them include references to help you find the full records. Search now
    Local Listings
    To help you hone in on ancestors from particular parts of the country, we have a number of probate collections taken at a local level. These focus on records from different levels in the old court system. For example, we have summaries of cases in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, calendars from the consistory courts of Bristol, Exeter, Worcester and Coventry, and collections covering the archdeaconries of Suffolk, Leicester, Northampton and Sudbury. Search them in our Wills & Probate section.
    Scotland and Ireland
    If you have Scottish roots, you may find collections from Aberdeenshire, Ayrshire, Banffshire and Clackmannanshire useful – these are taken from parish archives, but include a number of wills. As for Irish families, we have five huge volumes of indexes to wills proved between 1536 and 1857, which you can search now.
    All of these collections are available to World Deluxe members.
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    Top Tip

    The Prerogative Court of Canterbury was responsible for all wills in the south of England and Wales where the deceased's property was valued at more than £5, or £10 in London. So, if you suspect your ancestors were fairly well off, this is the best place to start your search.
  • Using Wills

    As legal documents, wills are very consistent in their style and content. This means the initial details you can glean from them are equally consistent. What varies far more are the specifics within the will. While one person may have left a fortune in cash and bags of treasure, another may have included nothing more than some old shoes or a couple of sheep!
    The example below is Charles Darwin's will from 1882.
    1. Testator
    The will begins with the deceased's name – Charles Robert Darwin – and his home town – Down, near Beckenham. This makes him easy to spot in further records, such as the 1881 Census and county directories.
    2. Relatives
    Two sons – William Erasmus and George Howard – are appointed as executors, while other children and Darwin's wife Emma are mentioned later. These could provide completely new family members for you to research.
    4. Occupation
    Further down the will, we find "my scientific library". If we didn't already know Darwin's profession, this would be a huge clue, which would allow us to check specialist records such as old trade journals for further information.
    5. Witness
    You'll often find that witnesses are further relatives. In this case, though, they're the solicitor's clerk and Darwin's butler.
    6. Proved
    A note at the bottom confirms the will was proved in London on 6 June 1882. You can see the relevant entry in the National Probate Calendar.
    3. Heirlooms
    Darwin leaves his eldest surviving son "family portraits and family papers and all my medals and the silver candle sticks with an inscription presented to me by the Royal Society." Perhaps someone somewhere still has the candle sticks?
    • Beneficiary
      – A person who has a claim to the money or property left in a will
    • Codicil
      – An amendment made to a will
    • Estate
      – The money and property left by the deceased
    • Executor
      – The person appointed by the court to distribute the estate
    • Inventory
      – A document listing a person's estate
    • Letter of administration
      – Used to deal with an estate if no will was left
    • Probate
      – The process of making a will legal
    • Testator
      – A person making a will
    The England & Wales National Probate Calendar is available to World Deluxe members.
    Start your free trial or Upgrade your membership now

    Top Tip

    The handwriting in older wills can be difficult to read. It helps if you pinpoint easier words first, such as names of people and places. You can then look for similar letter shapes in other words.
  • Case Study

    How divided assets reunited Geraldine's relatives
    My father had always avoided a section of his family, in the belief that he was honouring the memory of his grandfather and father.
    However, I was able to not only solve the family feud, but also introduce Dad to a cousin he never knew existed – all thanks to the details in an old will.
    It started with a successful visit to a graveyard in 2007. I discovered the resting places of several members of my family, including my great-uncle, Harry Barker, and great-grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth Slater (neé Massey and Barker) – the latter shared her grave with her second husband, Joseph Slater.
    Soon afterwards, I discovered a family tree with my relatives in it online. I contacted the owner, Margaret Hatton, who revealed she had been surprised to find flowers on her great-grandmother's grave! It turned out her mother was my father's half-cousin, Betty Ramsden.
    But why had I never heard of these people? I asked my father. He said the family "hated" Joseph Slater, who had married his grandmother Sarah after his grandfather died. Apparently, when Sarah later passed away, Joseph threw his father and three uncles out of their home, and stole their inheritance.
    Clearly, there were deep divisions within the family. Now I had found my father's only living blood relative, but she was a Slater! How could I convince him the actions of one man shouldn't affect his relationship with the descendants?
    This is where Harry Barker comes in. I had been researching my great-uncle for some time. He was an adventurer, the only Barker to leave England to seek a new life. I purchased copies of his service records – including a single-page will. This one crucial document provided me with the evidence I needed to prove the feud ended with Joseph Slater.
    Harry's will clearly split his estate into five equal parts: one each for my grandfather and his brothers, plus one for Samuel Herbert Slater – their step-brother, son of Joseph. Clearly Harry bore Samuel no ill will, suggesting the family hadn't blamed him for his father's actions.
    It was with trepidation that I broke the news I had found a living Slater. At first, Dad showed no interest in meeting Betty. However, thanks mainly to the information in the will, I was able to persuade him it would be a wonderful opportunity.
    I arranged a meeting in Kettering in April 2009. We were all nervous, but it was a great success. Not only that, but my father has stayed in contact with his cousin ever since – all through a passion for family history, and an old will.
    The England & Wales National Probate Calendar is available to World Deluxe members.
    Start your free trial or Upgrade your membership now

    Top Tip

    When you do find an ancestor's will, make sure you read it from top to bottom. It's easy to assume all the most important points will be covered early on, but if the deceased had several children, the youngest may not be mentioned until the bottom of a seventh or eighth page.

The full story

Find out more about the England & Wales National Probate Calendar – and how it can help your research – in our special introductory video.

Wills and Probate explained

When a person dies, somebody has to deal with their estate by collecting together their money and possessions, paying off any debts, and distributing what's left to whoever's entitled to it. The person who does this is appointed by a court, through a legal process known as probate.
Probate records are the documents involved in this process. Usually, the most important of these records is the will produced by the deceased, detailing their possessions and who they were left to. If the person didn't make a will, there are still other records produced during the case.
Before 1858, this process was carried out by around 300 church courts all over England & Wales. In that year, the Court of Probate Act established the Principal Probate Registry, with 40 district registries, to take care of all probate cases.
Until 1973, the Registry recorded its cases for each year in a series of calendars, so it was easy to refer back to the full records. The calendars for 1861 to 1941 form our new collection.

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