April 9th, 2012

Funny What You can Find in Probate Records

Recently I was searching an online index of probate records for information on one of my ancestors. I wasn’t absolutely sure of his first name, I only had an initial for him, and even that wasn’t absolutely certain as the records that I had got that information from were old and faded. I decided to see if I could match the data that I had by date. I new my ancestor had died in 1900, so I entered that date and the surname Wilde, and clicked the old search button. I got over 100 returns on the information that I had entered, but fortunately many of the deaths were for 1898 and 1899, so I could discount them immediately. As I was browsing down the lists, I noticed an entry for an Oscar Fingal O’flahertie Wills Wilde. Couldn’t be I thought to myself, not the Oscar Wilde!

As I didn’t know Oscar Wilde’s full name, I did a quick Google search, and sure enough, it was a match. I am a big fan of Oscar Wilde, and even though I realized I was being distracted from my initial objective, I decided a little indulgence would do no harm; after all, this was Oscar Wilde! It was a subscription site I was using, so rather than pay immediately to access their records, I signed up for their free trial offer. It’s a good way to access records for free, as long as you remember to cancel the subscription by the specified date. After signing up, I was able to find out that Mr. Wilde had left a mere two hundred pounds upon his death in a Paris hotel in 1900. As I was already a bit off track (but loving it, as I am a big history buff), I decided to look for a few other historical figures.

I also found records for Charles Darwin, father of the theory of evolution, and to my surprise, he left what would amount to £13,000,000 ($20,000,000) today! Karl Marx, the father of communism was also in this record collection, and true to his communist roots, left a paltry £250 ($400). There are a host of other famous names among the more than six million records in this collection which has been published online by Ancestry.co.uk, the English branch of Ancestry.com. In addition to entertaining wayward researchers, they are also useful for finding information on your ancestors!

The records have been transcribed from calendar books dating between 1861 and 1941, and include both fascinating and factual information. The largest estate recorded in the records is one that would be worth over thirty billion dollars today, though most are much more modest. These probate records summarise the deceased’s estate, noting when and where they died, who the executors of the estate were, and the main (but not all) beneficiaries of the bequest. As you can imagine, they provide countless leads for family historians to explore long lost family fortunes or mysterious beneficiaries, as well as find out about how their ancestor lived, what they left, and most importantly, to whom.

If you have struggled to find details of an ancestor’s death, searching this collection could provide you with an ancestor. The collection also includes information on many who died outside of the UK – 20,000 who died in France, 4,500 in Australia, and 18,000 in the United States. There are however a few gaps during the time period covered by these records, namely between 1809 and 1903, and from 1910 – 1911. The records can be searched using a name, date of birth or death, and a location if you know it. Keep in mind though, that while searching is free, there is a charge for viewing or downloading a copy of the original document. You could however do what I did, take advantage of their free trial; just don’t forget to cancel before the date that full membership takes effect! Oh, and try not to get distracted like I did, unless of course that is your intention!