BerksFHS Logo  

Berkshire Family Historian
September 2001

upBerks FHS indexContents

Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, September 2001 Contents

The Wiltshire Wills Project

Lucy Jefferis

Perhaps I should begin by explaining why an article about Wiltshire Wills is appearing in the Berkshire Family Historian. Wiltshire Wills is our shorthand for the outstanding Salisbury Diocesan Probate collection. It contains 90,000 wills and inventories dating from Tudor to Victorian times and covers not only Wiltshire, but also Berkshire, parts of Dorset and Uffeulme in Devon. There are half a million individual papers in total, all housed at the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office in Trowbridge.

Although the records of the Archdeacon of Berkshire are held at the Berkshire Record Office, our office holds several thousand Berkshire probate documents. The records of the Dean of Salisbury are here, whose court had jurisdiction over twelve Berkshire parishes: Arborfield, Blewbury, Little Coxwell, Great Faringdon, Hungerford, Hurst, Ruscombe, Sandhurst, Sonning, Wantage, Wokingham, and Woodley and Sandford. We also hold the probate records of the peculiar of the Dean and Canons of Windsor. In addition, the Consistory Court of Salisbury inhibited the jurisdiction of the Archdeacon of Berkshire once in every three years: during the Bishop's visitation, Berkshire wills that were normally proved at the Archdeacon's Court had to be proved in the Bishop's Court. Those wills are kept at Trowbridge, with the other Consistory Court records. So the Salisbury Diocesan collection covers almost the whole geographical area of Berkshire at certain times. Out of the 35,000 bundles of documents we have catalogued so far, 6,000 are from Berkshire.

Making a will

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.

A mother who clearly had serious misgivings about what would become of her family after her death was Margery Williams of Baydon. She used her mill to provide for her sons as best she could, adding this codicil to her will in 1797:

'Whereas it is the Misfortune of my sons Benjamin and Joseph to be very indiscreet and imprudent and as they have expended their Fortunes and I am extremely apprehensive any Other Property would be in like Manner Wasted and Yet unwilling that they should be left intirely Destitute I hereby declare that it is my Will and Mind that my son Francis Williams to whom I have given all my Estate Property and Effects shall ... Execute One Bond or obligation ... Conditioned for the Payment of two shillings each per Week to them my said sons Benjamin and Joseph for and during the Term of their respective natural lives.' 1

Both the quality and quantity of the information contained in the wills is outstanding. They can be used to research a wide variety of topics, including family history. Not only are large numbers of relatives often named, but their relationship to the testator may be described. And when friends are mentioned and overseers are appointed a picture of the testator's social world begins to emerge.

Deathbed wills

In the early modern period, wills were often made when the testator was 'nigh unto death'. Luckily, 'The liberty of making a testament doth continue even until the last gasp,' according to Henry Swinburne in his 'A Briefe Treatise of Testaments and Last Wills, 1596'. If it was too late to make a written will, testators could recite their wishes on their deathbed in the form of a spoken will, technically called nuncupative. Out of the 35,000 wills catalogued nearly 1,000 are nuncupative. They can paint a vivid picture:

'James Lucas late of Reading, ... victualler, died ... of the Dropsie (his death being more sudden than was expected by his Physicians ...) and about half an hour before his Death ... We [the witnesses] saw him ... take hold of his ... brother by the hand and with great Earnestness Express these words following ... "For Christ his sake take care of my Child and be a father to it and take it as your own for I shall die. Pay every one their own ... and make a small Burying.2

Women and wills

Until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882 wives could not make a will without their husband's consent. Out of the 35,000 wills catalogued only 260 women are identified as wives. However, there were no restrictions on widows and spinsters making wills and so far 1,200 have been identified as spinsters, and 5,500 as widows. The earlier wills come from a time when descriptions of women's lives are rare and are therefore particularly valuable.

Although husbands theoretically held authority over their wives in the wills a picture of teamwork and companionship often emerges. Women were commonly made guardians of the children and executors of their husband's will, at least until the eighteenth century. John Culverwell of Chardstock used his will to offer very practical support to his wife in her parental duties:

'To my four Children ... I give and bequeath the sum of one hundred and fifty pounds to each... ; but if one or more of these my Children shall displease their... mother by Marriage or otherwise and not demean him or her or themselves as becomes a dutiful Child or Children, then my will and desire is that such child or children so offending shall receive ... only fifty pounds each, the remainder of such Legacy or Legacies given as above, to be to the Use and benefit of such other Child or Children as shall demean and behave agreeable and dutiful to their said Mother, if one, to have the whole, if more, share and share alike.3

Inventories, accounts and administration bonds

The collection contains many other documents besides wills, including inventories, accounts, administration bonds, commissions, letters and renunciations - all contributing unique information. It is particularly strong in inventories: the deceased's goods were listed as soon as possible after the death, and were costed according to their second hand value. Inventories changed over the centuries - sixteenth century ones are often just lists of possessions, while seventeenth century ones tend to be organised room by room. Their value to research is evident in many ways: crops listed help build up a picture of agricultural practice, items related to trades and crafts may be recorded, and house sizes, the use of rooms and the level of comfort enjoyed by the deceased can be determined.


A principal aim of the Wiltshire Wills Project is to catalogue all go,ooo groups of probate documents onto a database. It will be fully searchable and should be a wonderful resource for researchers - a much-needed replacement for the present 29 Victorian manuscript volumes. We are on target to complete the collection by April 2003. A printout of all the Berkshire wills is to be sent to the Berkshire Family History Society. We hope to make the database available on the internet in due course. In addition to the database, indexes to the wills are to be published in volume form by the Wiltshire Record Society.

One particularly pleasing aspect of the cataloguing has been the finding of misplaced documents. A marriage licence bond was discovered with the Dean's wills and has been placed in the main licence series. An administration bond for the goods of Elizabeth Pratt of Faringdon, issued by the peculiar court of Faringdon, was sent to the Berkshire Record Office where it was reunited with Elizabeth Pratt's nuncupative will - the documents had probably been apart for centuries. Over 2000 wills from a miscellaneous series have been returned to their appropriate court and in many cases have been matched up with other documents relating to a particular testator.

Preservation and conservation

For many years the collection has been poorly stored. Instead of lying flat in boxes of a suitable size, the wills have been folded into small parcels and forced into inadequate containers. A significant quantity of the material is in poor condition. Repairs to badly damaged documents are underway and every single document is being carefully flattened and repackaged in custom made archival quality folders and boxes. This work is led by the conservation team with the able assistance of our volunteers.


Once the database is published we foresee an increased demand for the collection from researchers. increased usage would make the wills more vulnerable to damage, and this was one of the crucial factors behind the decision to produce surrogate images of the collection by digitisation.

The images will initially be made available on DVDs at the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office and at the Central Reference Library in Swindon. In order to ensure that the images produced by the Project are those most suitable for researchers, we conducted a user evaluation of images of wills, digitised at different levels of colour and resolution. Over 200 readers were consulted and the results of the survey have defined the specification for the images.


Thanks to the support of local organisations, we received a grant Of 200,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund: all local contributions were vital and we are most grateful for the many generous donations we have received, including the 2000 from your own Society. We continue to raise funds for the Project. I hope you will agree that it is money well spent - the Project will make sure these wonderful documents are cared for better than ever in the future and we are looking forward to the day when the database and the full colour digital images of the wills are available to researchers.


1. WSRO/P5/1799/27
2. WSRO/P1/2Register/316B
3. WSRO/P5/1797/7


Tom Arkell, Nesta Evans and Nigel Goose (Editors). When death do us part. Leopard's Head Press Limited, Oxford, 2000 Anthony J Camp. Wills and their whereabouts. London, 1974 Jane Cox. Affection Defying the Power of death: Wills, Probate and Death Duty Records. Federation of Family History Societies, 1993

Jeremy Gibson. Probate Jurisdictions: where to look for wills.

Federation of Family History Societies, 1994

Lucy Jefferis is the Project Archivist at the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office, responsible for the Wiltshire Wills Project.

Web-page produced by DandyLion Services
Please contact the webmaster with any queries
Berkshire Family History Society 2002

updated 25th February 2002