I visited London last Tuesday, with my daughter Helen. Helen was on a business trip, and I was treeing, so we travelled down from Wolverhampton early in the morning then went our separate ways, meeting up again in the afternoon.
I had never before visited the offices of HM Courts Service at First Avenue House, Holborn, so I decided to use this occasion to rectify this omission. As is my wont, I took with me a lengthy list of items to research. I always set myself far too many tasks on these trips, but at least I never run out of things to do!
The system in operation at this venue is very simple. There are a series of racks containing quite large books. These contain the probate calendars, which list and summarise the Wills and Administrations dealt with by HMCR. They date from 1858, when the Church Courts ceased to deal with probates, to about 1995. There are a number of books for each year, and each year is split alphabetically. You simply find the book you need and look for the entry that interests you. If you find it you will probably want to annotate the details of the entry, but if you wish you can order a copy of the document. I ordered copies of three wills, which will take about a week to arrive by post, and cost me £5.00 each. It is also possible to obtain a copy will one hour after ordering it.
If you want to order a copy of a Will you need to complete a simple form and take the relevant calendar to an official, who checks that you have completed your application correctly. You then pay your money to a cashier, who takes your order for processing.
I imagine you are all agog, wanting to know whether I found anything of great interest. Well, in my three hours stay I managed to cover about 3/4 of my list. I'll mention a few.
As I expected, my poor old Smith forebears do not appear to have left wills - not even my mum's uncle Jim - James Archer Smith - who had his own businesses and was said by members of the family to have been quite prosperous.
I did have quite a number of successes, however. Ralph Hewitt (d. 1938) left a will, as did Caleb Oliver and his wife Alicia Blandina, who died in 1879 and 1897 respectively. Alicia was the daughter of Samuel William Archer (1790-1870).
I found records of the wills of Hannah Archer (1818-1904) and her brother Samuel Archer (1822-1889). I also was able to trace the probates relating to children of Thomas Hunt (1798-1897) and his wife Martha Mary Colam (1808-1861). They were Matilda Hunt (1831-1908), Esther Maria Hunt (1833-1911)
The most surprising information I found was contained in the probate calendar entry for Ann Maria (Holt) Heppell (c1817-1886), the widow of Richard Bryan Heppell (1812-1861). Her son and only next of kin was Richard William George Heppell, who was said to be living in Dunkirk, Chautauqua County, New York, USA. No wonder I had not traced his death in the UK records! I may be able to find him in the USA censuses online at Ancestry.
You can find all the above people on the tree at www.geoffsgenealogy.co.uk.
Oh! I nearly forgot to tell you what the calendar entries actually tell us. Well, they follow a pretty set format, and basically tell us the name of the deceased, his or her address, the date and location of the death, the date and location of probate or admons, the name of the person to whom probate was granted and the value of the estate. In my experience, many of these entries contain as much information as the full will - but not always.
You can see these calendars on microfiche at many libraries or records offices in England and Wales, but the records at First Avenue House are more up to date, so if you want to see a record relating to more recent probate you will need to go there.
I spent the rest of the day at the revamped London Metropolitan Archives. I may tell you about that next time.