Oh my goodness! What have they done to the online GRO Find a Will service?!
I haven’t had reason to order a post-1858 Will for ages, so I didn’t know about the changes until I saw the video below. But before moving on to that, in case all this is new to you here’s a bit of introductory information about Wills.
Before 1858 Wills were dealt with by the Church courts – finding them can be a challenge because there was a whole hierarchy of courts; and where your ancestor’s Will was proved depended on where they lived, where they held land, the value of their estate and a number of other factors. That’s a topic for another post.
After 1858 Wills came under the jurisdiction of civil probate courts: one Principal Probate Registry, a number of local Probate Registries and a single, central index which is available online and is searchable. In other words, if your ancestor died in or after 1858 and had something to leave to their descendants, their Will or Administration papers will be much easier to find. These are the Wills we’re talking about here.
The central index is known as the National Probate Calendar. Often, seeing that will give you all the information you need. For example, the entry for my GG grandmother’s second husband provides his full name, his address, his occupation, the date of death, the regional Probate Registry where probate was granted, the names of two men to whom it was granted, and the value of his effects.
That’s a lot of information, and it may already fill some gaps for you. It will certainly enable you to narrow down the entries and be sure you have the right person. However, particularly when you’re at the fairly early stages of your research and trying to keep costs down, you may be happy just to leave it at that.
Before we move on, there are a couple of notes about these entries:
First, the National Probate Calendar arranges information according to the year probate was granted, not the year of death. This is particularly important to note because when you watch the video you’ll see the online search asks you for the year of death and limits the search to that one year. You can start with that, but always be prepared to move forwards a year (or maybe more) if the person you’re looking for doesn’t show. In my example above this person died on 11th December 1898, but probate was not granted until 26th January of 1899. 1899, then, is the year under which he’s to be found.
Second, the people named (the people to whom probate is granted) are not necessarily the people who are inheriting. They are the executors (or administrators). They may be the same people as those inheriting, but may not. In the example above, the two men named as executors were just that. One was the deceased’s wife’s stepbrother; I’m not able to place the other. Again, even without sight of the will this gives me some interesting information: I know from other documents that the actual stepfather was abusive; I have no idea where he went after the 1861 census, but I know he was not living with his wife, my GGG grandmother. And yet here is evidence that his son from a former marriage maintained a kinship relationship with his stepsister, my GG grandmother.
If you have an Ancestry subscription you can see the National Probate Calendar with the full entry, including all the information above, and you can link it to your person’s profile. The record set is England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995
However, you can also see it using the government’s own Find a Will service, and if you want to order a copy of the Will, this is where you need to go. The cost of ordering is just £1.50. For this you get digital images of all the pages. Before ordering, please note that if your ancestor died intestate – that is, if he or she didn’t make a Will – this will be recorded on the entry as ‘Letters of Administration’ rather than ‘The Will’ (or sometimes just ‘Administration’ as opposed to ‘Probate’). If that is the case, obviously there is no Will to see, but the Letters of Administration will still give names of the administrators and those who will inherit.
So… if all this is new to you, I hope that has got you up to speed.
The GRO Find a Will website search facility has recently been changed, and it’s currently rather clunky! I’m going to hand you over to Dave Annal who has prepared a short video (8 minutes 57 seconds) that shows how he overcame the changes. I hope you find it useful – and that you find some ancestors’ Wills.