Q and A
WHAT ARE PROBATE INVENTORIES?
I have been lucky enough to find several wills relating to members of my family from as early as 1700. I have also found some of the more recent ones (19th century) in the Death Duty Registers. Between these two sources I have discovered names of other family members that I did not know about previously and they have helped enormously with my ‘genealogy’. However, I would like to know more about what sort of people they were and I have been told that every will, and administration, would have been accompanied by and inventory of what they owned when they died. Is that the case and where can I find these lists?
Wills and administrations are two of the sources that we should turn to automatically as each new death is discovered. The details that we can obtain from these, particularly the former, are mostly well understood. However, one other document produced as part of the probate process is less well known but equally useful, and often more interesting, in that it can provide detailed information not available anywhere else. This is the probate inventory.
From 1530 to 1782 it was obligatory for every executor of a will or administrator of a grant to provide the registry of the appropriate probate court with an inventory of the deceased’s goods, together with their value. After 1782 it was possible for any interested party to ask for an inventory to be produced, but it was no longer an automatic part of the procedure.
The main purpose of these inventories was to discover the total value of the dead man’s property, and by publishing his worth to protect the executors or administrators should they be asked by family or creditors to pay debts or legacies for which there were insufficient funds available. The inventories were compiled or ‘appraised’ by two or more reputable neighbours who were considered to be competent and qualified to assess the value of the goods. At least that was the theory: in practice the appraisers may have been barely literate and their valuations more guesswork than anything else.
The inventories were usually of a general nature, listing the deceased’s personal property: chattels such as furniture and clothing; together with any cash, shares, debts owing or owed, crops, livestock, implements used by the deceased in his trade or occupation, stock-in-trade, and even numbers of slaves. Real estate, except leases, is not normally included unless it is relevant to the settling of any debts. Occasionally there are separate inventories of specific items, such as of leases, mortgages etc.
These lists were usually prepared room by room of the dead man’s house and farm or business premises, followed by details of the debts owed and owing and leases; creditors are named. It is often possible to imagine what the property could have looked like as you read the descriptions of all the items that were to be found in the parlour, the kitchen, the best chamber etc. The details of the deceased’s stock-in-trade, finished goods and raw materials, together with a description of his tools and implements and the names of his creditors and debtors, can give an insight into his business activities.
The survival of probate inventories varies from probate court to probate court and from one century to another. Often they will be found attached to the other surviving testamentary record but sometimes they have been separated and have their own index or other finding aid. It is always worth checking with the relevant record office the arrangement of the records that they hold, to see if you should be looking elsewhere for an inventory when searching for a possible will or administration. Probate Jurisdictions: Where to Look for Wills, compiled by Jeremy Gibson and Else Churchill, published by Federation of Family History Societies, is a great help here in discovering the whereabouts of wills, administrations and inventories before 1858.
For the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, the superior probate court until 1858, there are inventories from 1417, totalling about 40,000 in all. Only about 825 pre-1660 inventories have survived, the majority having been destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666; there is a list and index of names and places to these. For the period 1660–1858 inventories are to be found in much greater numbers. There are various card, typescript and published indexes covering the period after 1660.
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