Tag Archives: Will

Wills, Property and Slave Returns

Slave Return for 1817 from Ancestry.co.uk

I have commented before on how useful Wills can be in establishing family relationships, highlighting people one had missed when searching parish records, and filling in background on where a family was and when.

Following the piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Samuel Felsted I have done some further research on his family. His sister Mary, who married Stephen Cooke in Kingston in 1782, outlived her husband by a quarter of a century dying in Bethnal Green, London in 1843 at the age of ninety-three. Her Will is here.

Several branches of the family had settled in London, but Samuel’s youngest son John Lawrence (or Laurence) Felsted probably died in Jamaica, although we know from his Will that he owned a house in London. John’s sister Sarah also died in London and we know from her Will that she owned property in Kingston.

When John Lawrence Felsted died in about 1821 he left property to his two children Justina Frances and Samuel James. This included a house in Church Street, Kingston; a store in Water Lane (convenient for the harbour front) and a Penn in the parish of St Catherine. In August 1820 John had sworn an affidavit on his slave return that in June of that year he had owned three slaves. Only two are named – eleven year old Henry, a creole ‘sambo’, and seventeen year old Betsey a creole ‘negroe’ both of whom appear to have been passed on to John by his mother Margaret Mary Felsted. In 1817 she had been in possession of thirteen slaves, in 1823 this number had reduced to six. Betsey was still enslaved in 1832, the return then being sworn by the attorney for the Executors of John Lawrence Felsted, whose name incidentally was Justinn Nelson which suggests that John’s daughter Justina may have been named after him.

John’s sister Sarah was also a slave owner, the return for 1817 showing her as having a twenty-nine year old negro creole slave called Cassander and her three sons, Richard, John Walker and William aged twelve, two and four months respectively. She also owned a twenty-one year old African negro woman called Ellen. Sarah was listed as owning Ellen outright, but as having a one-sixth share of Cassander and her children. She shared ownership with  C.Dawson, S.M.Robertson (her sisters) S.M.Fry of London, J.L.Felsted and J.F.Fry ‘an infant of this Island’. All these are descendants of Samuel Felsted and although I have not seen his Will it is reasonable to suppose ownership of Cassander was passed to his children by Samuel. It is possible this list also provides evidence that Ann Cooke Felsted, who married Joseph Fry, had died before 1817 since S.M.Fry and J.F.Fry referred to are her children.

The information from the slave registers for Jamaica can be viewed on Ancestry for the years 1817, 1820, 1823, 1826, 1829, 1832 and 1834 (you do need to be a subscriber to view them). The registers were compiled following the abolition of the slave trade in order to try to ensure that the trade was not being continued.

Returns had to list not only slaves owned, but the changes in numbers since the previous return due to deaths of any slaves or the birth of new ones. Usually in addition to the name and sex of the person, their age and racial mix is given together with whether they were ‘creole’, that is born in Jamaica. I have seen one who was listed as American.

These documents may be one of the few ways someone with ancestors who were enslaved has of finding out about them, and of course they also tell us something about their owners.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of all the Jamaican Wills of the eighteenth century is the way in which slaves are routinely listed as property alongside stock, horses, carriages and all the paraphernalia of the plantation or merchant business. Just occasionally a named individual is able to stand out, perhaps through manumission or the gift of a small legacy, but too often by being passed on, still enslaved, to a new owner.

Probate Inventories and a Coat of Arms

The Arms of William Jaques

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.


Wills, silver candlesticks, and green handled knives

Samuel Alpress c. 1780


The most disappointing Wills from every point of view are those where a man leaves everything to his ‘beloved wife’ (un-named) and says nothing else, apart perhaps from commending his soul to God and requesting payment of all his just debts – not the unjust ones of course! Admirable as it is that he provides amply for his widow, he leaves little to the family historian.

The best Wills for a genealogist are those that mention lots of friends and relations by name, perhaps even including their home town or street. If they also include details of the relationship so much the better, although you do have to remember that ‘my sister’ might be ‘my sister-in-law’, my niece could be a great niece and ‘my kinsman’ may give you weeks of work trying to work out just how they were related.

By far the greatest quantity of seventeenth and eighteenth century Wills relating to Jamaica were written by men, but there are Wills for those women who outlived their husbands and had property in their own right. In some cases such as thrice-married Mary Rose who I wrote about a while ago, although the main part of her husbands’ estates went to her sons she still had property of her own.

In the case of Margaret Eleanor Alpress, whose Will I recently transcribed, she had outlived her husband by many years and was wealthy in her own right.

Margaret Eleanor Alpress ‘of the City of Bath in the County of Somerset Widow but now in London’, was born Margaret Aikenhead in Jamaica in the early 1740s and married Samuel Alpress in the parish of St Andrew on the 27th January 1761.  He died in 1784 leaving his widow and three surviving daughters.

Samuel’s father George Alpress had owned 125 acres in Clarendon and 51 acres in Vere in 1754 and used his wealth to send Samuel to be educated in England where it has to be said he did not shine! During his time at Jesus College, Cambridge Samuel  was said to have started a riot in Ely and in a letter to Stephen Fuller in 1757 (the Fuller family were in loco parentis on George’s behalf) William Hawes wrote that ‘The conduct of Mr Allpress does not warrant his remaining at college’. He also appears to have run up considerable debts.

Samuel returned to Jamaica where his father died sometime before 1766. His mother Jane remarried on the 25th of June 1766 to Dr Cholmondeley Dering of South Carolina but was drowned at Dry River four days after her wedding while returning  from Spanish Town to Withywood. Samuel inherited £4000 Jamaican currency and the plantations.

Samuel and Margaret had at least three daughters born in Jamaica of whom only Elizabeth survived. Two more daughters followed – Milborough, who may have been born in Jamaica, and Jane Eleanor born in London in 1771. It was to these daughters that Margaret left her most personal possessions.

Elizabeth who had married Kean Osborn at Spanish Town in 1780 was left a silver christening bowl; and Milborough, married to Richard Crewe of Crewe Hall in Cheshire, was left a silver epergne. It was the youngest daughter Jane Eleanor who received the bulk of her mother’s personal possessions. Whether this disparity reflected earlier gifts to the older daughters, their husbands’ relative wealth or favouritism to the youngest is unclear. Kean Osborn and his heirs are shown as owners of the Caswell Hill property mentioned in the Will in various early nineteenth century listings, by which time they were absentee landlords, its size given as over 2000 acres in 1845. Jane’s husband Richard Bulkeley was the sole executor. It is possible both other sons-in-law were out of the country, Kean Osborn in Jamaica and Major General Richard Crewe serving with the army.

Jane received ‘three Mahogany Cases with Silver Locks and Handles, the two larger Cases containing two Dozen Green handled Knives and Forks ferrelled with Silver and one Dozen of Table Spoons, and a Marrow spoon in each Case and the smaller Case containing one Dozen of Green handled knives and forks ferrelled with silver and one dozen of Desert Spoons, and also a Silver Cruet stand both Compleat, two pair of high Silver Candlesticks, one flat silver candlestick, one large silver Tankard and Cover, two Silver Cups and Covers ,one large round Silver waiter, one ditto next size two hand round Silver waiters, one Silver Tea urn, one Tortoises Shell Tea Chest with silver Canisters Compleat, fifteen Silver Tea spoons and a pair of silver Tea Tongs’.

Margaret’s sister Elizabeth Townsend received a large square silver tea board, her sister Milborough McLean a large silver saucepan and cover, niece Elizabeth Trelawny Townsend a silver teapot, and a friend called Mary Stern a small silver saucepan for cream.

There were jewels also, with daughter Elizabeth receiving ‘my Diamond Necklace and Ear Rings, one large Diamond Pin, and her Father’s Picture set round with Diamonds’, while Jane was left ‘my two next sized Diamond Pins and six smaller ones, my Diamond Pin with her Father’s Hair and a smaller Diamond Pin with Hair in it and my Rose Diamond Ring’.

There was a hoop diamond ring for god daughter Elizabeth Raine(?) Wilhelmina Pringle and money gifts to grandchildren including grandson Kean Osborn, who sadly would die at Salamanca during the Peninsular War.

The item that most intrigued me was the green handled knives and forks with their silver ferrells. A little research showed that such handles were often made of ivory stained green. If anyone can tell me how this was done I’d love to know.