[IMAGE-1] You will find it very easy to trace English and Welsh wills and administrations made since January 1858; the Principal Registry in London holds records since that date.

Over the years, most copies of wills held by families, executors or administrators have been lost. However, the originals are preserved in official court records. The Probate Act of 1857 required that all applications for probate or administration be made to the newly established civil Court of Probate with Probate Registries across England and Wales. The Principal Registry in London holds copies of all the wills proved, or administrations granted, in these registries. It also has calendars (alphabetical lists of wills proved and administrations granted) since 1858. Microfilms of the calendars for 1858-1935 can be seen at the Society of Genealogists and other major archives. Copies of Welsh wills (except Montgomeryshire) are also held at the National Library of Wales.

Key sources of information

Research in the Principal Registry

Finding the entry
At the Principal Registry you can consult yearly calendars, or alphabetical list, of all people for whom grants of probate or letters of administration have been made since 1858,as well as copies of the documentation. It could take months or even a year or two to grant probate or letters of administration, and names appear in the calendar for the year in which the grant was made rather than the year of death. So if your ancestor died in 1880, search the 1880 and 1881 calendars. The registry searchroom is open from 10am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday.

What's in a calendar 
A calendar entry can provide you with much information; including the deceased's full name, occupation, address and date of death, the gross value of the estate , the name of the executors or administrators and sometimes their occupations, addressed and their relationship (if any) to the deceased.

You should always copy out the full entry in the calendar, since all the information may turn out to be important.

Seeing documents 
You can ask to view a copy of a will, grant of probate -or letters of administration up to 3pm You need to fill in a form and pay £5. Extra copies of the same document cost £1 each. The records are ready to be collected in about an hour, and you can make notes and take the copies away with you.

You maybe able to obtain a literary research pass, allowing you to look at documents over 100 years old without paying the £5 fee. For details, contact the Principal Registry.

Copies by post You can ask for copies of wills, grants of probate or letters of administration , to be sent to you after you have made your search The fee is £5; per estate. If you cannot get to London, a search can be done and copies of documents sent to you. Write, enclosing a cheque for £5 payable to HM Paymaster General to:

The Postal Searches Copies Department York Probate-Sub Registry 1st Floor Castle Chambers Clifford Street YORK YO1 9RG Tele 01904 666777

Searching closer to home If you cannot get to London, check if your local family history society or archive holds calendars. There are also District Probate Registries, where some calendars can be inspected and copies of wills and probate grants ordered. Check with a registry first to find what is available.

Irish probate records

Probate in Ireland was similar to England. Since 1858, wills and administrations have been dealt with in the Probate Court, consisting of a Principal Registry in Dublin plus 11 District Registries. These regional registries kept copies while the originals were sent to Dublin. Although most of the post-1858 Principal Registry will and grant books and original wills and grants of the Principal and District Registries were destroyed by fire in 1922, copies survived in the regional registries and many lost records have also been replaced by copies from solicitors, family papers and property records. Others are represented by transcripts or abstracts made before the fire. These collections are held in the National Archives in Dublin. Post-1922 probate records for Northern Ireland are held at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Scottish probate records

Until 1868 real property (land and buildings) in Scotland descended automatically to the eldest son (or to the daughters equally if there were no sons). Only personal property could be left in a 'testamentary disposition'. Probate records consist of a person's testament and a 'grant of confirmation', which is a court order confirming the appointment of executors or administrators.

Sheriff Courts, with a jurisdiction approximating to the Scottish counties, have dealt with probate in Scotland since 1824. Their older records are in the National Archives of Scotland but the most recent records are held by the individual courts. The National Archives holds various indexes to Sheriff Court probate records for 1824-75 and annual volumes, listing alphabetically by name of the deceased all confirmations for 1876-1959. 

Scottish and Irish held property When Scottish and Irish people died holding property in England or Wales, the executors or administrators would bring the probate papers to London. The English registry would `reseal' the original papers, that is stamp them as `approved' in this jurisdiction, then enter them in the national English and Welsh indexes. Scottish and Irish executors or administrators could then deal with property in London.


ISLE OF MAN Church courts dealt with Manx probates before 1884; the Manx High Court of justice took the task over after 1884. Records up to 1910 with indexes are in the Manx National Heritage Library More recent probate records are in the Probate Offices in Douglas. After 1858 some wills were proved in the Principal Registry in London, or before this in the Prerogative Courts of York or Canterbury.

GUERNSEY Wills and administrations are proved and held by the Ecclesiastical Court in St Peter Port; wills since 1841 dealing with real property are held by the Greffe of the Royal Court of Guernsey.

JERSEY Land in Jersey descended automatically until 1851. Wills dealing with real property made since that date are held at the Public Registry in St Helier, while those dealing with personal property and administrations are held by the judicial Greffe.

Death duty records
Death duty registers at the PRO can be useful. To assess tax (levied on a deceased's estate since 1796) the authorities copied information on the value and recipients of the property from English and Welsh administrations and wills. The registers for 1796 to 1903 are in class IR 26 with indexes in IR 27.They give details on the deceased, executors, administrators and beneficiaries and their relationships to the deceased, as well as the property they received. This can be important as letters of administration do not record the names of beneficiaries. Even a will may omit their names-for example, if property was ‘to be divided between my four children equally'.

Death duty registers for Scotland are held at the National Archives of Scotland and date from 1804.

Taking it further

  • Ancestral Trails (M. Herber,-Sutton, revised ed. 2000).
  • Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills and other probate records (M. Scott, PRO, 1997).
  • Probate jurisdictions: where to look for wills (J. Gibson FFHS, 1994).
  • Wills and their Whereabouts (A. J. Camp, 4th ed., published by author, 1974).
  • Tracing your Irish ancestors (J. Grenham, Gill & Macmillan, 1992).

Information on the Internet on where to find probate records;



It requires a bit more research to locate a will made before 1858, as until then probate was granted by a number of ecclesiastical courts. Find the court and you should find the will

Earlier wills and letters of administration are similar in form to later documents, but as you step back in time the language becomes more archaic and religious. They are handwritten documents, sometimes in Latin, which may be difficult to decipher.

Locating pre-1858 wills is also a more complex process. Until that year ecclesiastical courts in England and Wales dealt with probate. An excellent guide to the Church courts, the places within their jurisdiction, the location of their records and the existence of indexes is provided by Probate Jurisdictions: where to look for wills.


The location of your ancestor's property would have determined to which court or courts an application for probate was made. Personal possessions would usually be in the deceased's house, but a man could own land in a number of places.

Archdeacons' courts These had jurisdiction over a group of parishes, which might vary greatly in extent, some covering most of a county. Maps in Gibson's work show these jurisdictions. If a man's property lay within one archdeaconry, application for probate should have been made to that court.

Superior courts If a person owned property of £5 or more (known as bona notabilia) in more than one archdeaconry, application for probate should have been made to a superior court-that of a bishop or an archbishop. If the property was in one diocese, application could be made to the bishop's Consistory Court.

Some archdeacons did not exercise their jurisdiction, and wills and administrations in these areas also had to be dealt with by a bishop's court (known as a Commissary Court under these circumstances).

Courts of Canterbury and York If the property lay in different dioceses, but the same archbishop's province, application was made to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), or to one of the courts of the Archbishop of York. The jurisdiction of the York courts varied, so you should search the records of the Consistory Court of York, the Prerogative Court of York and the Exchequer Court. If a man's property lay in the provinces of both Canterbury and York, the application should have been made to the PCC, as it was the higher court. The PCC also dealt with probate for people dying outside England and Wales but owning property there.

Applications were sometimes made to a higher court than was necessary. The PCC had offices in London and the provinces and was the busiest and most prestigious probate court. Many used it for that reason alone. Ideally, therefore, you should always search the PCC records.

‘Peculiar' parishes Some parishes, known as ‘peculiars', were in one archdeaconry or diocese but came under another jurisdiction-usually that of other church officials and their courts. Some peculiars had their own probate courts. The peculiars in each county are noted by Gibson, together with the names of the courts that had jurisdiction.

Closure of the church courts Between 1653 and 1660 the church courts were closed, and almost every will or administration in England and Wales was dealt with by a civil ‘Court of Probate of wills and granting administrations'. Its records can be found within the PCC wills at the PRO now the National Archives.

Key sources of information

  • Most church court records in local record offices.
  • Prerogative Court of Canterbury records at the National Archives and the Family Records Centre now closed.
  • Archbishop of York's court records at the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research.
  • Welsh courts' records of wills at the National Library of Wales.
  • Irish records and indexes of wills in the Registry of Deeds and the National Archives of Ireland.
  • Most pre- 1824. Scottish wills at the National Archives of Scotland.

Other probate courts A few other courts had jurisdiction over probate matters. This usually occurred in large towns and cities such as the City of London, where the Court of Hustings proved wills until the 17th century.

A forgetful scientist's legacy

Some of the greatest men have failed to leave a will; the scientist Isaac Newton died intestate in 1727,The next year this letter of administration, penned in Latin, named his two nephews and a niece as administrators of his foods, rights and rents.

Finding the records Most church court records are in county record offices, as listed by Gibson. For instance, probate records for most Bedfordshire inhabitants are at Bedford Record Office. The records of other courts are generally in the city or borough record office where the court had jurisdiction.

PCC RECORDS These are at the PRO, and the most important records are also on microfilm at the Family Records Centre. Many PCC indexes have been published. Copies are available at the PRO, Family Records Centre, Society of Genealogists and county record offices. The PRO and Family Records Centre also hold unpublished indexes for certain years.

THE YORK COURTS Probate records for the York province are held at the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research which has indexes for 1688-1858. See A Guide to Genealogical Sources in the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research (C.C. Webb, York University, 3rd ed., 1996).

WELSH COURTS Consistory and archdeacons' court records are in the National Library of Wales .The courts (and indexes to the records) are listed in Gibson. Some Welsh indexes are by given name, reflecting the existence of the patronymic naming system.

Other collections of wills Property deeds held in county record offices sometimes include wills of the property owners used by executors to distribute the estate. Copy wills can also survive in family papers and solicitors' records deposited in archives, and they maybe indexed.

Some published and typescript copies of wills exist in record offices and at the Society of Genealogists. If your ancestor's original will has been lost, these may be the only remaining evidence of its existence. Published volumes often index the names of everyone referred to in the wills they contain. Such indexes offer an easy way to find your ancestor if he was a beneficiary or executor.

Irish probate records pre-1858

Finding a will in Ireland can be difficult. Before 1858 applications for probate, as in England, had to be made to church courts, and most of these records were destroyed by fire in 1922. Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (J. Grenham, Gill & Macmillan, 2nd ed., 1999) lists the surviving records and indexes, and collections of will transcripts.

Published and indexed abstracts of more than 2000 wills from 1708 to 1832 can be found in the Registry of Deeds in Dublin and about 10,000 indexed wills in family estate papers are held in the National Archives of Ireland

Scottish probate records pre-1824

The church courts of Scotland dealt with probate until about 1560, when jurisdiction was transferred to secular courts known as commissariots. The highest of these courts was the Principal Commissariot Court in Edinburgh, which also had jurisdiction over the property of Scots dying abroad.

Maps of the commissariot jurisdictions are available from the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies. The National Archives of Scotland holds most pre-1824 wills. Indexes are at the National Archives, the Society of Genealogists and Family History Centres.


PCC wills are available on the internet http://www.documentsonline.nationalarchives.gov.uk/wills.asp

Reproduced by kind permission of The Reader's Digest Association Limited, Explore Your Family's Past © 2000. For further information please visit the Reader's Digest websitewww.readersdigest.co.uk

Heir Hunters returns in 2010 to BBC1 with Series 4
February 2010

Series dedicated to finding the heirs of people who have died without leaving a will.

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Heir Hunters returns to our screens on BBC1
June 2009

Following the success of the first two series of Heir Hunters the series returns to our screens on Monday June 29th, on BBC1 at 9.15 am find out how the beneficiaries of unclaimed estates left by deceased persons who have not made a will are tracked down by rival probate genealogy companies in a bid to claim their share of the estate before it goes to HM Treasury. Watch the series as these cases develop, family secrets unfold and the highs and lows of researching family trees.

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Heir Hunters - Series following the work of heir hunters, probate detectives looking for distant relatives of people who have died without making a will. Watch the episodes again on BBC iplayer at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007nms5



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