by Geoff Nicholson

[Copyright remains with the authors and the N.D.F.H.S.]

To anyone seriously researching a family the question of tracking down any Wills which may exist and then using the information they contain is a very important part of their investigations and one which is dealt with fully in every "How to do X" book available. After many years of using Wills in research projects, however, I have come to realise that they can be rich sources of information about much more than just the genealogical relationships between members of a family.

Imagine, if you can, that you are an old hill-farmer in one of the Northumbrian dales some two or three hundred years ago. You are probably half-literate at best and any records of your life which are to survive to the present day will be straight forward statements of fact, written perhaps in the parish registers by the Parish Clerk, in his rental rolls by your Landlord or his Agent, or perhaps in the local Court records, by the Clerk to the Court. None of these people will have felt any personal involvement in what they were writing about you, and so fairly basic, cold, clinical records will have resulted.

What a difference when you come to make your Will! For what may well be the first time, you can write, either personally or through your representative - more likely to be the Curate than a Solicitor if you are an ordinary farmer - exactly what you want to, and about the things which really matter to you. The Curate may well try to pressurise you to be conventional in what you say but some would be less keen on convention than others and anyway, it is your Will and in the end no-one can prevent you putting into it whatever you want. No doubt the Curate will take you gently through the usual preamble - the statement of religious belief, the leaving of your possessions in the order the Church would consider most important - Soul first, to God, then body to be decently buried in the local churchyard and finally, almost as a throwaway, your "worldly goods", some perhaps to the Church or to the poor on the day of your funeral, before reaching what every reader would be waiting for - who gets what of the goodies!

We have all heard, and perhaps even used, the saying "Oh, I've got nothing to leave but my debts and anyone's welcome to them!" It is much more likely, however, that a Testator would leave the debts other people owed him, so that they could not get away without paying just because their creditor had died. The Will of Alexander Nicholson, Minister of the Gospel on Holy Island, written in 1711, is strong on this. With very little preamble he comes straight to the point "The Duke of Douglas owes me 550 Scots marks for serving the Cure of Buncle and Preston from 1685 to 1690. The heirs of Dr. Nicolson late Parson of Errol owe me 200 marks Scots. The heirs of Mr. Rob Bowmaker minister of St. Botham's owe me 300 marks". After a few brief lines to dispose of his goods and provide for his wife and children the Will finishes, but the list of debts had apparently caused some stirring among Rev. Alexander's debtors, as there is a memorandum stating "Mem. that 1 August 1701 My Lady Marchioness of Douglass paid the said Mr. Nicolson 100 Scots marks for 1684 at her lodging in Edinbr. - Her La.shps. brother Lord Charles and the Laird of Thirlestane being present". The beginnings of a dispute about how much really was owed, perhaps? Alexander, incidentally, does not mention that he had been ejected from his Scottish positions in 1690. He was also very well connected, his daughter Elizabeth having married Robert Nicholson of Loan End near Horncliffe, a considerable farmer and landoener in that area a possibly a relative, so money would not be quite as short for his family as his Will indicates.

One wonders what the family's reaction was to the Will of John Story of "East Doden", dated 1566. Having asked to be buried in Stannington Church, he mentions his "base begotten son" and even "brother William's bastard son" before any legitimate family members. If any of this was news to the family there must have been some red faces around - especially brother Williarn's if he was still alive!

James CharIton of Carter Moor near Ponteland comes across as a rather distrusting old farmer. He had four sons, of whom Edward was too young to reasonably expect to be allowed a say in running the farm. Instead of leaving Edward's portion to trustees, the usual procedure, he was simply cut out of the Will. Not that the other three sons got equal shares - sons Aaron and John did well enough but "James I disallow to have any right at all to the farm". What had James done? Probably we shall never know. Not only that but two friends were appointed to keep their eyes on the sons who had inherited, to "Look to Aaron and John and see that they behave themselves as they ought". The friends were authorised to turn Aaron and/or John off the farm in case of "bad behaviour, neglect of business or the like".

Poorer farmers and those from earlier times often left their farm stock, rather than money, to their heirs. John Smailes of Westwick in the parish of Gainford, County Durham, making his Will in 1570 left to four nieces "a yowe (ewe) and a lamb each", three other people got "gimmer hoggs", and his two daughters each received an ox "one called Peart and another Steward". One wonders whether some humour was intended in the naming of the oxen, as Peart is one of those surnames very rarely met with elsewhere but quite common in Weardale and the Steward would, of course, be the landlord's representative.

Probate Inventories, where they exist, are also rich sources of background information. If one is lucky it is possible to follow the inventory takers around the deceased's house room by room, noting whatever was of value in each. In the case of Stephen Coulson of Ryton Woodside they even included a "little room adjoyning to the house". Although my first reaction was that this must be what the Scots would call the "Wee hoosie" I must mention that it contained two beds, a little table and some iron bars. This brings me to what to me is one of the major mysteries of such inventories - why did the seventeenth century inventory takers set so much store on iron bars? They are mentioned frequently, sometimes in almost every room, and must surely have been things of greater importance than just door bars. Usually no greater detail is given - just "iron bars". Could it be that any long iron object could be so described?

Another useful point about Probate Inventories, which is often neglected, is that the inventory takers were supposed to be people of the same sort of standing as the deceased, so that they would the better understand his circumstances. It is often rewarding to compare their description of the person whose inventory they are taking with the testator's own description. Many a "Gentleman", according to his Will, has been demoted by his neighbours to "yeoman" and many a "yeoman" has become "husbandman" in their eyes.

Sometimes the humour is definitely not intended. It is common enough to see property referred to as "In the occupation of..." but is this really what Thomas Vipond of Garrigill Gate, near Alston meant in 1761 when he left his wife a "close bed now in the occupation of my son, John Vipond?" That son was given the duty of providing John's widow with 20 cartloads of peat per year - not only something which would get him out of bed but a reminder to us of the sort of living conditions these remote farmers would have. Peats may look very picturesque when seen drying outside a cottage in the Highlands, but they are dirty, messy things to cut and give off a very pervasive smell when burnt. The smell of a peat fire clings to those who have them. I remember a Highland friend telling me that in her younger days it was always possible to tell who had a peat fire just by smelling their clothes! It is easy to get over-romantic about life in days gone by but we should never forget how poorly, by modern standards, even the better-off people lived.

The Northumbrian farmer has always been very proud and very independent, and undoubtedly still is today. William Nicholson of the East Nook, in Elsdon Parish left it rather late to make his Will in 1655 and so was forced to make a nuncupative one, that is, a Will spoken to witnesses, who would write it down later, rather than one which the testator could see written down and put his signature, or mark, to. Having left all his land and goods to his wife he added "In case my said wife shall fall into want she may sell or dispose of my land for I bought it and I may dispose of it as I see fitt". Here we see the stubborn old farmer anticipating, and preparing to defy, all manner of objection from his heirs. This Will ends with the straight forward declaration "Wee whose names are hereunder written doe testifie that when the aforesaid William Nickelson was lying on his death bed hee spake all these words".

For John Vipond of Craggshield one of the numerous farmers of that surname in the Alston area, in 1777, the main consideration was to keep his family from becoming chargeable to the parish. This, it seems, was the ultimate shame and to be avoided at all costs. His three brothers and his married sister were left just £1 each, but if they were "likely to become chargeable to the parish" then they were to have £3 per annum. Nothing is mentioned of who was to decide on that likelihood, or on what criteria, so there was plenty of scope for "creative accounting" if they wanted to claim their £3!

It is sometimes possible to get a glimpse of the character of a man by the legacies he leaves. Francis Bunny, Rector of Ryton in the early 17th century and

a noted preacher in the days when that certainly could not be said about all clergy, left to Ryton parish "the two livery cans which I bought and used only to bring wine to the communion table". A later Rector, John Lloyd, whose Will was written in 1761, mentions that he had some three hundred books and then devotes almost all his long Will to disposing of them. Life was not always books and wine cans, however; in the same parish (Ryton), in 1567, John Haxlaye (Hauxley) found his best sword a suitable heirloom to leave to his friend Robert Wild, probably of a yeoman family from Low Spen. The rising of the Northern Earls was only two years away, however, in which John Swinburn of Chopwell, a fellow parishioner and indeed one of Wild's near neighbours, was to play a prominent part so perhaps that was a prudent legacy to leave.

Anyone wishing to pursue further the subject of interesting Wills, without having to look up each of the thousands kept in Durham University should refer to the four volumes "Durham Wills" published by the Surtees Society (of which the two latter will be the most useful to most people, the former two being largely in Latin). None of these contain Wills later than the middle of the seventeenth century, however. The Surtees Society have also published one volume of York Wills, dealing with those of people from Durham Diocese, and J.V. Harrison's "Kirkhaugh Wills" published in three volumes of the fourth series of "Archaeologia Aeliana" show how a deficiency in the parish registers can be ameliorated by collecting all the known Wills from one small parish. This latter collection is available in Newcastle Central Reference Library as a bound set of three offprints, which makes it much easier to use. Some may wish to refer to H.M. Wood's transcripts of Raine's "Testamenta Dunelmensis" and "Testamenta Eboracensis" (known as R.T.D. and R.T.E., respectively), also in Newcastle Central Library. These summaries are biased' very much towards Wills of the Gentry and so lack a lot of the earthy interest of the yeoman and the farmer, but are absorbing nevertheless.


Darlington Wills and Inventories 1600-1625 (hardback, 234 pages), edited by LA. Atkinson, B. Flynn, V. Portass, K. Singlehurst and H.J. Smith, is the latest publication (Vol 201) from the Surtees Society and is the fruit of several years work by what began as a Durham University Adult Education Group studying Palaeography at Darlington under, first, Margaret McCollum and, later, Dr John Smith.

The book begins with a detailed introduction to the subject of Wills, followed by analysis of what those included can tell us about the parish of Darlington in the early seventeenth century. There follow word-for-word transcripts of 58 Wills, and 57 Probate Inventories. The book is fully indexed so it will be a simple matter to see whether any of your family are represented by a Will or even just mentioned in one. There is a useful Glossary of archaic words and phrases used in the Wills and a list of over 70 books of a local bibliophile, Isaac Lowden. If one picture is worth a thousand words, then each of these contemporary documents must he worth a whole chapter on social history, and by putting them all side by side in one volume the Surtees Society has done a great service to historians of all kinds.

It is also pleasing that the book begins with an "In Memoriam" to C. Roy Hudleston (1905-1992), Editor of the Surtees Society 1966-1979, for many years in charge of Durham University Department of Palaeography and Diplomatic and, from its foundation in 1976 to his death, President of Cumbria Family History Society.

The book costs £13 plus postage from Mr. A1 Piper, 5 The College, Durham DHI 3EQ cheques made payable to 'Surtees Society'.

This article was first published in the NDFHS Journal, Volume 19, Number 2, Summer 1994.

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