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Archives and Special Collections: Sources for Family History: Probate records for family history

The probate documents featured below were part of the exhibition held to mark the completion of cataloguing work for the North East Inheritance project.

Click on the hyperlinked reference numbers (beginning DPR), to view catalogue entries and links to full online images for the featured documents.

Introduction

Documents of some 75,000 individuals who lived and died between the early 16th century and the mid-19th century are held in the probate collection of Durham diocese. These are the records of the many kinds of people - farmers, merchants, widows, clerks, lords, labourers - who lived in County Durham and Northumberland and who died either testate or intestate (without a will), and whose affairs then passed through the Durham church courts. The North East Inheritance project has photographed and catalogued these records in order to make them available online to historians and researchers around the world.
As a resource for genealogists wills are a crucial means of reconstructing family relationships and of tracing the transfer of property from generation to generation. Probate bonds, inventories and accounts, where they survive, can also play an important and perhaps less appreciated part in the story. When considered together, as the new catalogue conveniently allows, these records can supply a treasury of detail and allow our ancestors to speak directly to us at a significant moment in their lives.

Relationships

The first step for most family historians is to harvest the names from a will, and which can number from zero to tens of dozens in any one document; these may be relatives or friends, employees or business partners, debtors or creditors, and all manner of relationships that grow up over a lifetime.

Past lives

But there is much more that can be drawn from wills. Testators often describe where and perhaps in what style they wish to be buried, and the date of probate or administration can narrow down a date of death. The style of the statement of faith at the start of the will can be an indicator of religious conviction. Wills can also demonstrate the education and literacy of the writer. Sometimes narratives of long forgotten family events and misadventures can even be recovered.

Other probate records

Other probate records should not be neglected, particularly as they can supply information for persons who made no will. Probate bonds can record the identity, status and place of residence of the executor and administrator, and will also supply the names of sureties who are often linked in some way with the family. Particularly after 1700, when inventories become rare, bonds can also supply a rough total value of the personal property of the deceased.

Probate inventories are wonderfully detailed lists of goods and chattels. They itemise the daily objects, tools and stock of our ancestors' houses and working lives.  As such they are very useful guides to the style in which people lived, to agricultural and trade practice, and to the tastes of consumers of the time. As these documents move from room to barn and from shop to field, they illustrate the life and work of a society and economy now long past, and at a personal level can even re-clothe a testator before our eyes.

Probate records briefly illuminate and immediately make accessible to the researcher the world and the outlook of our ancestors. Often living in the same landscape as ourselves, and certainly with many of the same cares, these vital records offer an unrivalled opportunity to family historians. Happy hunting!

Will of Timothy Wright of Snow Hall in Gainford, gentleman

By his 1778 will he leaves Snow Hall to his housekeeper Sarah Wake and makes her his executor. After her death the property is to pass to Wright's friend Richard Sherwood, an apothecary of Staindrop. Some kindred do emerge from the document: a reputed son and daughter in Barnard Castle and London each receive a generous £200 legacy. His servant George Soulby is left his clothes and a year's wages. A Spanish gun and powder horn are also listed among the bequests - perhaps booty from a foreign military adventure, for another will in the collection reports he had served in General Bland's Dragoons during the Jacobite Rising of 1745. His pallbearers were each to receive half a guinea 'for his trouble' and 'four stone of beef and eight gallons of ale [to] be ready for them at some publick house in Gainford'. Wright's servant Soulby married the housekeeper within the year, and was still resident at the hall in the 1790s, now having risen to the status of a gentleman. Some family histories can become as much a history of the home as the family, and this will has led to some fine drawings of Snow Hall held in a Durham County Record Office collection.

Inventory of Jane Shaftoe of Newcastle upon Tyne, widow

These extracts from the three-page room-by-room inventory of the goods and chattels of the late Jane Shafto, probably the widow of a merchant, bear witness to a life lived in some pomp and style. Her goods include 'Nine Feather Bedds … One Turkie worke Carpitt … seaven & thirty Cushions … Six Turkey worke Chaires, Eight great Chaires, Five & Thirty less Chaires … one pair of Virginalls … Eleavan Pictures …'. In her cellar are 128 gallons of 'Canary [wine]', 292 gallons of 'Decayed Claritt', 183 gallons of 'reasonable good Clarett', 43 gallons of white wine, four gallons of 'Wormewood [used to brew ale or medicinally or added to cordials]', 46 gallons of 'Tent [Spanish wine]', eight gallons of 'Shery'and 54 gallons of 'Rennish [wine]'.

Will of Henry Bainbridge of Witton Gilbert, gentleman

Children were expected to make suitable marriages, and when Bainbridge made his will on 10 July 1772 he added an instruction as an after thought that 'none of my three Children shall marry into any mean low familys, but into such Creditable substantiall families whose <circumstances> are such as to be able to give their Children equal or better fortunes than their own'. Any child disobeying this edict was to be disinherited. But occasionally the husband of a substantial heiress might consent to be disinherited by his family as a form of estate planning. The probate collection contains many examples of suspicious and sometimes furious fathers casting a jaundiced eye on their children's romantic adventures, and among the Durham collections is a Gretna Green marriage register and the will of the Newcastle banker Aubone Surtees. Four months after Bainbridge made his will Surtees' daughter Bessie was helped out of a first floor window on Sandhill by a hoastman's son named John Scott, who would go on to occupy the not insignificant office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain and Ireland

Will and Account of the execution of the will of Thomas Nixon of Leehouse and Eshgillside in Alston

Some twelve years passed between the probate of Nixon's will and the passing of his account: his children were still minors when he died, and their guardianship passed to four friends also named as supervisors in the will. The account, entered by one of these 'executors in trust', was probably drawn up when the eldest sons, the executors, came of age. The disbursements in the account faithfully follow Nixon's testamentary instructions and add two names to the fifteen found in the will; sadly the twenty-six of his brothers' and sisters' children (on his and his wife's side) who each received 2s 6d are not named. The account also provides a total value of £541 11s 7d for the now missing inventory. Wills and their associated probate records can be excellent genealogical resources. Before the 19th century, however, note that the term 'brother' for example was often used to describe one's brother-in-law, and 'cousin' might take in some very distant relations indeed. It was often essential nevertheless that the true nature of such kin relationships was established by the probate court for the purposes of distributing intestate's estates. For much of this period a person's kin was a valuable source of mutual support, but sometimes also a curse: in parts of the border marches where family feuding was rife, merely the fact of bearing a surname could be a death sentence.