Until this century, most people had little property and so did not bother to make a will. You may believe that most of your ancestors were in this category, so that wills are irrelevant to your family history. That would be a mistake. Wills were made by the rich and by professionals, but also by many people who were not wealthy (such as shopkeepers, farmers and labourers). I have 17th- and 18th-century ancestors, including farmers, a shoemaker and two butchers, who left wills. An ancestor’s will should describe the property that he owned and reveal the names (and perhaps addresses) of his family, other relatives and friends. Some wills even pre-date parish registers.
Wills are particularly important because they were prepared with the intention of acknowledging or confirming relationships. The will of Thomas Gillman of Hockliffe, Bedfordshire confirmed that my ancestors James and Susannah Eagles of Hoxton were indeed Thomas’s son-in-law and daughter. Wills may evidence many relationships. Emma Keates, a half-sister of my g.g. grandfather John Josiah Keates, died in 1948 and named 15 relatives in her will. My g.g.g. grandfather George Keates died in 1870. In his will he named his wife, his eldest son and his maid. He also identified two of his properties and his shares in the Walthamstow Joint Stock Association, the Essex Building Society and the Sussex Land Company.
Wills and Administrations Before 1858
Locating wills and administrations before 1858 is more difficult. Before 12 January 1858 the proving of wills and the grant of administrations was undertaken by the ecclesiastical courts. It is therefore necessary, in order to locate wills, to have some knowledge of the system of these courts.