Chosen by Matthew Jones, member of staff
We can get a very personal insight into someone’s life by looking through their probate records, and inventories can be the most fascinating of all. We have over 12,000 probate inventories and one of them relates to Mary Cooper, a widow of Midhurst who ran a brewhouse in 1743. This detailed list of her possessions and their value begins with £3 for the clothes she wore and the money in her pocket.
We are then taken on a room-by-room tour of her house and shop, starting in the kitchen with a list of the furniture and crockery, to the pantry where she stored her pots and pans, and to the cellar where she had ‘six barrells of beer’. The inventory also takes us upstairs where we find feather beds, pictures, irons for the fire, and a chest of linen. When you include debts owed to her, the total value comes to £96 16s 0d – around £8,500 in today’s money – and about 3 years’ salary for a builder’s craftsman in 1743.
So, what do these inventories tell us?
They are, of course, of particular interest to family historians. If you are lucky enough to find a detailed inventory for one of your ancestors, then you could discover a great deal about their wealth, home and possessions. But they are also of interest to local historians who want to find out more about trades and businesses in the area. The inventory for a blacksmith, for instance, may list all of his tools and equipment. If a will has also survived, it may provide evidence that the business has been passed down to the next generation, as was so often the case.
You need, however, to tread carefully. The “appraiser” may not have mentioned every room in the house, especially if it was empty, or listed all of the contents. And you won’t necessarily know how good they were at assessing the value of what they found. It is also possible that possessions were removed before the inventory was taken. So an inventory should be regarded as an approximate guide – but a valuable one nonetheless!
Want to find out more about wills and probate?
Probate is the legal process in which a will is validated in a court and accepted as the true last testament of the deceased, administering the estate and resolving all claims on the deceased’s property under a will. A probate court decides the legal validity of a person’s will and grants its approval to the executor. Until a new system of civil probate registries was established in 1858, the church authorities were responsible for accepting the validity of a will and granting probate. In West Sussex, probate business was transacted in church courts which dealt with the areas of the archdeaconry of Chichester, the Dean’s Peculiar of the City of Chichester, the Archbishop’s Peculiar Jurisdiction of Pagham and Tarring.
Those persons whose wills were proved in the local courts were mainly tradesmen, farmers, the middle classes and lower gentry. The rich proved their wills in London, in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC); the poor rarely had possessions that needed a will. Wills proved in the PCC (1384-1858) can be viewed on the subscription website Ancestry, which you can use on our public access computers at the Record Office. Alternatively, they can be obtained online for a fee from The National Archives website.
Although those who left wills were in the minority, they can provide useful information regarding a person’s social status and family relationships. Probate records vary considerably in both size and content, from virtually no detail to the extremely detailed, but up until the 1750s inventories listing the deceased’s property were often attached to the will, giving details of household goods.
Find out more about wills and other probate records in West Sussex on our website.