Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section

Leaflet Guides to Records:


PROBATE RECORDS (WILLS AND ADMINISTRATIONS) AT GUILDHALL LIBRARY


This is a brief introduction to searching for probate records, with particular reference to pre-1858 records held by the Manuscripts Section of Guildhall Library which relate to inhabitants of the City of London and surrounding areas. Owing to the sheer number of courts and overlapping jurisdictions within London, it is often necessary to search the records of several probate courts to find a particular will.  These records may be held in a number of repositories. A detailed explanation of what is held where may be found in A. Camp, Wills and Their Whereabouts (London 1974) or J.S.W. Gibson Wills and Where to Find Them (Chichester, 1997) and Probate Jurisdictions: Where to Look for Wills (Federation of Family History Societies, 4th edition, 1994). These books are available at Guildhall Library and most public reference libraries and record offices. For a general description of pre-1858 probate records, see Karen Grannum, “Enduring Benefits” in Ancestors Issue 23 (page 15).

INTRODUCTION

Before 12 January 1858 the probate of wills, and the granting of letters of administration for the estates of persons who died without leaving a will, took place in an ecclesiastical probate court. There were at least 300 probate courts throughout England and Wales.

The court in which a will was proved, or letters of administration granted, depended on the amount of goods and property left by the deceased, and their location. If the deceased held property in one archdeaconry the will was proved in the archdeacon’s court. If the deceased had property in more than one archdeaconry, but within the same diocese then the will was proved in one of the bishop’s courts, either the Commissary Court or, for more extensive estates, the Consistory Court. If the deceased held goods or debts worth more than £5 (or £10 in the City of London) in more than one distinct diocese or jurisdiction, then probate took place in the appropriate archbishop’s court, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury or the Prerogative Court of York.

This apparently simple system was confused by the presence of peculiars of important churches and cathedrals within dioceses which claimed immunity from the bishop’s jurisdiction (like St Paul’s Cathedral within the Diocese of London). A few places, called royal peculiars, claimed exemption from all jurisdictions except that of the sovereign (such as the Royal Peculiar of St Katharine by the Tower to the east of the City of London). The Bishop of London also claimed a number of “exempt” parishes whose wills were therefore proved in the Bishop’s Commissary Court. Also, within the City of London prior to 1688, there was another court, the Court of Husting, a secular court of the Corporation of London, which enrolled wills dealing with City property.

For various reasons, business in the smaller courts decreased in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and most had become moribund by 1858. This is especially true of London and of the courts for which Guildhall Library has records. For this period, within the Province of Canterbury, it is more likely that a will would have been proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.

It is also worth mentioning that until the 20th century most people did not make a will: it has been estimated that the estates of only about one person in ten were dealt with by the ecclesiastical probate courts. Even when a will had been made, if there was little property involved and no dispute as to who should benefit, the will may not have been proved at all, in order to save paying the fee. In addition, until the late 19th century, only unmarried women and widows made wills as married women and their possessions were deemed to belong to their husbands.


THE RECORDS

Guildhall Library holds the records of three ecclesiastical courts, each of which had nominal probate jurisdiction over parts of the Diocese of London: the Commissary Court of London (London Division); the Archdeaconry Court of London; and the Peculiar Court of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s.

The Commissary Court of London (London Division)

Jurisdiction: parts of the City of London and Middlesex; a few parishes in the south-western part of the county of Essex; also some jurisdiction (of uncertain extent) over persons who died at sea.

Records: cover the period 1374 to 1857. Few wills were proved or administrations granted after c.1830: the later wills and administrations are chiefly for merchant seamen. The main series are:

      Act books, 1496-1858         Ms 9168         Use of microfilm compulsory after 1600

      Will registers, 1374-1857    Ms 9171         Use of  microfilm compulsory after 1600

Original wills, 1523-1857     Ms 9172

      Indexes are available on the bookshelves in the upper part of the Manuscripts reading room; further  details are given at the end of this  leaflet.

 The Archdeaconry Court of London

     Jurisdiction: parts of the City of London; Shoreditch and Clerkenwell in Middlesex.

     Records: cover the period 1393 to 1807. There were very few wills proved or administrations granted after 1781. The main series are:

     Act books, 1564-1807         Ms 9050         Use of microfilm compulsory after 1600

     Will registers, 1393-1807    Ms 9051         Use of microfilm compulsory after 1600

Original wills, 1524-1807     Ms 9052

     Indexes are available on the bookshelves in the upper part of the Manuscripts reading room; further details are given at the end of this leaflet.

 The Peculiar Court of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's

     Jurisdiction: a few parishes and precincts in the City of London, Middlesex, Essex and Hertfordshire.

     Records: cover the period 1535 to 1837. Very few wills were proved or administrations granted after ca. 1781. The main series are:

     Act books, 1646-1837         Ms 25625       Use of microfilm compulsory

     Will registers, 1535-1837    Ms 25626       Use of microfilm compulsory

     Original wills, 1660-1837     Ms 25628

Indexes are available on the bookshelves in the upper part of the Manuscripts reading room.

The microfilms are available on a self-service basis in the lower part of the Manuscripts reading room. Catalogues of the records on microfilm may be found on the table adjacent to the microfilm cabinets. Print-outs may be taken from the microfilm (by personal callers only) using the Manuscripts self-service reader-printer.

Original records such as act books or will registers (prior to 1600 only for the Commissary Court or Archdeaconry Court) and original wills, may be ordered from the strongrooms. Please ask staff at the Manuscripts enquiry desk for assistance.


Copies of some wills and letters of administration are to be found in the Bishops Registers (Ms 9531). There is an index by personal name to those for 1313-1548 on the bookshelves in the upper part of the Manuscripts reading room. London Consistory Court Wills 1492-1547 edited by Ida Darlington (London Record Society, Volume III, 1967) contains a list of clerical wills, 1508-14, copied  into the back of Ms 9531/9. Wills and administrations for 1514-59 are also indexed in a calendar to the Consistory Court wills held at London Metropolitan Archives (not available at Guildhall Library).

In addition, the Library holds the probate records of the Royal Peculiar of St Katharine by the Tower (covering the period 1688 to 1818), which had jurisdiction only over the precinct of St Katharine, a small area immediately east of the Tower of London. For further details, see the two calendars of the St Katharine's Hospital archive (Mss 9742-2A) on the bookshelves in the upper part of the Manuscripts reading room.

The Library also holds copies of the published calendar, in two volumes, of wills, 1258-1688, for the Court of Husting, which had jurisdiction over the City of London (available on the bookshelves in the upper part of the Manuscripts reading room). The original wills are kept at London Metropolitan Archives, 40 Northampton Road, London EC1R 0HB (telephone 020 7332 3820, email ask.lma@cityoflondon.gov.uk). Very few wills were proved in this court after the early 16th century.

Probate inventories for the 17th and 18th centuries exist for all of the probate courts whose records are held by Guildhall Library: Commissary Court,1634-1741 (Ms 9174-74A); Archdeaconry Court, 1662-1705 (Ms 9898); and Peculiar Court of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s, 1660-1725 (Ms 19504). Those for the Commissary Court and Archdeaconry Court have been indexed by surname and the indexes are available in the card index drawers opposite the Manuscripts enquiry desk. Those for the Peculiar Court of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's have been being indexed onto computer and hard copy indexes by personal name and occupation, together with a calendar of the inventories, are available on the bookshelves in the upper part of the Manuscripts Reading Room. The personal names index is also available.  It is hoped eventually to include the probate inventories for all the courts in this index. The original records may be ordered from the strongroom as above.


RECORDS HELD ELSEWHERE

Wills not found in the records of the above-mentioned courts may be located in the records of the following, which were the two superior courts with jurisdiction in the London area:

The Prerogative Court of Canterbury

 Records: (covering 1383 to 1858) available on microfilm at the Family Records Centre, 1 Myddelton Street, London EC1R 1UW (telephone 020 8392 5300); the originals are held at  the National Archives, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Surrey TW9 4DU (telephone 020 8876 3444, email enquiry@nationalarchives.gov.uk). For a description of these records see Amanda Bevan, “Wills Before 1858: The Prerogative Court of Canterbury” in Ancestors Issue 1. Three indexes are held by the Printed Books Section of Guildhall Library (one published by the British Record Society, covering 1383-1700 in 12 volumes; the second, on microfiche (Misc.2), published by the Friends of the Public Record Office, covering 1701-49; the third published by the Society of Genealogists, covering 1750-1800). The period 1853-7 is covered by the National Probate Calendar (see below). Indices to PCC wills can now be searched, and copies of wills ordered, online at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk .

The Consistory Court of London

 Records: (covering 1492 to 1858) held at London Metropolitan Archives, 40 Northampton Road, London EC1R OHB (telephone 020 7332 3820, email ask.lma@cityoflondon.gov.uk). A published calendar of some of the Consistory Court wills, 1492-1547, is held by the Manuscripts Section of Guildhall Library of the bookshelves in the upper reading room.

The Consistory Court wills have been indexed and near complete coverage is provided for the years 1514-1858.  This index can be downloaded from the London Metropolitan Archives website. Follow the link to “About us” and then to “Volunteers”. You will find the index at the bottom of the page, in alphabetical sections.

Details of other London courts, and the location of their surviving records, may be found in the publications by Camp and Gibson mentioned above.

The London Probate Index, 1750-1858, compiled by Dr David Wright, draws together into a single alphabetical sequence by personal name all wills and administrations in nine courts undertaking probate business in London. The probate courts are those for the Consistory Court of London; Commissary Court of London; Archdeaconry Court of London; Archdeaconry Court of Middlesex; Peculiar of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s; Royal Peculiar of St Katharine by the Tower; Royal Peculiar of the Commissary Court of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster; Archbishop’s Peculiar of the Deanery of Croydon; and Archbishop of Canterbury’s Peculiar of the Deanery of Arches. Surnames A-E are available on CD Rom at £20 post free to any address. Alternatively, an SAE and £5 will supply up to ten entries of a surname and specified variants. Dates of death, even if approximate, should always be supplied. An estimate will be given for any remainder at 50 pence per entry. Enquiries should be addressed to Dr David Wright, 71 Island Wall, Whitstable, Kent CT5 1EL (davideastkent@aol.com; www.canterhill.co.uk/davideastkent/.

Post-1858 wills. All existing probate jurisdictions were abolished by the Court of Probate Act of 25 August 1857 which came into force on 11 January 1858. This Act of Parliament established a Principal Probate Registry and 40 District Probate Registries for England and Wales. Wills proved and administrations granted after 11 January 1858 may be seen at the Principal Probate Registry Probate Search Rooms, First Avenue House, 42-49 High Holborn, London WC1V 6NP (tel. 020 7936 7000). Postal enquiries should be addressed to the Chief Clerk, York Probate Sub-Registry, Castle Chambers, Clifford Street, York, YO1 9RG.

Guildhall Library holds a microfiche copy of the National Probate Calendar for the period 1853-1943. This printed calendar (published by HMSO) records brief details about all grants of probate and letters of administration made in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1853-7, and in the Principal Probate Registry and District Probate Registries, 1858-1935.

The National Probate Calendar is arranged alphabetically by surname within the period 1853-7, and then alphabetically by surname within each year; wills and administrations are recorded in separate sequences. The amount of information given varies, but usually includes the full name of the deceased, their place of abode, their date of death, where they died and the value of their effects; also where the will was proved or the letters of administration granted and to whom the grant of probate or letters of administration was made.

The calendar is held in the Printed Books Section of Guildhall Library in the microfiche cabinets; staff in that section will be pleased to give further advice. Copies of the calendar are also available in some other libraries and record offices.


GUIDES TO INDEXES: COMMISSARY COURT OF LONDON

The will registers (Ms 9171/1-98) are bound volumes of the registered copies of wills made at the time of probate.

The act books (Ms 9168/1-48) are bound volumes containing copies of probate acts, by which original wills were confirmed. They also record the decision of the court to appoint administrators if the deceased died intestate (without leaving a will).

To find out whether an individual appears in the will registers and/or act books, consult the indexes available on the bookshelves in the upper part of the Manuscripts reading room.

Note. The indexes also record references to original wills (Ms 9172). These are not yet available on microfilm. Readers are requested to use the will registers wherever possible; use of microfilm is compulsory for post-1600 registers.

 

INDEXES

Indexes for the years 1374-1649 and 1661-1700 appear in Index to Testamentary records in the Commissary Court of London (London Division), volumes I-IV (ed. Marc Fitch):

Vol I - index to will registers (Ms 9171/1-7) and act books (Ms 9168/1) for 1374-1488;

Vol II - index to will registers (Ms 9171/7-16) and act books (Ms 9168/1-13) for 1489-1570;

Vol III - index to will registers (Ms 9171/16-24) and act books (Ms 9168/13-17) for 1571-1625;

Vol IV - index to will registers (Ms 9171/24-50A) and act books (Ms 9168/17-29) for 1626- 1649 and 1661-1700.

The published indexes use the following conventions:

[ ] indicates information derived from the act books (Ms 9168);
< > indicates information derived from original wills (Ms 9172);
No brackets indicates information derived from the will registers (Ms 9171).

Unpublished indexes for 1625-1858 (Ms 9173A/10-39) are available on the bookshelves in the upper part of the Manuscripts reading room.


GUIDE TO INDEXES: ARCHDEACONRY COURT OF LONDON

The will registers (Ms 9051/1-19) are bound volumes of the registered copies of wills made at the time of probate.

The act books (Ms 9050/1-25) are bound volumes containing copies of probate acts, by which original wills were confirmed. They also record the decision of the court to appoint administrators if the deceased died intestate (without leaving a will).

To find out whether any individual appears in the will registers and/or act books, consult the indexes available in the upper part of the Manuscripts reading room.

Note. The indexes also record references to original wills (Ms 9052). These are not yet available on microfilm. Readers are requested to use the will registers wherever possible; use of microfilm is compulsory for post-1600 registers.

INDEXES

Indexes for the years 1368-1649 and 1661-1700 appear in Testamentary records etc. in the Archdeaconry Court of London, volumes I-II (ed. Marc Fitch):

Vol I - index to will registers for 1393-1640/1 (Ms 9051/1-8), original wills for 1524-(1662) (Ms 9052/1-13) and act books for 1564-1649 (Ms 9050/1-8);

Vol II - index to will registers for 1661-1680 (Ms 9051/9-10), original wills for (1646)-1700 (Ms 9052/13-32) and act books for 1660-1700 (Ms 9050/8-18).

The published indexes use the following conventions:

[ ] indicates information derived from the act books (Ms 9050);
< > indicates information derived from original wills (Ms 9052);
No brackets indicates information derived from the will registers (Ms 9051).

Wills 1700-1807 have been indexed by personal name, place and subject in Cliff Webb, An Index of Wills Proved in the Archdeaconry Court of London 1700-1807 (Society of Genealogists, 1996)


Unpublished indexes
for 1368-1781 (with a few entries to 1807) (Ms 9054/1-3) are available in the upper part of the Manuscripts reading room.

The unpublished indexes use the following conventions:

A.B. + number indicates the act book and relevant volume;
Reg. + number indicates the will register and relevant volume.

However, they remain difficult to intepret. The staff at the Manuscripts enquiry desk can give advice.


Last updated March 2009

Leaflet Guides to Records

Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section