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Introduction

Information on how to search the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives on-line catalogue

Personal name

Personal names are most likely to be the name of the person making their will, but they could also include the names of other individuals mentioned in a probate record such as children mentioned in a tuition bond. The data has been input in the format surname, forename. If you use the First and/or Surname box, the system will do a 'fuzzy' search. Entering hard will produce search results for eg Legg, Richard and Harding, Mary. However, entering hard in the Surname box will only produce surnames beginning with hard eg Harding, Mary. If the search produces no results, try entering the surname only.

Surnames

While spellings of names have generally been modernised there may still be many variations of the same name. Therefore if you do not find the name you require please try alternative spellings, or type in part of the name: eg Bayl, to bring up spellings such as Bayly/Bayley/Baylie. However, you will also need to do a separate search for 'Bail' to get variations of Bailey/Baily/Bailie etc. It must be remembered that spelling was not standardised until the 19th century, and until then any particular spelling of a surname almost invariably has no significance whatsoever. In fact it is not unknown for a name to be spelt as many as 5 or 6 different ways even within the same document. You will sometimes see a surname with an "s" on the end, which stands out from a group of others which are identical except for this extra letter, e.g. one person called Brownings, and a dozen or so called Browning. If they are all living in the same place, it seems likely that "Brownings" is a mistake. There are three possibilities: firstly, some families seem to have used either form indiscriminately; secondly, the scribe may have made a mistake, and thirdly, archive staff may have misinterpreted the name; if there is only an inventory, for example, the wording is usually "an inventory of all the goods (etc) of Thomas Brownings" - and it is impossible, at the time of cataloguing, to know if the final "s" is the possessive case, or part of the actual surname.

Forenames

For the wills, the spelling of forenames has been standardised as far as possible, to assist searching. Some names can only be reduced to two variants, though, such as Elinor/Eleanor or Geoffrey/Jeffrey, and others cannot be identified with either a contempory or a modern equivalent, so have been left as written. Helpful notes have been added in the case of ambiguous or confusing names: in the 16th and much of the 17th century, Denis, Philip, Michael and occasionally Olive were used for both men and women, so the sex of the deceased has been noted, where helpful. Christian is used exclusively as a woman's name. Jean is sometimes given as a woman's name, and has been left as written, but it is almost always a phonetic spelling of Jane. Annis and Raffe/Rafe are the usual vernacular forms of Agnes and Ralph. Some formerly common names are obsolete now (e.g. Parnel/Pernel, an old form of Petronella, and Anstice, from Anastasia). Please contact the Archive Service for help with puzzling names. Remember that names may be latinised in some documents, e.g. administration bonds. For advice on what to do when you cannot find the information you require see our help text.

Occupation/Status

Occupations have usually been recorded as given, although spelling has been modernised. You will need to check (for instance) cordwainers as well as shoemakers, bootmakers and heelmakers if this is the sort of trade you are interested in. Women are rarely ascribed an occupation, but their status is often given (e.g. widow, wife, spinster). If an occupation or status is not stated, but can be inferred, it has been given in brackets: [blacksmith]. For more information about the definition of occupations mentioned in records see: http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/Occupations.html For advice on what to do when you cannot find the information you require see our help text.

Subject

Formal subject indexing has not been used for the wills. It will be used for other types of document in future. For advice on what to do when you cannot find the information you require see our help text.

Any text field or key word

Searching on any text field is a powerful way to search the archive database, as it will search on many different fields at the same time. These fields include title, description, administrative history, and custodial history, amongst others. It is important to avoid being too specific in order to search successfully. For example, you will not find anything if you look up "will of John Smith" because it is not catalogued in that manner. The name "Smith, John" should be looked up under 'Who?', and the title left blank. There might be no will as such, but there could be other types of probate record such as inventory, administration bond, etc. See the glossary for definitions of terms used . For advice on what to do when you cannot find the information you require see our help text.

Date

For the wills, the catalogue gives only year dates, not days or months, and new style dating has been used throughout (See glossary). Uncertain dates are followed by a question mark. The date given is, wherever possible, the year of probate. This may be later than the year the person died sometimes probate was a drawn-out process. If the date of probate is not known, then the date of the will itself is given, usually in brackets, e.g. [1597]. In the 16th and 17th centuries, with a few noted exceptions, wills are usually made very soon before death, but by the 19th century they may be made several years earlier. If no date of probate is given, we can only give the date the will was made, which, to repeat, may not accord with the date of death. It is important to be aware of these possibilities when searching for wills, and not to reject out of hand those which do not have precisely the expected date. For advice on what to do when you cannot find the information you require see our help text.

Place name

Introduction The place is based on an authority file, or controlled list, containing (from the most detailed level upwards) farm or house name; hamlet; ecclesiastical parish name; town/village; and county. If you do not know a place name have a look at: http://www.wiltshire.gov.uk/community/ for details of Wiltshire parishes . To get an idea of where a place is in relation to the rest of Wiltshire, type the name of the place into www.multimap.co.uk. It is worth remembering that church and civil parish boundaries are different, and both have changed substantially over time, and continue to change. For example, Alvediston was a chapelry of Broad Chalke parish until 1861, when it became a parish in its own right, but was then abolished in 1970 to help create Ebbesborne Wake with Fifield Bavant and Alvediston. If you are unsure whether the place you are interested in may have changed, please consult the Archive Service. You may also like to look at http://www.wiltshire.gov.uk/community/ to find out more information about a locality. All Wiltshire wills are indexed by place name of the main residence of the testator, where given in the original document. Searching by the name of the mother parish, rather than that of an individual hamlet or farm, is recommended, as the latter are not consistently stated in documents so may not be mentioned in the catalogue. Searching by a county name is possible, but only recommended for counties other than Wiltshire, Dorset and Berkshire, as there are many wills entries for these places (over 10,000 for Dorset, and more than 11,000 for Berkshire). For advice on what to do when you cannot find the information you require see our help text.

Reference Number

Most probate records will start with the reference number P (for Probate collection) followed by a number representing which court the document was proved in. There are 30 probate jurisdictions represented in the collection. To find out more about them click here. This part of the reference will then be followed by / to indicate a new level. What follows will depend on the type of document. Registered copies of wills will have the format 1REG/item number. Other wills will have the year, then the item number eg 1650/27. Yet others will have an alphanumeric reference, eg P1/A/53. For advice on what to do when you cannot find the information you require see our help text.

I cannot find the information I require - what should I do next?

Wills

It has been estimated, by comparing wills with parish registers, that at most only 25% of potential testators left wills, and in some places the figure is as low as 10%. Generally speaking, where there was very little to leave, and no inheritance disputes were likely, wills were either not made, or not registered. Conversely, the very wealthy, or those who owned property in more than one diocese, may not have registered their wills at any of the Diocese of Salisbury probate courts. It may help to read the background information about probate jurisdictions. See also: http://www.familyrecords.gov.uk/frc/research/willsmain.htm During the Commonwealth period (1650-1660) wills were registered, if at all, in a special court in London. These wills are held by the Family Records Centre. It is an unfortunate fact that some wills are simply lost, whether through accident, neglect or misplacement, at some point in their custodial history. Sometimes there is direct evidence of this in the supporting documents which do survive; sometimes it can only be inferred. As you might expect, survival is patchy in the early to mid 16th century, and gradually improves thereafter. Before you assume that the lack of a result from an on-line search means the information itself does not exist please contact usfor help and advice on how to continue your research. You are also very welcome to visit the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives to pursue your research in person (except May-October 2007 when we are in the process of moving).

I have found several probate records for the same person - why?

Upon the death of the testator, the executor had to take the original will of the testator to the appropriate court, for probate (to check that the will was authentic) and to say whether or not they wished to accept or renounce the role of executor. If they could not accept the role, the court would commit administration of the goods to the person with the largest beneficial interest in the estate. (This is generally known as an administration with will annexed.) The act of renunciation of the named executor would be registered by the court. (In many cases the executor did not actually need to go to court, as local clergy might be licensed to administer the appropriate oaths, and then return the documents to court on their behalf.) From 1529/30, an executor had to make an inventory of the goods of the testator; procure the will to be proved; pay the debts; discharge the legacies of the deceased and render an account to the court. The court would determine if the will was lawful, and if so, annex a probate to it, which confirmed the will. (This was usually done by writing the probate [in Latin prior to 1733] on the back of the will.) The original will was usually then filed and kept by the court. A probate copy of the will was made and sealed by the court, and given to the executor as his authority to act. (This copy will occasionally be deposited in Record Offices separately amongst estate papers.) A third copy of the will was often made, written in a bound volume of registered wills. (For Wiltshire, these are indicated by a reference number containing the word REG.) The original copy is the only one to contain the testator's signature, therefore. A fee had to be paid for registration, and for some courts there may be a number of unregistered wills. The executor, before he received the sealed probate copy of the will, had to make an oath, and might enter into a bond, to render a true account of his stewardship of the estate. Therefore some wills are accompanied by the oaths and testamentary bonds of the executors. The account had to be rendered within a year or at the court's discretion, checked by the court, and discharged, but this document would often be only kept for a time and then destroyed. If someone died intestate (ie without making a will) their goods were administered by someone after a probate court had granted letters of administration (often abbreviated to admon) to a relative, creditor, or stranger appointed by the court. The court could also grant letters "ad colligendum bona defuncti" to a stranger to gather up the goods of the deceased, or act itself. Persons seeking to administer an estate might make an allegation to the court of their intent, and then upon receiving letters of administration, be required to enter into an administration bond with sureties, to make an inventory of the goods of the deceased, and render a true account of them. Another type of record you will find in the Wiltshire probate records is the 'tuition bond'. This was basically a promise by a tutor or guardian to provide for the unmarried infant children of the deceased, bring them up appropriately, and administer their goods faithfully. Boys aged 14 and girls aged 12 could appoint their own guardians, notwithstanding their fathers' wills. There may be other legal papers among the probate records, relating to disputes - if anyone is interested in going into this subject in more depth, they are recommended to read one of the works in the bibliography. Please contact us for help and advice on your research. You are also very welcome to visit the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives to pursue your research in person (except May-October 2007 when we are in the process of moving).

Which probate records have images?


The following will references have images linked to the catalogue data published on the website:
References from P1/1REG to P1/15REG
Reference from P2/1REG to P2/9REG
References from P3/1REG to P3/3REG
References from P4/1584 to P4/1780
References from P5/1REG to P5/20REG
References from P5/1558 to P5/1858

Digitisation of the Wiltshire probate records is a time-consuming process. Although there are just over 105,000 catalogue records, there are in fact over 500,000 individual items within the collection. It takes approximately a month to digitize just over 3,000 items. It is a job requiring great perseverance and dedication.
It is worth remembering these records represent only 1% of the total archive holdings of Wiltshire and Swindon Archives!


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