Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

How much was your Essex ancestor worth?

last will and testament

How the Probate Calendars reveal how wealthy your Essex ancestors were.

When researching your Essex ancestors it is good to be able to put some flesh on the 'bare bones' of their dates of birth, marriage and death, and census returns. One way is to find out their financial situation. This is now possible with the index to the England and Wales National Probate Calendars for the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Previously you could only view these by making a personal visit to the Probate Registry for England and Wales, but now they are available online.

The Calendars are an index of Wills and Administrations proved between the years 1858 and preent day. Before then Wills and Probate were not centralised. The index contains details of the estates of over 6,079,000 individuals who died having made a Will and where Probate was later granted. The index provides the name of the person, date and place of death, executors of the Will, and the value of the estate, or the amount it was below (for example: under £1000).

The provided information will then allow you to apply for a copy of the Will and any other relevant documents from the Principal Probate Registry. The Will will provide details of the beneficiaries of the Will, which could be their family, friends or perhaps business associates, and a great deal more about your ancestor's financial position and assets.

Unfortunately, not everyone made a Will, so it is very unlikely you will find a Will for your ancestor who was an agricultural labourer. Sometimes the date of death and probate year may be different. They could be several years apart. Be prepared to be flexible with your searching.

One downside of these Probate Calendars is that you may find a very rich ancestor, and if you're not that rich, this may disappoint you and leave you to ask: "What happened to all the money. There's none left in my present family!" However, the bright side of this is this could you lead you onto another story of a wastrel who spent the family fortune.

probate service website image

You can only order the Wills and Letter of Adminstration online at the Government's Probate Service. It will cost £10 for each document. Viewing the index is free.

Go to their Find a Will search page and enter the persons surname and year of death. It is not possible to enter any other search parameters. A search will return pages of the National Probate Calendar in which that person's surname appears for that year. It may cover several pages. Go through the pages until you find the entry you are looking for. From this take the relevant details required for the ordering form which appears on the right of the probate calendar pages. Then click 'add to the basket' and pay.

If you are a member of Ancestry.co.uk, they have a far better search engine for finding Wills up to 1966. A great help if you are unsure as to the year or place of death. Once you have found it on there, you can revert back to the Probate Office's search engine.

For information on how to research Wills before 1858, see our Wills before 1858 page.

For more information on Wills see our articles: Wills before 1858 and Wills after 1858.

National Probate Calendar at Ancestry.co.uk

More articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

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Ebay is a good source of old images of Essex towns and villages. If you're looking for pictures to add to your family tree album, then try one of the auctions, or there are several 'Buy It Now' shops offering postcards which have been touched up and improved - so if you're unsure about bidding, try these. Link already formatted for Essex Postcards. Browse through or type the name of the location in the Ebay search box.