A will is a document that sets out where the person, the testator, making the will wishes their assets to go after their death. Unlike today, when many of us make wills, hopefully years ahead, wills historically were often written because the person believed the end was in sight or they were about to undertake a long voyage or go off to war.
Old wills, often open with the phrase “In the name of God Amen” followed by “I” the full name of the testator and their location. The will then goes on to set out the wishes, usually commencing with "Impimis" meaning in the first place and expressing the wish that all the debts be settled. The various bequests then follow. So already, in only a few lines you have the name, address, possibly the occupation and, in some cases, the reason that the person is making the will.
Census returns often confirm or deny your hunch about particular family members by providing a snapshot of the family group on the day the census was taken. Before 1841, it can be very difficult to find any verification of the family group but a will can often be the key as like a census return it gives a snapshot of the family on the day it was executed. When making a bequest, the testator would often state their relationship to the beneficiary: my beloved wife, my son John. It can often broaden out to include nephews, nieces or cousins. So by reading the will you can have a clear immediate family tree and maybe some clues to the extended family. When carrying out my personal research, I was struggling to find the link between two generations of family so I searched for people who either had the surname or first name Pinkstan, thankfully this name is somewhat unique. This led me to Pinkstan Blackwood and his will executed in 1776. In which he left everything to his uncle Fleming Pinkstan. This in turn opened up a whole new avenue of research into the Blackwood family giving us yet another angle of approach. Proving the point that genealogical research can go on and on excitingly from one lead to another.
But as always with research a note of caution; it is not uncommon for relatives to give the wrong family connection: a relative could be called aunt but in fact is a cousin. For example a person could be called aunt when in fact they are a cousin, aunt being a term of respect rather than or relationship. A distant relative could be called cousin which in fact they are but today we would usually use this to describe our first cousins not our fourth cousin! The size of the testator’s immediate family can hold a clue, often the smaller it is the more important the remote relatives can become to the family and the more likely they are to be left legacies.
Some wills go into infinite detail disposing of each asset down to the bedpan and this can give a fascinating insight into what was either considered valuable when the will was made or what really mattered to the testator. Certainly in terms of land it is not always the case that it passed by will. Unless the eldest son was a wastrel he would often benefit more than any brothers he had and it is not uncommon to find that married adult daughters do not feature at all as they have already benefited from a settlement on marriage. Where it appears that all the children shared equally, it may well be that a significant asset such as a house has been settled separately from the will on the eldest son. Wastrel sons were often condemned in the will making the position clear. If the father and then the son live in the same house the chances are it was settled outside of the will.
The value of wills to research cannot be underestimated. Another example from my research illustrates just how important wills can be.
Helen French nee Pakenham married relatively late in life to a widower with two children. Under her marriage settlement she had the power to appoint where the settled monies went on her death. She left a life interest to her husband meaning that he enjoyed the income from her investments until his death but he owned none of them outright. Thus when he died the assets passed in accordance with her will.
Helen left bequests to her two step children but clearly felt that as her marriage settlement had emanated from her family it should on the whole return from whence it came. She left a significant amount of money to her sister Lucretia and an allowance to her sister in law, the widow of her brother John. The largest single legacy was to the 2nd Earl of Longford for the stated reason that he had shown kindness towards her mother. The family name of the Longfords is Pakenham and Helen’s father was a distant relative of the 2nd Earl.
Curiosity is often the driver of genealogical research and in attempt to discover what form this kindness took or the reason for it the wills of her siblings were located. Lucretia’s will did not make any reference to the kindness but it did leave a significant legacy to a Catherine Weekes. This was out of character as both Helen and Lucretia were childless as were their two brothers so in the main they bequeathed their not insubstantial wealth to the wider family; Catherine did not appear to be a relative and yet she was bequeathed money and Lucretia’s home in Bernhurst, Sussex. Who was Catherine Weekes? Nosey as ever I was intrigued.
I built a family tree for the family of Helen and Lucretia uncovered nothing. Repeating the exercise for their maternal family drew a similar blank. However, a further attempt to ascertain the reason for the kindness answered not that question but who Catherine was. The only clue was in her will which referred to the Pakenhams. It seemed that matters were going round in a circle. A chance purchase of the book Tom, Ned and Kitty: An Intimate Portrait of An Irish Family by Eliza Pakenham solved the mystery. There was Catherine Weekes! As it turned out the illegitimate daughter of the 2nd Earl. The book recounts that the Earl remained involved in Catherine’s life and visited her and Lucretia. In her own turn Catherine left the house at Bernhurst to the Earl’s family in whose family’s ownership it remains today.
Links that are found through the careful of analysis of wills can suddenly provide a clue to later research. Helen’s brothers John and Edward served in the Royal Navy. Whilst researching the career of Helen’s step grandson, William, who joined the Royal Navy many years after her death his rank of midshipman indicated that he would have had a patron who supported his choice of career. The name of the captain of the first ship he served was found, his career researched. He had served on the same ship’s as John Pakenham who had become an Admiral. Despite the decades in between the two naval careers someone in William’s family had in all possibility exploited the connection to get William a step up the ladder. Without researching the will none of this would have been known.
Not all wills reveal such an interesting story but you will be surprised how much you can glean by checking out every detail in the will.