Book Review: The Wills of our Ancestors – A Guide for Family and Local Historians by Stuart Raymond

Wills of Our Ancestors: A Guide for Family and Local Historians by Stuart Raymond

The Wills of Our Ancestors: A Guide for Family and Local Historians. By Stuart A. Raymond. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK. ₤12.99. US Distributor: Casemate Publishing, 1016 Warrior Road, Drexel Hill, PA 19026. $24.95. Australia Distributor: Gould Genealogy and History, P.O. Box 119, St. Agnes SA 5097, Australia. AUS$34.95. 2012. xviii, 199 pp. Illustrations, index. Softcover.

Almost every book on English research highlights the need to examine the wills of our ancestors. But the devil is in understanding the details and there are lots of them. Mr. Raymond gives us an easy to read detailed guide to understanding and using the wills and associated records of our ancestors.

This book focuses primarily on English and Welsh probate records from the medieval period through to 1857, although the post 1857 wills, along with the parts of the British Isles are discussed, but in less detail. The book’s introduction discusses the value of probate records, what has survived, their origins (separate meaning of will and testament and how they got combined after 1540), probate law, along with their limitations and biases, plus a community case study. That is all in the introduction.

There are separate chapters addressing: who could make wills and why they made them; the probate process; what is likely to be found in the will (and why it needs to be treated with care); the contents, value and limitations of inventories; other probate records (litigations, act books, commissions, administration bonds, probate accounts); plus where and how to find the probate records. The book continues but with less detail on the post 1857 wills, and probate records from around the rest of the British Isles. There are a number of other groups of records outside the church and civil courts that contain probate materials and these are each addressed giving the researchers alternative sources.

There is an excellent further reading section that provides an annotated bibliography of books about the probate process, records, and guidebooks but also identifies published collections of probate records arranged by counties, and specific locations within the counties. The problem is that the listing is not complete and you might not know that unless you read everything because in the annotated section for the book by Gibson and Churchill it states – “This volume also lists numerous indexes, both published and unpublished, which are therefore not listed in the present volume” (p.109), although some of the publications in Gibson and Churchill are included here.

The appendices include: summary lists of pre-1858 probate courts, arranged by county, which can be complicated and the author makes no claim for total accuracy; guidance of where to find assistance with handwriting and Latin; a glossary of terms found in probate records; Latin glossary; and a very useful listing of legislation affecting probate.

Pen and Sword have hit another home run, with another great addition to their family history series. This book will be of value both to the beginner and the more experienced researcher.

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