The census records from 1841-1911 are one of the first sources we turn to in the quest to find out more about our ancestors and where they lived. The censuses are a wonderful source, presenting us with a complete family, their ages, relationships, occupation and place of birth. But what happens when you want to go further back in time? What sources are there, and will they survive for your parish? In fact, there are lots of documents you can try. Some will only provide a small piece in a very large jigsaw, but they will all help to build up a bigger picture of your family, town or village. Here are ten sources you can try….
Wills and Inventories. These are fascinating, particularly if you are researching a parish. They may mention relatives, the name of the property occupied by the deceased and their occupation. The opening phrases of the will may suggest which religious denomination they followed. Inventories often describe each room in a house and the goods found in them. The History Centre’s collection of wills proved in Salisbury dates back to 1530 and is available on Ancestry.
Overseers of the Poor. Before 1834 people who fell on hard times were supported in their own parish by the ratepayers. Account books will give details of the payments made and to whom. The overseers would only pay for people they believed to be legally settled in the parish. Any family who had recently arrived and were unable to find regular employment would be sent back to their home parish. Surviving poor law documents may include removal orders, settlement certificates and settlement examinations. These will indicate a family’s movements, or, in terms of a whole parish, will give an idea as to the number of families moving in or out and the economic conditions. These documents have been transcribed and indexed by the Wiltshire Family History Society and are available at the History Centre.
Tax Lists. The first official census was taken in 1801, but 1841 was the first census where every individual was named. There are a few surviving earlier censuses produced privately which are available at the History Centre. Tax records will give an indication as to the number of people in a parish and their names, but bear in mind that the poor did not always pay tax. Taxes paid in 1334 and 1377 are recorded in volume 4 of the Victoria County History of Wiltshire. The Wiltshire Record Society has published lists for 1332, 1545 and 1576. Land Tax records survive from approximately 1780-1830 for most parishes in Wiltshire.
Churchwardens’ Accounts. The churchwardens were usually leading members of the community and were named in the accounts. Some accounts name the rate payers and the amount each person paid. The payments made will show the maintenance work carried out on the church and the name of the man who was paid. Payment for wine will indicate how many times a year communion services were held. There may be a mention of bells, both for maintenance and the special occasions for which the ringers were paid to ring.
Churchwardens’ Presentments. It was the duty of the churchwardens to make annual ‘presentments’ which were documents sent to the Bishop or Dean of the Diocese. They were expected to report on the fabric of the church, the conduct of the minister, the morals and religious inclinations of the inhabitants. The collection for the Salisbury Diocese goes back to 1720 (with just a few surviving 17th century examples) and can be consulted at the History Centre. The early presentments are the most detailed and interesting; by the mid 18th century the wardens often contented themselves with reporting ‘omnia bene’ – all well. They are, however, worth searching, as they might mention a serious repair needed to the church, a rector who neglected to preach sufficient sermons, fathers of illegitimate children who were ‘named and shamed’, parishioners who did not follow the Church of England, schoolmasters teaching without a licence.
The outstanding Salisbury Diocesan Probate collection contains 105,000 wills and inventories and approximately 400,000 individual documents dating from Tudor to Victorian times c.1560-1858. This unique collection covers the whole of Wiltshire and Berkshire, and those parts of Dorset, and Uffculme in Devon which came under the jurisdiction of the Dean of Sarum.
In January 1858 civil registries became responsible for probate matters. The Salisbury Diocesan wills were sent from Salisbury to the new Principal Probate Registry in London. Conditions were far from ideal and in 1874 the wills were moved to Somerset House. Somerset House was not able to cope with the volume of documents it received and after the Second World War, a new county record office opened in Wiltshire and this was a sensible alternative place of deposit for the wills. In the 1950s the office was approved as an authorised place of deposit for probate records and the Salisbury Diocesan wills were transferred to the Record Office at Trowbridge. With the closure of the old Record Office in 2007 the wills were moved with the rest of the archive to our current purpose-built facility in Chippenham.
After receiving substantial Heritage Lottery (and other) funding, the Wiltshire Wills Project was inaugurated in 1999, to re-index and digitise the records. They have all been catalogued onto a computer database, flattened, re-packaged and (where necessary) repaired. This has ensured that they will be cared for better than ever in the future–particularly since digitisation means that the originals will not normally be handled anymore. Digitisation, which proved a lengthy process, was carried out by ourselves until last year when the company Ancestry took over. The whole collection will be available online (hopefully from mid November 2017) through the Ancestry website.
A will or testament is the documentary instrument by which you regulate the rights of others to your property and your family after your death.
A person's formal declaration (usually in writing) of his intention as to the disposal of his property or other matters to be performed after his death. Oxford English Dictionary, 1933
Originally a will dealt with real estate – land and buildings - and a testament with personal property - for example, clothing, furniture, stock, money, books - but they have been combined into one document since the 1500.
The preamble to an Act of Parliament of 1529 (21 Hen. VIII, c.4) detailed the purpose of will-making, explaining that testators should pay their debts, provide for their wives, arrange for the care of their children and make charitable bequests for the good of their souls.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, wills were increasingly used to provide for each member of the family left behind. George Beverstock senior of Bradford on Avon demonstrated that principle in his will of 1689, leaving two looms to his son-in-law thereby giving him a livelihood, and distributing his cows amongst his sons and daughters.
Writing a will was thought of as a spiritual duty as well as a worldly one; from 1552 clergy were required when visiting the sick to remind the dying of their duty to make a will.
To encourage will-making, the church made no direct charge for proving the wills of the very poor. There was just a cost of 6d for making a copy of the will and a further 6d if an administration bond was required.
There were rules on what constituted a valid will. Technically the following elements were required: • the date • the testator's mark or signature - duly witnessed • the nomination of an executor.
They also may include some or all of the following: • the testator’s name, residence and occupation • a statement of health and mental capacity • the “religious preamble”, a statement of faith • a preferred parish of burial • details of bequests/legacies • provision for the widow • provision for the children • special funeral instructions • appointment of overseers to supervise executor • codicil
Having said that, not all the wills in the collection follow these rules, for if no formal written will existed or it could not be found, other evidence could be used. Holograph wills (in the testator’s own handwriting) were generally accepted so long as they were agreed to be genuine. Henry White’s will is a lovely example of an informal hand-written will, found on the reverse of an old letter:
One of my favourite aspects of working with the museums of Wiltshire is the fantastic variety of stories, events, people and places represented in the many thousands of items in their collections. Mostly these are used in a very structured way. You go to the museum to see an exhibition on a particular subject or the museum is contacted about the history of a specific village. The volunteers and staff at Wiltshire’s museums spend many hundreds of hours cataloguing the items in their collections so that they are able to know which items are relevant when they come to mount their exhibitions or answer enquires.