The outstanding Salisbury Diocesan Probate collection contains 105,000 wills and inventories and approximately 400,000 individual documents dating from Tudor to Victorian times c.1560-1858. This unique collection covers the whole of Wiltshire and Berkshire, and those parts of Dorset, and Uffculme in Devon which came under the jurisdiction of the Dean of Sarum.
In January 1858 civil registries became responsible for probate matters. The Salisbury Diocesan wills were sent from Salisbury to the new Principal Probate Registry in London. Conditions were far from ideal and in 1874 the wills were moved to Somerset House. Somerset House was not able to cope with the volume of documents it received and after the Second World War, a new county record office opened in Wiltshire and this was a sensible alternative place of deposit for the wills. In the 1950s the office was approved as an authorised place of deposit for probate records and the Salisbury Diocesan wills were transferred to the Record Office at Trowbridge. With the closure of the old Record Office in 2007 the wills were moved with the rest of the archive to our current purpose-built facility in Chippenham.
After receiving substantial Heritage Lottery (and other) funding, the Wiltshire Wills Project was inaugurated in 1999, to re-index and digitise the records. They have all been catalogued onto a computer database, flattened, re-packaged and (where necessary) repaired. This has ensured that they will be cared for better than ever in the future–particularly since digitisation means that the originals will not normally be handled anymore. Digitisation, which proved a lengthy process, was carried out by ourselves until last year when the company Ancestry took over. The whole collection will be available online (hopefully from mid November 2017) through the Ancestry website.
A will or testament is the documentary instrument by which you regulate the rights of others to your property and your family after your death.
A person's formal declaration (usually in writing) of his intention as to the disposal of his property or other matters to be performed after his death. Oxford English Dictionary, 1933
Originally a will dealt with real estate – land and buildings - and a testament with personal property - for example, clothing, furniture, stock, money, books - but they have been combined into one document since the 1500.
The preamble to an Act of Parliament of 1529 (21 Hen. VIII, c.4) detailed the purpose of will-making, explaining that testators should pay their debts, provide for their wives, arrange for the care of their children and make charitable bequests for the good of their souls.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, wills were increasingly used to provide for each member of the family left behind. George Beverstock senior of Bradford on Avon demonstrated that principle in his will of 1689, leaving two looms to his son-in-law thereby giving him a livelihood, and distributing his cows amongst his sons and daughters.
Writing a will was thought of as a spiritual duty as well as a worldly one; from 1552 clergy were required when visiting the sick to remind the dying of their duty to make a will.
To encourage will-making, the church made no direct charge for proving the wills of the very poor. There was just a cost of 6d for making a copy of the will and a further 6d if an administration bond was required.
There were rules on what constituted a valid will. Technically the following elements were required: • the date • the testator's mark or signature - duly witnessed • the nomination of an executor.
They also may include some or all of the following: • the testator’s name, residence and occupation • a statement of health and mental capacity • the “religious preamble”, a statement of faith • a preferred parish of burial • details of bequests/legacies • provision for the widow • provision for the children • special funeral instructions • appointment of overseers to supervise executor • codicil
Having said that, not all the wills in the collection follow these rules, for if no formal written will existed or it could not be found, other evidence could be used. Holograph wills (in the testator’s own handwriting) were generally accepted so long as they were agreed to be genuine. Henry White’s will is a lovely example of an informal hand-written will, found on the reverse of an old letter:
Working at the History Centre a little bit like being a Timelord… with access to the archives you can be transported through time and space.
The strong-rooms are our very own Tardis (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) since despite their relatively small footprint they contain around eight miles of archives.
Over the last two months I have been joined in my “travels” by GCSE and A-level students who have been on work experience at the History Centre.
The first port of call for the youngsters as they ventured into the strong-rooms was 12th century Messina in Sicily. One of the earliest documents in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is a letter (with Great Seal attached) from Richard I – Richard the Lionheart – confirming a gift of land to Stanley Abbey (WSA 473/34PC).
It is dated 3rd April 1191 and was sent by Richard from Sicily just days before he set sail with a fleet of ships to the Holy Land. (He had set out in 1190 to join the Third Crusade.) The letter came at a busy time for Richard who was not only on crusade but was about to be married to Berengaria of Navarre who had made her own epic journey across Europe with Richard’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to be with her future husband.
The students’ introduction to the archives continued with a jump to the Tudor period via a grant of arms, followed by a brief stop in restoration England and a splendid portrait of Charles II on an illuminated document.
With each new group of students I set myself and the students the challenge of searching our collections for documents relevant to their particular GCSE and A-level courses. The two world wars, the Cold War, and the Tudors are well travelled historical paths but what of 19th century China and Japan or American history?
At A-level, students at the end of Year 12 are making decisions about coursework so a placement at the History Centre was an ideal opportunity to begin their research. We had students who were looking at the American civil rights movement, antisemitism in England during the 19th and 20th centuries, the opium wars in 19th century China and western influence on 19th century Japan and the demise of the Samurai tradition.
In our pursuit of the American civil rights movement we took a detour into the history of the fledgling United States of America. The archive has a number of collections that, through letters and other documents, connect Wiltshire with the English colonies in the Americas, the war of independence and the American civil war and trade with the USA.
We were all rather excited to be handling two particular documents signed by James Madison and John Quincy Adams who served as the 4th and 6th presidents of the USA. Both documents (WSA 1498/4) were passports for Thomas Shorthouse who became an American citizen in 1797. The Shorthouse family lived at Little Clarendon, Dinton and the passports, letters from Philadelphia and citizenship document for Thomas Shorthouse are part of the family papers (WSA 1498/1-6).
The citizenship document was drawn up in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and instructs Thomas to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever and particularly the allegiance to the King of Great Britain to whom he was heretofore a subject.”
The passports show that Thomas maintained his connections with his family in Britain. The first was signed by James Madison, as Secretary of State, in Washington on 27th September, 1805. Madison, one of the founding fathers of the USA, became President in 1809 and later became known as the ‘father of the constitution’.
In 1815, Thomas Shorthouse received a second passport, this time signed by John Quincy Adams who was then the United States Envoy in London. Adams went on to be the 6th President in 1825.
We could have spent all our time in North America reading letters and documents about rebellion in the colonies, American Independence, the civil war and abolition of slavery, but other countries beckoned.
Our search for documents relating to the Opium Wars yielded instant and fascinating results in the Public and State papers of Sidney Herbert (1810-1861), Baron Herbert of Lea, who from 1841 to 1860 was successively Secretary to the Admiralty, Secretary of War and then Secretary of State for War.
His papers are part of Wilton House and Estate archive and are a fascinating insight into 19th century British political and military history. The journey into this immense collection was brief but rewarding as we discovered a wonderful document that summarised the issues surrounding the opium trade (“Neglect of Government to take steps as to opium trade”, WSA 2057/F8/I/G/1), and several letters and despatches describing the taking of the Peiho Forts – a joint British and French military action in China in the 1860s (WSA 20157/F8/V/B/192ee).
From China in the 19th century we ventured into the 20th century and a world at war.
As the Victoria County History continued its investigations, it found that the survival of several large freehold estates into the late 18th and 19th centuries was represented by a number of high-status buildings of an early origin, including Marvins and Hedge Cottage, mentioned in earlier blogs. To the north of the river Wylye, which runs through the Deverills, is the 16th-century Pope’s farm, once called Bodenham’s. In 1603, Bodenham’s farm comprised 200 a. of arable, 40 a. of meadow, 60 a. of pasture, and 10 a. of woodland. Today it is a charming country farmhouse with a garden with the lands farmed by the Stratton family based at Manor Farm down the road.
Pope’s Farmhouse is another set of buildings that simply do not reflect their origins. The farmhouse is now divided into two dwellings, with the second part called Pope’s Flat. They are a much-altered originally early 16th and 17th century farmhouse that was rebuilt in the early 19th century and remodelled again in the period 1970-75 by the Strattons. This gave a classical rendered elevation with a Doric-style open porch on the south side flanked by canted bay windows. It wouldn’t look out of place in an 18th century town square. However, look around to the west side and you will see its earlier origins in the tall, two-storey 16th-century rubblestone range parallel to the road. It has a blocked arched window and an old, blocked fireplace. If you venture through the pedestrian Tudor arch on this side, you would see that the interior courtyard shows its older origins. The window heads have remnants of a plain round arches of a type favoured in the 16th century.
Diaries and sketches and maps from the trenches; Tudor plots, pardons and royal machinations; Civil war sieges at old Wardour Castle – these are a few of my favourite things...
At least, these are just a few of the archives I have delved into since joining the History Centre team in May.
It is not merely self-indulgence that finds me exploring the strong rooms and miles of shelving housing historic documents – it is work. Really, it is. I am actually researching and preparing sessions for schools.
I am privileged to be the centre’s new Heritage Education Officer – taking over from Laurel Miller – which gives me access to all areas and the opportunity to work with the incredible team of archivists, local studies staff, archaeologists and conservators who occupy this building. (The collective knowledge of this team is phenomenal – and it’s all here on your doorstep, ready to be used.)
Working with primary sources and discovering the stories of people involved in our county’s history is exciting and my pleasant task is to share that excitement and enthusiasm with young people who visit the centre as part of a school group or community project. I also work with other heritage and arts educators around Wiltshire, promoting learning outside the classroom
Our education programme caters to all ages and as well as workshops held at the History Centre I also travel to schools and community groups to deliver outreach sessions.
The First World War Centenary is an area of particular personal interest and expertise, and I am delighted to be working with the county’s Wiltshire at War project which has launched two travelling exhibitions, with another three planned.
In October we were lucky enough to have a visit from Dr Andrea Kirkham, a specialist conservator of wall paintings and polychrome decoration. Andrea comes from Norwich and has made extensive study of wall and panel paintings in Suffolk. She is now gathering information for a wider-ranging study of the subject. We had heard Andrea lecture in Essex and invited her to look at some Wiltshire examples including 92, 93 & 94 Bradenstoke, Lyneham, where good remains of a polychrome scheme were recently discovered. It appears that most surviving secular wall-paintings date from 1500-1700, in Suffolk, and that certainly seems to be the case here in Wiltshire.
The study of palaeography is something which is one of the most enjoyable aspects of an archivist’s training, but it is not something which is the exclusive preserve of the professional. Anyone can learn to read old handwriting – all it takes is patience, determination, and lots of practice!
Handwriting styles Over the centuries there have been several major styles of handwriting and handwriting from the medieval period to the 18th century will (generally speaking) fall into one of those styles, going from Anglicana (medieval period) to bastard Secretary (15th century) to Secretary (16th-17th cent) and italic (overlapping with Secretary) to mixed hands (late 17th cent – 19th cent). From 19th century onwards we’ve seen the rise of personal handwriting which doesn’t conform to a set, taught style, and ironically 20th and 21st century writing can be more difficult to read than Tudor, depending on the writer! In addition there are specialist hands used only in certain central law courts. A comprehensive survey of both handwriting styles and the tools used for writing from medieval times to the 18th century can be found at: http://scriptorium.english.cam.ac.uk/handwriting/history/