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:
The main background task of an archivist, when not assisting researchers in person or by email, involves the sorting and cataloguing of archives in order that they are made accessible and available. In a well established service such as Wiltshire and Swindon’s, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, much of this consists of additions to existing collections, usually of more recent material, reflecting our commitment to the continuing process of preserving the past for the future. In this way our service is very much an organic one.
However, new sources do present themselves, and bring with them the excitement of serendipity. One such case is the archives of a Marlborough solicitors’ firm, that we collected in 1983 and which I have been working on over the last couple of years. Far from reflecting tardiness or inactivity on our part, it should be understood that archives have been collected in vast quantities often without much warning, to the extent that they occupy eight miles of shelving, and a cataloguing backlog is unavoidable. Furthermore this collection presented particular challenges in terms of its size and level of disorder that led to it slipping down the priority list.
When colleagues came to collect the material they were directed to a house stuffed full of papers and books, to the extent that just entering the building presented something of a challenge. However, they were gathered up, the volumes shelved and the documents decanted into 350 boxes our old Record Office in Trowbridge: the first aim of our service, preservation, having been achieved.
My first task was to produce a rough list of the contents of each box and then sort them accordingly. The volumes all were the firms’ own records and consist of ledgers, registers of deeds and letter books. The boxes contain the archives of former clients, ranging from landed families like the Pophams of Littlecote, covering its extensive estates and several manors, to an individual whose only business was the administration of their personal estate at the ends of his or her life. Each in its way fascinating and informative, providing insight into the lives of our predecessors. Having identified the records of the major clients in about 120 boxes, I faced the remaining boxes with some trepidation. However, while it sat unassumingly on our shelves the technological revolution had brought new tools, in the shape of computers and software, which enabled this mass of material to be sorted far more easily and efficiently than the traditional methods of pencil and paper, and to become available far more speedily than ever before.
I feel I can safely say that almost no town, village or hamlet in the county has been untouched by fire at some point during its history. It must have been an ever-present fear for every community – all that was needed was one little spark. Barns and hayricks were often to be found in the proximity of dwellings, and fire could quickly spread…
All houses were constructed of flammable materials, with thatch roofs being particularly vulnerable. When added to this the presence of naked flames, it presented a high degree of risk to person, property and livelihood.
Ramsbury, June 1648 The Ramsbury Fire of June 14th, 1648 destroyed the houses and belongings of 130 people. The county committee authorized collections throughout Wiltshire, but eleven weeks after the fire those affected had still not received much aid (the Civil War and many other needy appeals were occurring at the same time). Shockingly, the Ramsbury inhabitants had also found that a forged ‘brief’ was being used to raise money for the cause which they would never receive. They had to act quickly, placing a notice of the circumstances in the London newsbooks of the day, telling of the validity of the fire and the illegality of the first brief. In fact none of the newsbooks had mentioned the fire at the time as they were too concerned with war movements.
Churches often included ‘briefs’ in their sermons, asking for donations for help with the church roof, but also for events such as this. After initial local assistance, further assistance could be raised on a regional or even national scale by raising a charitable brief, ‘a licence to collect relief which was issued by the Lord Chancellor’.