Tracing your family history: Wills

Among William Shakespeare’s almost countless famous lines is one from his will: ‘Item, I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.” If you’re tracing your family history or social history, wills can sometimes be a good read. Because a ‘good’ will can be a who’s who of the family, and/or tell you a lot about their life and their relatives.

When Esther Cowen, of Caldbeck, Cumberland, died in 1869, she had been a widow for 12 years.

Her probate register entry tells us she was late of Hutton Sceugh, died on May 20, and says she was a widow. It tells us her sole executor was her son Joseph Cowen, of Hutton Sceugh, farmer. And her personal effects were worth less than £100.

Already, this is telling us a lot about her. Her actual will goes much further.

It tells us her share of the stock and crop on the farm at Hutton Sceugh, which she occupies jointly with them, is to go to sons John Cowen and Joseph.

And she bequeaths assorted items to them, son Isaac Cowen, and four married daughters – which gives us their married names.

The bequests also tell us what mattered to Esther: she itemises furniture, but also clothing. Daughter Mary Bell, for instance, is to have ‘my best dress’.

No second best bed for the rest

Sometimes wills can tell us more about relationships than just ‘sister’ or ‘son’.

For example, when William Jackson, of Yanwath, Westmorland, wrote his will in 1850, he left a house to his wife Hannah, but the rest of his lands and real estate to daughter Mary, with instructions to the effect that Hannah should stay out of it and let Mary sort everything. Hannah, son William and other siblings may not have been pleased.


Rights of administration

Where someone died intestate, it is disappointing. But when you are tracing your family history, even disappointments can turn out to have some positives.

A widow or offspring had to apply to the consistory court for the right to administer the deceased’s estate, and was then bound in an agreed sum to provide an inventory of what that estate comprised.

The application and bond contain the names of witnesses as well as the applicant. And where they exist, inventories can be a fascinating insight into people’s lives in days when every frying pan and pillow case might be itemised.

One note of caution, though: wills and inventories come in their original handwriting. Which may not be easy to read.

You can take an educated guess that what looks like ‘dpprosll’ is ‘apparell’. But when faced with what looks like ‘3 potts & a chaffinch,’ it may not be so clear.

If you hit that problem tracing your family history back through centuries, the National Archives’ guide to old handwriting may help.

Where to find old wills

If someone died after 1858, you can search to see if they left a will at:  If they did, you can order a copy for £10.

Before 1858, try the county archives. If you can’t get there in person, it’s usually possible to order copies from them, either via an online search facility, or for a fee, their staff will look for you.

You may also be lucky if you search for your ancestor on the National Archives website:

A copy can usually then be downloaded for £3.50.

Further reading

You can find more advice on tracing your family history in this post on the pitfalls of copying from online family trees.

Originally published 2017