Probate inventories can be a surprisingly illuminating aid in your family history search.
They were compiled after a person’s death in order to value the estate. This was especially important if there were unpaid debts or monies owed to the deceased. More modern probate records for England and Wales can be found on Ancestry which has the England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations) for 1858-1966, and this will tell you the value of an estate at death and will usually give you the address of the deceased, date of death and to whom probate was granted. This latter is more helpful when probate is granted to a relation than if it is granted to a firm of solicitors.
Ancestry also carries a number of other probate indexes and digital images of some Wills. For Scotland a free search for Wills can be done on Scotland’s People although they charge for downloading images of the documents. It is not often these days that prices are reduced, but I have noticed a small recent price reduction for downloading the .pdf file of Wills from the UK National Archives. They also hold some probate inventories and you can make a document request to get a copy of these.
Earlier inventories were often made on long narrow strips of parchment which were then stored rolled up. I have transcribed two of these from my own family – for Richard Graybee and William Jaques. Richard Graybee was my eight times great grandfather twice over, since his daughter Mary married Joseph Lee and her sister Sarah married master watch-case maker William Jaques. Their children Joseph Lee and Frances Jaques were my six times great grandparents.
The first inventory I investigated was for William Jaques. He died intestate in January 1719/20, and as he was a Citizen of London and a member of the Clockmakers Company, and several of his children were still under age, his case was dealt with by the Court of Orphans of the City of London. They appointed Thomas Powle and Solomon Bonquet to evaluate ‘all & singular the Goods Chattels Rights and Creditts late belonging to and appertaining unto William Jaques of the Parish of St Sepulchre late Citizen and Clockmaker of London deceased’. The parchment roll showing the results of their labours is in the London Metropolitan Archives.
Thomas and Solomon had gone systematically through the house in Angel Court listing the contents. These included household furniture and items such as feather beds, chairs, tables, dressing glasses, pots and pans, tongs and shovels, 120 pounds weight of pewter items, 170 oz of plate (presumably silver and gold) and household linen consisting of
16 pair sheets 12 pair of pillocases & 3 damask table cloths & 23 napkins diaper table cloths 40 diaper and Huccaback napkins 3 kitchen table cloths 3 jack towels & 3 doz of hand towels (worth £12 2 shillings).
In addition to all the household items which were listed by room, thus telling us how big the house was, there were all the materials of William’s trade as a master silversmith. This included gold worth £263 and 25 oz of new sterling silver. The presence of bedding in the ‘Shopp’ alongside the tools suggests that an apprentice probably slept there, providing security.
Even the clothes of the dead person were assessed and in William’s case this raised an intriguing possibility.
4 Intestate wearing apparel linen and woollen Books & arms & a silver watch £15
This website and the book A Parcel of Ribbons had their origins in my search for the truth behind the story of an Indian Princess which had come down through the family, together with various papers from my great-aunt Alice. She had left a painting of a coat of arms to a cousin of my mother who supplied me with the image above. It seems highly likely that it was this painting that was referred to as ‘arms’ in the inventory. It was also this painting that confirmed for me the link between the Jaques and Graybee families.
William had also owned bonds in the ill-fated South Sea Company, which the executors were able to sell just before the Bubble burst, and the inventory also shows a lengthy list of persons owing money to William, many of whom were clockmakers thus providing further historical information to those interested in eighteenth century clockmaking.
Among the debts owed by William at his death was 10s 6d to the Nurse, so we can infer that he had been ill for a while, if not sufficiently ill to feel the need to make his Will or possibly too ill to be able to do so. His funeral expenses came to £167 16s 6 ½d which must have produced quite a lavish funeral being equivalent to about £19,600 in modern retail prices.
A generation earlier William’s father-in-law Richard Graybee left a probate inventory which tells us about the contents of his house in Little Old Bailey and about the probable occupation of one of his sons. Although Richard himself was a cooper, there were materials in the cellar of his house suggesting someone involved in the dyeing trade. This ties in with baptism records for the children of a John Graybee who was a silk dyer living close by, almost certainly Richard’s eldest son. Unfortunately the records of the Dyers Company were lost in the Great Fire of 1666 so confirmation is lacking.
One interesting feature of the way the inventories are written is that they refer not to rooms on the first or second floor of the house, but to ‘one pair of stairs’ or ‘two pair of stairs’ as well as garrets, kitchens and cellars. Decoding the values of the goods recorded can be tricky as earlier documents may use Roman numerals for money values rather than arabic, and of course the amounts are in pounds shillings and pence, possibly including halfpennies or farthings.
I have not yet examined any Jamaican inventories, although I hope to do so in future. For anyone interested in Jamaican inventories, you may like to look at that for the estate of Henry Morgan for which Dianne Frankson has made a transcription part of which can be viewed here. One interesting feature of this is the mention of a ‘musketto nett’ which was the first time I had realised that mosquito nets were in use from the earliest times.
When a probate inventory exists it puts flesh on the bones of a person’s Will and gives us a peep into the contents of their home and the way that they lived. It also gives us an idea of the value of the estate left behind and the relative wealth of an ancestor before the formal establishment of the Probate Registry.