Workshop: Wills (pre-1858)

My workshop introduces your group to pre-1858 Wills, where to search for them, how to overcome brick-walls in their research and techniques for reading old Wills. This is an Interactive workshop rather than a talk. If you wish to book a talk rather than a workshop for your group please contact me to discuss.

Talk (Workshop) Overview

What is a will?

A will is a written instrument by which a person disposes of their property on death. It is secret and revocable (capable of being revoked or cancelled)


  • It must be in writing and dated


  • Signed by the testator / testatrix at the end in the presence of two witnesses, who must sign at the same time


  • The testator / testatrix must be of full age


  • Testator / testatrix must have animus testandi; they must know they are signing a legal document


How are Wills useful for our family history?

Wills are useful for clarifying and proving pedigrees built through birth, marriage and death (BMD), Census and Parish records


  • Useful for adding colour to family trees (belongings, desires and suggesting how the family felt about each other)


  • useful for learning about possessions and who they were left to


  • may record who was still alive, or had died. Who married who, who was in or out of favour and which possessions were prized by who


  • very good way of confirming who was related to who, or finding a reference to possessions passed down to your generation


The Statute of Wills (1540) and Wills Act (1837) laid out the rules for most wills useful for family historians


  • From 1540 men aged 14 and women aged 12 could write wills; this was raised to 21 years in 1837


  • Those excommunicated, mad or in prison could not write Wills


  • Many women didn’t write Wills until 1882, due to the fact they couldn’t legally own anything until this date (ref: Married Women’s Property Act allowed women to own property; 1882)


Writing Wills


  • The writer (testator – male, testatrix – female) nominated executors


  • Executors took the will to a court to ‘prove it’, by swearing it was authentic and represented the deceased last wishes. They undertook to carry out the instructions expressed


Finding Wills




  • For Irish Wills see: for an Index of Irish Wills 1484-1858 (reconstituted from substitute records as many original Wills were destroyed in 1922)


Wanting to write your own will? Consider will aid month (in November each year)

Find out more in my workshop:

  • Introduction
  • What is a will?
  • Use in Family History research
  • Writing Wills
  • Letters of Administration
  • Handout: Example of Will (1)
  • Finding Wills
  • Breaking brick walls
  • Handout: Example of a Will (2) 1710
  • Summary
  • Do / Don’t
  • Share your findings
  • Optional homework exercise


View all my workshops / talks and book me


Sources (Photo by Oliver Gruener)

Robert Parker is a Genealogist and Trainer, based in Kent. He delivers courses, guidance, talks and research services for those interested in tracing their ancestors. See for his 5 steps to discovering your ancestors. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation.

What stories could your ancestors tell?

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