Stop Press! Wills reduced!

I’ve talked before about the government’s online Find a Will service.

Well… Big News!  The cost of using this service has been massively reduced.  Instead of £10 per Will, the cost is now £1.50.

I don’t know about you, but that makes a huge difference to me. I’m normally very careful about buying Wills and BMD certificates, only buying when I know it will give me information that will help me to progress in some way.  But at £1.50 per Will, I can justify buying ones that have merely piqued my curiosity.  I don’t know if this reduced price will be permanent, but if you can, it makes sense to go through your ancestors and see if there’s a Will or two you need.  I’ve ordered eight.

Why might you need a Will?
It’s not about being nosy and seeing how much money and property they left – although of course that information will tell you a lot about the kind of lifestyle your ancestor might have enjoyed.  But in fact a Will can tell us a great deal about family networks.  There might be a child you hadn’t known about, or perhaps a complicated family network following divorce or separation.  There could be a share of the inheritance to a child who seemed to you to have fallen off the radar.  Prior to the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act, fathers might have made arrangements for their daughters, to avoid all the inheritance falling into the hands of an unknown future husband.  In other words, a Will might give us a lot of useful information.

Some tips on using the service
The online Find a Will service deals only with probate from 1858 to the present day.  You have to search in one of three categories:

  • Wills and Probate 1996 to present
  • Wills and Probate 1858-1996
  • Soldier’s Wills – these will usually only be on here if the person was killed in action.  However, some of them have been lost.

Make sure you have the correct section highlighted before you enter your search terms.

Screen grab from UK government's Find a Will website search page

Although the search field asks for year of death, the information is in fact arranged by year of Probate, i.e. the year the Probate documents were finalised.  This could be the year after death, or in some cases several years after death.  So remember to search the following year or two if you can’t find your ancestor in the year they actually died.

If you find your ancestor you’ll see a short statement of who he or she is, where they lived, when they died, when and where Probate was granted and the names of Executors. This will help you to identify the correct deceased person, and you will also need some of this information to be able to order the documents.

Bear in mind that the Executors are not necessarily the beneficiaries, so the people listed on this note are not the full story.  For that, you do need to buy the Will and Probate documents.  For example, I’ve just ordered the Will below.  I expect William Cass, son, and William Wade, son-in-law, to inherit, but not Edwin Wade, who is the very able older brother of William Wade but not directly related to the deceased.Entry on UK Probate Calendar, 1860

After you’ve entered the search terms, sometimes Irish and Scottish records come up before the English ones start.  Sometimes, too, you might find your ancestor listed on a page headed ‘Administrations’ rather than ‘Probate’.  This means your ancestor didn’t leave a Will: they died ‘intestate’.  If your ancestor died intestate but still had property of value to pass on, the courts would appoint an administrator to deal with the estate.  In other words, it would be dealt with via Administration rather than Probate.  There will still be documents relating to the sharing out of the inheritance, but there won’t be a personal statement from the deceased relating to how they want their property to be shared.

Finally – you’ve found your ancestor, you’ve ordered your documents and you’ve paid your £1.50 per Will.  What a bargain!  So what next?  You’ll receive a link by email within a week or two, which will take you to images of the original documents.  You will have 31 days to download your copy of each will.


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Generations, pedigree collapse and mind-blowing stuff

Here’s something that’s quite obvious when you think about it, but perhaps you’ve never had much reason to do so.  We each have:

  • 4 x grandparents
  • 8 x G grandparents
  • 16 x 2G grandparents
  • 32 x 3G grandparents
  • 64 x 4G grandparents
  • 128 x 5G grandparents
  • 256 x 6G grandparents
  • 512 x 7G grandparents
  • 1024 x 8G grandparents
  • 2048 x 9G grandparents
  • 4096 x 10G grandparents

In other words, the number of grandparents doubles with every generation.

Since the earliest parish records start at 1538 (and most of them later than that), unless you have aristocratic lineage, you won’t be able to get back much further than 10xG grandparents.  But look how many there are for you to find!  Surely a lifetime’s dedicated work to track down the 8190 direct ancestors across all generations from you to your 10xG grandparents.  That puts our results into perspective doesn’t it!

But there’s another important point to come out of all this: something referred to as pedigree collapse:

Continuing the doubling up of direct ancestors and going back just a few more generations, we each have 4,194,304 x 20G grandparents and 67,108,864 x 25G grandparents; and after that my calculator runs out of spaces for the required numbers, but people with better calculators (or brains!) have worked out that after thirty generations, which brings us to the Middle Ages, we each have roughly a billion ancestors – an impossibly high figure because this is greater than the total world population at that time.  (See the Wikipedia entry on Pedigree Collapse here.)

The only explanation is that some of our ancestors are related to each other.  Sometimes this is quite obvious.  For example, a marriage between cousins (which has always been permissible in the UK) means their offspring will have six rather than the usual eight G grandparents, and therefore 12 GG grandparents, 24 GGG grandparents, and so on…

But what about less obvious connections?  I’ve found that a member of my family and his wife (and me!) are descended from the same 9xG grandparents, making them 10th cousins.  I’m also on the hunt for a connection between my paternal grandparents who seem to be related at around 8th cousin or earlier, their ancestors having moved off in different directions before reuniting in Leeds in the 20th century.  I’ll probably never know their most recent common ancestors, since their connection may be just before records began, but I know the surname and I know whereabouts they lived.  And although I love this idea and will never cease to be delighted at finding such connections, bearing in mind all of the above it seems this is to be expected rather than the wonderful coincidence it seems to be.

It’s even suggested that every single one of us is related to every other person on Earth as 50th cousin or closer.  Go back far enough and we are all family!

St John’s College Library, Cambridge

Ancient library with rows of dsecorative dark wood shelves and a large stained glass window at the far end

My 7xG grandfather, Lister Simondson, studied at St John’s College, Cambridge.  I found him there quite by chance while doing a general search on Ancestry a couple of years ago.  I could never have imagined then, that within two years I would be walking in his footsteps inside the Upper Library at St John’s.

The library was completed in 1624.  That date is affixed in stone to the exterior of the building on the brick parapet above the oriel window, and clearly visible from the river, which flows immediately outside, as well as from the adjacent Bridge of Sighs (which is where I was when I took the photo below).  By the time Lister arrived in 1696, it was still fairly new, but even so the Library of St Johns College could claim to be the largest and most impressive in Cambridge. The books are arranged on 22 beautifully carved tall, dark oak bookcases alternating with 20 ‘dwarf’ cases.  At the end of each of the taller cases little doors open onto a tiny cupboard, inside which are itemised, in various hands contemporaneous with Lister’s time in the library, the contents of the shelves.  It seems likely, then, that the library remains pretty much as it was when he was there.  In 2005, it was designated by the Museums Libraries and Archives Council as of national and international importance.

The library isn’t usually open to the public, but a year ago, by some strange quirk of fate, a distant cousin from the US on my husband’s side was awarded a visiting fellowship at St John’s, and a few months ago I was able to visit.  Since I was with a Visiting Fellow, we were able to go up there and wander round, just three of us, alone.  We weren’t allowed to touch any of the books but we could take photos without flash, and I took quite a few.

I was looking for any books that Lister, who graduated from St John’s in 1700, might have used.  This little set seemed likely – the Holy Bible in Ancient Greek, Latin and German. I happen to know Lister was a talented linguist, and he went on to become a Church of England vicar.  Of course I can’t guarantee he used these books, or even that they were in the library at the time he was there (1696-1700) but online research confirms that they were published in 1596, edited by David Wolder and printed by Lucius Jacob.  So I’m thinking they were.  Imagine that!

Ancient leather-bound Bible in 3 volumes, in Ancient Greek, Latin and German

The Cambridge University Alumni records for 1200-1900 are available on Ancestry.  Or you can search without any subscription here.
Oxford University Alumni records, 1500-1886 are also available on Ancestry.

Side by side maps

When I’m working on a person’s life I like to plot out their movements from one part of the city to another, and to see where they were in relation to other family members or to the locations of significant events.  Used in combination with records and photos of old buildings, or even occasionally old paintings, I find this really helps me to get inside their story.

So I wanted to share with you a brilliant online resource I was introduced to recently.

The National Libraries of Scotland website has a wonderful collection of maps, and although some of the resources are just for Scotland, others are not.

The two resources I’m finding most useful are Find by Place and the Side by Side Viewer, both accessed via that link to the main page.  It’s worth spending some time playing around with the settings to see the different kinds of maps that are available.

In Side by Side you can view an old map in split screen whilst simultaneously viewing the same location in modern-day satellite view.  Whatever you do with one side (zoom, point to a specific building with the cursor, move the map, etc) happens to the other.

You can find the exact map of part of Oxford I’ve screen-grabbed above here. Try playing about with the zoom and cursor, and moving the map around, to see how easy it is to use this. You can also use the drop-down menus above each side to change the style of map you see.  This is a great resource for helping make sense of street layouts that have changed over the years.

My Ancestor was a Railway Worker

My Ancestor was… is a series of books published by the Society of Genealogists.  They cover a whole range of topics, including My Ancestor was a Coal Miner / Leather Worker / Lawyer, and others that are not about occupations, such as religions (Jewish, English Presbyterian, etc) and even Lunatic and Bastard.  I’ve read a couple of them and know them to be extremely focused overviews, full of facts and useful information.

I first heard about My Ancestor was a Railway Worker while doing an online course a couple of years ago, and I remember thinking, well, what’s so different about working on a railway that it needs its own book?  Recently, though, I’ve been researching a family involving successive generations working on the railways; and I immediately started to see that this was no ordinary occupation.  The impression I had was of a huge community, not unlike the armed forces, with marriage between the families and seemingly a welcome wherever they went.  I had some specific questions, and from my previous knowledge of this series, I was sure this would be a good place to find the answers.

My Ancestor was a Railway Worker was written by Frank Hardy.  A Fellow of the Society of Genealogists, prior to retirement he worked for almost fifty years as a railway civil engineer, so he knows his stuff from both angles.  The book covers a wide range of occupations on the railways, from construction and maintenance of the tracks and infrastructure, building and maintaining the trains, administration of the service, including related commercial activities and of course operating the trains.  There is also information about smaller, non-mainline railways, and overseas railways with a historic connection to our own.  I was astonished at the full range of activities, and although I was reading this for insights into someone else’s tree, I realised in the process that apart from one of my own ancestral families who were early investors in the railway at York, I do also have two railway workers in my own ancestry and never realised the true nature of their work – a platelayer (that’s the term for the people who lay and maintain the track) and a mechanic with the London and North Western Railway at Crewe, where they manufactured all the equipment needed for the operation of their service.

The people in the tree I’ve been researching worked on the trains themselves.  I learned that there was a specific progression to becoming an engine driver, starting with cleaning the engines in the locomotive shed, a seemingly menial task but one that develops a thorough knowledge of the engine.  Next came fireman (stoking the engine) and shunting, and finally the ‘aristocrat of the railway’: the locomotive engine driver.  Along the way were assessments and knowledge requirements.  If you wanted to progress through the ranks you had to attend classes and study, and you had to be prepared to move to another company in a different part of the country for a promotion to the next level.  Health & Safety was taken very seriously: throughout the engine driver’s working life he would be regularly tested for fitness and colour vision.  All of this is borne out by the Service Record of one of the men whose life I’ve been investigating.

But there was a huge range of other activities: railway hotels; laundries; goods transfer facilities at harbours and docks; shipping to offshore and overseas destinations including the Isle of Wight, Channel Islands, Dutch and French ports; and buses – all owned and operated by the railway companies.  And here’s a bit of trivia for you: the first time a dining car was operated on a train was during the 1870s, on the London Kings Cross service to Leeds.

By the end of the nineteenth century an astonishing 650,000 people were employed by the railway companies.  Bearing in mind that working on the railway was a ‘job for life’, that’s a lot of people, many working for 30, 40 or 50 years.  A lot of the records survive for employees, particularly for the 19th century, and their likely whereabouts is given in the book.  I found a full Service Record for one of the people I was researching on Ancestry.

What I really wanted to know about, though, was the ‘community’; and my original hunch had been correct.  Families that moved around the country for promotions, with sons following their fathers into the industry and maybe marrying the daughters of other railway men were known as ‘railway families’.  The companies built and provided housing for their employees, close to their ‘home’ stations – and of course they employed bricklayers to do the work.  (I found one of them in the family I was looking at too.)  So it would be quite natural for sons and daughters of employees to meet and to marry.  A sense of community was also encouraged by activities such as ‘Best Kept Stations’ and ‘Best Kept Gardens’ competitions.  Plus there were early forms of employee insurance and free rail passes for employees and their families.

In conclusion, I now understand exactly why there’s a need for a book specifically about railway worker ancestors!  I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand more about the work and way of life.  The record location information, together with bibliography for further reading will be useful for anyone requiring more, but this little book covered all that I personally needed to know.

Click the image to find this book on
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