In years gone by, what proportion of the population made a Will? What are your chances of finding a Will made by the man or woman you are researching?
A.J. Camp(1) rightly says that 'It is no easy matter to say how many persons left wills, why certain people did so rather than others more prosperous and how often, when there was no Will, letters of administration were applied for." He tells us that research in a Nottinghamshire parish over the periods 1572 to 1600 and 1600 to 1725 suggests that a quarter and a fifth respectively of all the people shown in the parish burial register had made a Will.
Are there similar proportions in Durham and Northumberland? What is the situation in our two counties? Two recent publications shed some light on this for a couple of periods. First, there is Surtees Society Volume CCI, Darlington Wills and Inventories 1600-1625, published in 1993. It shows that 67 Wills were made by Darlington residents in the 25 year period covered, during which 522 "potential testators" were buried in the town i.e. excluding "wives, wanderers and non-residents and all the males and females referred to as somebody's child, despite the likelihood that some were young adults." This suggests that about 1 in 8 of the so called "potential testators" made Wills. In a further 77 cases, administrations were granted, giving a total of over 27% in which testamentary jurisdiction was exercised. The authors conclude that the normal percentage might be between 20% and 25%, but as we might expect, there were marked differences between the sexes. 304 adult males were buried, of whom 121, or 2 in every 5, produced either a Will or an administration. The figures for widows and single women (who for practical purposes are the only women we need to consider, because of the severe restrictions on married women in the area of Probate) were 7% and 18 respectively.
A second source of statistics is Personal Names in Durham Wills 1787-1791, just published by this Society [1994 - Ed.]. In the five year period covered, there were 440 testators from County Durham and 366 in Northumberland with the division between the sexes being roughly 3 to 1 -- 602 males and 204 females. A statistical report of the period(2) gives us the actual burials recorded in the parish registers of Durham and Northumberland in the same 5 year spell, and after making adjustments for non-parochial burial grounds such as Newcastle's Ballast Hills, and for the Hexham area, whose testators Wills would be proved at York, we arrive at total deaths of about 32000, some 15500 males and 16500 females.
So, we have 806 Wills from some 32000 people buried but of course many of the dead would be minors who could not and would not make a Will. Given the high infant mortality of the time, it might not be too outrageous to assume that about half of the 15500 male burials would be of minors, leaving say 7800 "potential testators". 440 of these 7800 males left a Will, a mere 1 in 20.
The figure for females seems almost impossible to compute accurately because only spinsters and widows could effectively make Wills and much more research would be needed to determine the number of 'potential testatrixes' included in the burial total. If 50% of the females dying were minors, then we are left with about 8300 adult women of whom only 204 left a Will, or about 1 in 40.
The two samples show markedly differing results. In the first quarter of the 17th century in Darlington 40% of the adult males left either a Will or an Administration and yet, over the whole of the two counties, a century and a half later, the proportion is very much lower. As Camp"' points out, 1here was a lasting and strong belief that to die intestate was a shame and a disgrace and therefore many who had little to bequeath did in fact make Wills.' Possibly this factor was of more importance in the early 17th century than in the later period. It is also reasonable to expect the number of testators in a relatively prosperous market town like Darlington to he greater than over the two counties as a whole. And, of course, both samples are quite small and may not to be entirely representative.
Even if your ancestor was thoughtful enough to leave a Will for you to seek, a further problem you may face in Durham Diocese is caused by the extent of loss or damage of Probate material. The figure of 67 Darlington Wills was taken from the Probate Act Book, but only 45 Wills -- some 68% -- still actually survive.
The archives of Durham in general were subject to a lot of abuse and neglect. A Government Report of 1854(3) records that "within living memory, valuable records have been used to stop up holes, to keep rats and mice out of the Muniment Rooms, to light fires or even to make bonfires on public rejoicings", and during the last 20 years or so, to use the words of my informant, "barrow fulls were seen kicking about on the palace green, some of which were converted into kites by the boys of the town and some used by the citizens of Durham for their more domestic purposes". This Report was referring to the Palatinate Records in general but there seems no reason to think that Probate Records were treated any better. Indeed, in the 1830's, the S urtees Society records(4) that "A Registrar of the Consistory Court of Durham, during the first half of the last century, was in the habit of lighting his pipe with one of the wills under his charge, and of glorying in his deed. 'Here goes the testator' was his usual exclamation when he was so employed".
(1) A.J. Camp; Wills and Their Whereabouts.
(2) Abstracts of the Answers and Returns to the Population Act; 41 Geo Ill 1800.
(3) Appendix to 16th Report of Deputy Keeper of Public Records; No 4 Durham records.
(4) Wills and Inventories, Part 1, page vii; Surtees Society, vol 1, 1835.
This article was first published in the NDFHS Journal, Volume 19, Number 2, Summer 1994.
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