This blog in part follows on from last weeks on wills. These documents often created trusts, entities which can shed light on a family’s history. Not only can they name family members, state their relationships to each other, trusts often set out the assets included giving a researcher a window in to the family’s lives. As will be seen below they can give the researcher serious clues as to the family dynamic, the view of women and the success of a marriage.
An example of what could be mentioned includes the tools of a trade. For example, a will, from my own research, of James Moore French, a watch and chronometer maker who left his tools on trust to his son for ten years. In such an instance the son can then be researched through Trade Directories or Livery Company records. Addresses of properties might be given which can be searched to see if a family member resided there or sold it by searching through newspaper advertisements. If the will is silent as to the destination of the family main residence it might indicate that the property had been settled separately outside of the will.
So what is a trust?
A trust is a device where two or more people can have an interest in property at the same time. The trustee legally holds the assets for the benefit of the beneficiary and the trustee has to act in accordance with the terms of the trust for the benefit of the beneficiary. For example, a will could state ‘I bequeath to X to hold on trust the following assets for Y for life and on their death to Z absolutely’. Thus during X’s life they benefit from the income of the assets and can reside in any property in the trust but on their death it all passes to Z. X has no say in the destination of the trust assets. This can be quite complex and sometimes the assistance of an experienced legal genealogist could help.
Trusts were an important tool to families who wished to arrange the succession of their assets or control settlements to be made when their daughter married. Who will forget the discussions in Downton Abbey regarding the entail or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where Mrs Bennett bewails “I cannot bear to hear that mentioned. Pray do not talk of that odious man. I do think it is the hardest thing in the world that your estate should be entailed away from your own children...” The Bennett daughters needed to marry men who could provide for them as on their father’s death the house and money would pass to a distant male heir.
This protection of assets by using trusts was the preserve of the well to do, who firstly had assets worth protecting and secondly, could afford the necessary lawyers. Spinsters were the only females who could have any property rights: the stark choice between independence or a family. Often, the spinster would be ill provided for, left as a relict to be housed by a sympathetic family member or used as unpaid extra domestic help.
A few made a life for themselves, as Sarah French did in the early 1800s becoming the family financial backbone fending off her brother’s creditors. She ran her own home, and played stonewall with the creditors for decades. Protector of two nieces, she clearly did nothing to enhance their marriage prospects as neither married until their late thirties. Whilst a marriage settlement protected the woman it also became a block to potential marriages. The prospect of a settlement with little money could render the woman a spinster for life. These two nieces were handicapped by their father’s indebtedness, Sarah who potentially could have helped appears not to have done. The execution of a will by another aunt settling a house on each of the nieces seems to have been the act which oiled the wheels. Even though the houses were not inherited until after their marriages the prospect would have been sufficient and this coupled with an undertaking from a kind brother to forgo his inheritance made the marriage deal possible. Bitterness towards this unmarried state lingered with one niece who as an elderly aunt remarked to Charlotte Despard “Better any marriage at all than none”.[i]
Women before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 had no right in property after marriage; it all became the assets of their husband, in effect they legally merged with their husband. The marriage settlement evolved to protect them and the family’s assets through the use of a trust which meant the bride would be granted an interest in the assets for life. Thus as she did not own the property and it was in the trust it could not legally become her husband’s on marriage. However, any trust requires trustees and a settlor, often the bride’s father so her destiny remained in the hands of the trustees and the settlor and thus women’s finances were still in the control of men. However, it did protect her and the family assets from a husband who turned out to be a wrong un as they could not run off with the loot. Often the only time the bride would have any say in the destiny of the assets would be on the execution of her will when she would have the power to decide where the settled assets went on her death.
Women were therefore potentially left with little choice but to marry to avoid the fate of being destitute on the father’s death. The irony of the trust is that the very the existence of a trust that settled everything on for example a brother could lead to this destitution but on the other hand they could very well be protected by a trust made on marriage. The husband’s will would frequently leave everything to his wife, but only for life with the children being the ultimate beneficiaries after she had died. Her life interest would often be stated to cease if she should ever remarry, or in the worst case scenario all was left to the eldest son, leaving the widow destitute, and again being treated as a chattel of in this instance her son. Effectively, she became a lodger in her own home.
One will, recently researched, went one stage further. The testator had married for a second time following the death of his first wife. The second marriage produced a daughter. When the testator died he left everything to the children of his first marriage including the family home. His second wife was left a very modest sum as an annual allowance. She was a widow with a very small child and homeless. So little was the annual allowance that she was forced to move hundreds of miles across the country to live with distant relatives for the rest of her days.
Trusts can be a vital genealogical tool but each document needs to be carefully read to ensure the relationships are correctly understood. If you are surprised that a legacy was left to a particular person reread it again and see if the recipient was in fact a trustee. Place your research in the wide family context and see if it makes sense.
[i] Andro Linklater An Unhusbanded Life
A variety of legal documents can assist in researching your ancestors. One of which is wills which not only tell you fundamental facts about the family but can lead to all sorts of exciting discoveries.
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.