Wiltshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire Wills, Beneficiaries and Obituaries

Chad Hanna and Gillian Stevens - 26th February 2012 - speaking at Who Do You Think You Are? Live! at Olympia


some parts of this article have been updated since 2012

While records of birth and marriage help to connect our family trees together, the various records of death that can tell us more about someone’s life.

Besides death certificates (post 1837) and burial registers there are many other records that can tell us about our ancestor’s death. These include:

  • Wills

  • Probate

  • Inventories

  • Death Duty records

  • Obituaries

  • Coroner’s inquests

  • Memorial cards

  • Memorial Inscriptions (e.g. gravestones)

We looked at Probate records (including Wills) and Newspaper reports of obituaries.

Wills & Administrations from 1858

There is a National Index (Probate Calendar) than can be used to find wills from 12 January 1858 onwards. This annual index of grants can be found at:

  • Ancestry.co.uk (1861-1941 with gaps)

  • Fiche copies in some County Record Offices (Berkshire and Wiltshire ROs 1858-1943, Oxfordshire RO 1858-1957)

  • Court 38, Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London WC2A 2LL
    Tel 020 7947 6997 - for probate documents from 1858-last year (previously these were held at Her Majesty’s Court Service, First Avenue House, Holborn)

These are very useful, relatively straightforward and discussed elsewhere.

Before 1858 the location of the will depends on the church (ecclesiastical) court where probate was granted. Although we are particularly interested in Berkshire this also means looking at Wiltshire and Oxfordshire as well.

Case Study (Berkshire)

Suppose we want to look for an ancestor who died in Berkshire before 1836 and had enough property to require the will to be proved.

We will look for a Will for Martha Walford who lived in Bray and died in 1795. There are three indexes we need to look at:

  1. Berkshire Probate Index CD

  2. The Wills Project online via Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre

  3. Documents Online at the National Archives

Berkshire Probate Index CD

This indexes Wills proved (and Administrations granted) in the Archidiaconal Court for the Archdeaconry of Berkshire between 1480 and 1857. The borders of the archdeaconry are similar but not quite the same as those for the pre-1974 county.

The original records are held in the Berkshire Record Office in Reading.

The CD has been published by the Berkshire Family History Society on behalf of the project partners including the Berkshire Record Office. The CD is available from  www.berksfhs.org.uk/shop and is also available from some of the project partners.

The index provides surnames, forenames, parishes (and sometimes location) and year of probate as well as the Berkshire Record Office references for wills, administrations, inventories and many other probate documents, including accounts.Extra information is often available, including aliases, occupations, status and other details but the CD does not hold information on executors, witnesses or beneficiaries.

So if you find an entry you can visit the Berkshire Record Office www.berkshirerecordoffice.org.uk and view the probate documents. We don’t find Martha here so her will may be listed elsewhere, perhaps in the higher Bishop’s or Consistory court. Berkshire was part of the Diocese of Salisbury until 1836 when the Archdeaconry then became part of the Diocese of Oxford.

Wiltshire Wills Project

If an ancestor had property in Wiltshire or certain parts of Devon or Dorset that along with Berkshire formed the Diocese of Salisbury then the Will should have been proved in the Bishop’s (Consistory Court).

The index can be searched online at the  Wiltshire Wills Project http://wshc.eu/wiltshire-wills-project.html. This lists all Wills for the Salisbury Diocese including the Archdeaconries of Salisbury and Wiltshire along with other courts with jurisdiction in the area (the so-called ‘peculiars’).

If we can locate the will in the index the records are held at Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre www.wshc.eu in Chippenham, Wiltshire. Approximately 25% of these documents have been digitised and are available online for a small fee. Contact the Record Office for the others.

Unfortunately, Martha’s will is not amongst them and we need to look elsewhere.

Documents Online

Martha’s will may have been proved in a higher court, as required if she had property outside the Diocese of Salisbury. This would be the Archbishop’s or Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC). The Diocese of Salisbury is and was part of the Province of Canterbury. We should not need to consider the Province of York with its own Prerogative Court (PCY).

You can search the index to the PCC wills via the Discovery Catalogue at The National Archives web site http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/wills.htm

In our example we are successful in finding an entry for the will of Martha Walford and can download a copy of the document online for a small fee (free when at the National Archives).

Note that Martha is a widow, and the only other female Walfords are spinsters. About 10% of wills are for women and this reflects the fact that a married woman needed her husband’s permission to make a will.

Case Study (Wiltshire)

If you have an ancestor who died prior to 1858 and had enough property in Wiltshire to require the will to be proved you need to search the Wiltshire Wills Project and Documents Online as described above.

Case Study (Oxfordshire)

In our example we wanted to find a Will for William Walford who lived in Hook Norton and died in 1637. He died before 1858 and had enough property in Oxfordshire to require the will to be proved.

For the Diocese and Archdeaconry of Oxfordshire you can look at the National Wills Index on Origins

This index also includes a few wills for people with property in Berkshire during the period 1836-1858.

We found an entry for the will of William Walford and we would need to contact Oxfordshire History Centre  to obtain a copy. If we hadn’t found the will we would have looked at Documents Online as described earlier.

Note that wills of people who worked for, or were otherwise involved with, the University of Oxford are a special case. An index is available on Google Books.

More information

There are other indexes and transcripts to found online – see GENUKI and also try search engines like  Google

For Oxfordshire Beneficiaries see the Names from Wills booklets published by The Eureka Partnership but that leads us onto the Death Duty records:

Taxes paid on Death (Beneficiaries)

These records are available at The National Archives and can help you find out more about the beneficiaries of wills.

  • Death duties were taxes paid on death

  • Records are available from 1796 to 1903

  • Amounts and who was recorded vary over the years

  • This national index can help find a will prior to 1858

  • Later on they give precise information about relationships

  • They are not the easiest of records to use but can help your research


Using Death Duty Indexes

  • Use the first letter of the surname to find the right pages in each year

  • Indexes are available on findmypast and also at The National Archives on fiche

  • Death Duty documents can be viewed at The National Archives (TNA). Many are stored off site

  • Read the TNA Further Research notes/Research Guide



  • Given an approximate date of death look in newspapers

  • Look for

    • notices of a death

    • obituaries

    • reports of inquests, wills, burials, etc.

    • interesting death stories

  • Our examples used the British Newspaper Archive  but newspaper archives are also available in some local studies libraries and at the British Library at St Pancras (from March 2014).



An obituary may include information about:

  • a person’s age

  • when they died

  • their address

  • their occupation

  • Relationships

  • plus wonderful stories about their life!



  • Inquests are held when there is a sudden or unexplained death.

  • The purpose of the inquest is to identify the deceased, the place of death, time of death and how the deceased came by their death

  • Unfortunately few Inquest reports survive, however they are very often reported in newspapers.


Further Reading

Probate Jurisdictions: Where to look for Wills - compiled by Jeremy Gibson & Else Churchill (5th edition: 2002) Federation of Family History Societies
Wills & Probate Records: A guide for family historians - by Karen Grannum & Nigel Taylor (2nd Edition: 2009) The National Archives
death do us part: Understanding and Interpreting the Probate Records of Early Modern England - edited by Tom Arkell, Nesta Evans and Nigel Goose (2000) Leopard's Head Press
to Wills, Probate & Death Duty Records: Affection Defying the Power of Death - Jane Cox (1993) Federation of Family History Societies


Finding aids

Oxfordshire Probate Records Volume 1: Persons named in Archdeaconry Wills proved 1790-1800 (2002) Eureka Partnership - plus others in this series plus Oxfordshire peculiars
Buckinghamshire Probate Inventories 1661-1714 - edited by Michael Reed (1988) Buckinghamshire Record Society (vol 24)
Buckinghamshire Wills database -  accessed 7th Feb
Berkshire Archdeaconry Probate Index, 1480-1652 - edited by Pat Naylor (2011) Berkshire Record Society - 3 parts
Berkshire Probate Accounts, 1583-1712 - edited by Ian Mortimer (1999) Berkshire Records Society
Oxfordshire Wills Index 1547-1857 – Origins.net web site
based on The Oxfordshire Wills Index - edited by D.M. Barratt, Joan Howard-Drake and Mark Priddey - British Record Society (BRS) vol.109,
also Oxford consistory and archdeaconry probate records for the period 1516 to 1732 BRS vols 93 & 94
Transcribed Wills - Oxfordshire Family History Society http://wills.oxfordshirefhs.org.uk/ accessed 7th Feb
An index to wills proved in the Court of the Chancellor of Oxford - compiled Revd John Griffiths (1862) - available via Google Books


Berkshire Coroners' Index 1688-1926 (CD) - Berkshire Family History Society
Malmesbury Coroners Records 1830-54 - Wiltshire Family History Society
Marlborough Coroners Records 1773-1835 - Wiltshire Family History Society
Wiltshire County Coroners Records 1815-1858 - Wiltshire Family History Society

Additional information