Wills and their accompanying inventories provide an excellent source of information for family, social and economic history.
Only a small proportion of the population made wills although this proportion was probably higher in a rural community of farmers and small landowners than in an industrial area where workers had little of value to dispose of. Wills were usually drawn up on the death bed or sometimes before undertaking a risky venture or embarking upon a long journey. The testator would have to be someone of at least moderate wealth who had some property to bequeath. Widows or spinsters also made wills if they had no obvious heirs. A married woman could not make a will without her husband's consent as, until 1882, in law everything belonged to him. Often people did not bother to make wills and simply settled the disposition of their property before their death. When a person died without making a will, it was necessary to obtain letters of administration in order to dispose of the deceased’s goods.
Before 1750 a detailed and itemised inventory of the goods of the deceased was drawn up by between two and five unbiased persons known as supervisors, overseers or appraisors. It includes all the moveable goods of the deceased, chattels, wares, merchandise, farm stock, corn growing and cut, grass and timber cut, loose money and rent and debts due but not land. By the end of the 18th century, an inventory was generally only prepared if there was a some kind of dispute.
Some of the words in the inventories will be unfamiliar to you. They refer to household, farming or trade terms which are no longer in use today. Sometimes it can help to say the word aloud to try work out the meaning.
Until 1858 probate was granted in the ecclesiastical courts. Therefore wills made by people living in the Diocese of Lichfield which included Staffordshire can be found as part of the diocesan records held at the Lichfield Record Office and can be consulted there. The earliest surviving wills date from the late 15th century. See www.staffordshire.gov.uk/archives for information about opening hours.
In 1858 the probate jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts was brought to an end. In their place a Principal Probate Registry was set up in London and District Probate Registries throughout the country with jurisdiction over probate in both real and personal property. After 1858 a District Probate Registry was set up in Lichfield solely for the county of Stafford. One hundred and fifty-nine volumes of copy wills from this registry are held at the Lichfield Record Office for the period 1858 – 1928.