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Wills and probate records

WillsFinding wills and probate records for Surrey can be very time consuming. This research guide explains what the records contain, what they can be used for and, most importantly, where they can be found.

Surrey History Centre holds very few original wills, but we offer copies, transcripts and indexes as a starting point for local, family and social historians.

A brief history of probate in England and Wales

From the early 13th century until the Court of Probate Act 1857 and the establishment of a civil court, the Principal Probate Registry, which started functioning on 10 July 1858, jurisdiction over wills and testamentary matters was held by the church, with the exception of the period of the interregnum when a national civil court was established from 1653 to 1660. The wills proved in this latter court are filed with the Prerogative Court of Canterbury series at the National Archives.

It was unusual to write your will yourself, and before 1837 up to a third of wills were spoken (noncupative wills), most commonly by those close to death who were too ill to write. Others were spoken by people who could not read or write. Where a written will was prepared it might reflect the onset of illness, the prospect of a hazardous journey or the outbreak of plague nearby! A pregnant woman, especially if recently widowed, would also be likely to ensure she had made a will.

If the testator died without leaving a will, or did not appoint an executor, Letters of Administration (Admons) might be given, prior to a Grant of Administration being established. Records for Administrations are often slim and not as interesting as wills.

Up to 1782 it was obligatory for every executor or administrator to return into the registry of the court an inventory of the deceased's goods. Therefore an appraiser or executor compiled the inventory, or in some cases, the widow. After this date an inventory might be called for by an interested party, but it was no longer an automatic part of common form procedure.

Disputes over Legacies

Since the church had little jurisdiction over real estate there are few references in church records to land disputes. Whilst the church had some authority over litigation before the interregnum, disputes were often considered a matter for the King's court not the ecclesiastical ones, and after the interregnum any land or property disputes were usually conducted in Chancery (eg in "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens).

All existing probate jurisdictions were abolished by the Court of Probate Act of 25 August 1857 which came into force on 11 January 1858. This Act of Parliament established a Principal Probate Registry and 40 District Probate Registries for England and Wales. Enquiries about wills proved and administrations granted after 11 January 1858 may be seen at the Principal Probate Registry.

Nuncupative Wills

Nuncupative wills were spoken wills and not at all unusual. They could be spoken for a number of reasons but most probably the most common reasons were that either the person was too ill to write or they could not read or write.

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Where were Surrey Wills proved?

In Surrey, as in other counties, a will could be proved in one of several courts. Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules which determine why a will might have been proved in one court over another. The only definite rule is that between 1653 and 1659 all wills had to be proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC). By the 1830s the PCC handled one-third of all the country's probate business.

The following is a list of the courts relating to Surrey:

1. Prerogative Court of Canterbury

Until 1858 the Prerogative Court of Canterbury was the highest court for probate jurisdiction in England and Wales. Often testators would choose to have wills proved in this court even though their will could quite easily have been proved in a lower court. It may have been in case of potential dispute or maybe they felt that it added to their social standing. Whatever the reasons, many people of wealth and positions had their wills proved here. It was also used by people who had property in more than one diocese or for those who had died overseas. The court could be used by anyone throughout England and Wales.

The Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills from 1384 to 1858 are held by The National Archives (PROB 11 registered wills). See the National Archives online index to wills proved in the PCC. The PCC wills can also be searched online on ancestry.co.uk

Surrey History Centre does not hold copies of these wills, but we do hold the following indexes:

  • Webb, Cliff. Union index of Surrey probate records which survive from before the year 1650. British Record Society, 1990.
  • Webb, Cliff. Index of Surrey Wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury 1650-1700. West Surrey Family History Society, 1993.
  • Bax, Alfred. Surrey Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury 1760-1781. West Surrey Family History Society, 1993.
  • Bax, Alfred. Surrey administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury 1782-1790. West Surrey Family History Society, 1999.
  • Camp, Anthony. An Index to the wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury 1750-1800. Society of Genealogists, 1976-1992. In 6 volumes.

2. Consistory Court of the Bishop of Winchester

Some early Surrey wills were proved in the Consistory Court of the Bishop of Winchester. In other counties the granting of probates and admons lay in the hands of the Bishop where the property lay in his diocese.

Wills held at the Consistory Court of Bishop of Winchester from 1500 to 1858 are held at the Hampshire Record Office.

Surrey History Centre does not hold copies of these wills, but we do hold the following indexes which relate to them:

  • Webb, Cliff. Union index of Surrey probate records which survive from before the year 1650. British Record Society, 1990.
  • Willis, Arthur. Wills, administrations and inventories with the Winchester Diocesan Records.

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3. Commissary Court of the Bishop of Winchester

In Surrey the Bishop's delegate or commissary, held court while the Archdeaconry Court was "inhibited" (suspended) during the visitation. It was also the local court for granting administrations.

Wills proved at the Commissary Court of Bishop of Winchester from 1662 to 1858 are held at the London Metropolitan Archives. (See LMA Information Leaflet 6: Wills in London Metropolitan Archives and elsewhere)

Surrey History Centre holds copies of some of these wills, and we also hold:

  • Webb, Cliff. Commissary Court will abstracts and indexes 1662-1857. In 5 volumes. West Surrey Family History Society.
  • Surrey Early Wills on microfiche series. (Relating to both the Archdeaconry and Commissary Courts.) West Surrey Family History Society.

Surrey History Centre also holds the following indexes:

  • Webb, Cliff. Union index of Surrey probate records which survive from before the year 1650. British Record Society, 1990.
  • Webb, Cliff. Index of Surrey Wills and Administrations in the Commissary and Peculiar Courts 1752-1858. West Surrey Family History Society, 1992.

4. Archdeaconry Court

This was the lowest ecclesiastical court of probate available and mainly used by the local people whose property lay in the Archdeaconry of Surrey including those of a higher social standing and a greater degree of wealth. In Surrey the Archdeaconry Court could not grant Administrations and these had to be taken to the Commissary Court or the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. The Court covered the whole of the ancient county of Surrey. The Hampshire part of the Diocese had it own Archdeaconry but this area was more closely controlled by the Bishop and was less independent than Surrey's archdeaconry.

Wills proved in the Archdeaconry Court from 1480 to before 1858 are held at the London Metropolitan Archives. (See LMA Information Leaflet 6: Wills in London Metropolitan Archives and elsewhere)

Surrey History Centre holds copies of some of these wills, and we also hold:

  • Webb, Cliff. Archdeaconry Court will abstracts and indexes 1662-1857. In 32 volumes. West Surrey Family History Society.
  • Surrey Early Wills on microfiche series. (Relating to both the Archdeaconry and Commissary Courts.) West Surrey Family History Society.

Surrey History Centre also holds the following indexes:

  • Webb, Cliff. Union index of Surrey probate records which survive from before the year 1650. British Record Society, 1990.
  • Webb, Cliff. Archdeaconry Court of Surrey index of original wills 1660-1751. West Surrey Family History Society, 1996.
  • Webb, Cliff. Archdeaconry Court of Surrey index of original wills 1752-1858. West Surrey Family History Society, 1994.

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5. Peculiar Court of the Deanery of Croydon

This court was used by people who had property lying within the Peculiar Deanery of Croydon, encompassing the parishes of Barnes, Burstow, Charlwood, Cheam, Croydon, East Horsley, Merstham, Mortlake, St Mary's and Trinity Church Newington, Putney, Roehampton, St Peter's Walworth and Wimbledon.

Wills proved at the Peculiar Court of Deanery of Croydon are held at Lambeth Palace Library.

Surrey History Centre holds copies of these wills, 1614-1812, and the following indexes:

  • Webb, Cliff. Union index of Surrey probate records which survive from before the year 1650. British Record Society, 1990.
  • Webb, Cliff. Peculiar Court of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Deanery of Croydon 1660-1751: index to the wills and administrations.
  • West Surrey Family History Society, 1998.
  • Webb, Cliff. Index of Surrey Wills and Administrations in the Commissary and Peculiar Courts 1752-1858. West Surrey Family History Society, 1992.

6. Wills Proved after 1858

These are held by the Principal Registrar of the Family Division at 42-49 High Holborn, London EC1R 1VW. Surrey History Centre holds indexes to the National Probate Calendar (1858-1943) on microfiche, but not wills.

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What you will find in a will

Wills are wonderful research tools, particularly where there are few other records, such as in the medieval and early modern periods (before about 1600).

Religious Observances

In the earlier wills (and indeed in some wills right up to the 19th century) a substantial part of the estate is often left to the church. Until the Reformation it tends to be for masses and candles. After the Reformation it is often for church repairs, charities and public works.

Family Relationships

Wills can be invaluable as they often mention brothers, sisters, wives, in-laws and so on. Do be careful of the terminology. Sister-in-law can be used to describe a step-sister or mother-in-law to describe a step-mother.

Details of Family Property and Land

Quite often wills will give place names and names and descriptions of the property belonging to the testator.

Details of Occupation

Early wills usually give the occupation of the testator and often the beneficiary(ies). You may find it useful to consult a book detailing trades and occupations such as Colin Waters' A Dictionary of Old Trades, Titles and Occupations, since many trades may not be familiar to modern readers.

Material Possessions

It is impossible to estimate a person's wealth solely by their will, particularly the earlier ones, because they only name specific bequests. However it is sometimes possible to build up a general picture of material circumstances.

Women's History

There are so few records relating specifically to women in post-Reformation England that wills are worth their weight in gold. The majority of women's wills are made by widows and the bulk of their bequests tends to be pin money, any part of their property received through a marriage settlement, and items of personal property such as clothes or furniture.

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Do Remember!!

Not everyone made a will particularly if they were not very wealthy. Some historians have estimated that before the 20th century as few as 2-4% of adult males left wills.

Also, it is important to remember that some early wills are written in Latin although usually wills written after 1500 will be in English. However the handwriting will often take a little getting used to.

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