In a world-first, Ancestry.com.au has launched the England and Wales National Probate Calendar 1861-1941 – an index to more than six million wills proven across the 19th and 20th centuries, including the wills of more than 4,500 people who died in Australia.
With more than 45% of Australians having first generation UK heritage and many more claiming ancestors who arrived earlier in the country’s history, many will be able to locate an ancestor in the collection delve further into that person’s life, learning more about their social standing and worldly possessions.
Combined, the value of the 6,079,000 estates in the index reveals a fortune that today would be worth more than £20 billion, or AU$34.7 billion, yet despite this impressive figure, the average value of our ancestors’ estates is a rather modest AU$5,913.
‘Probate’ refers to the court’s authority to administer a deceased estate, including granting representation to a person or persons to administer that estate.
In 1857, the Court of Probate Act saw the power to administer estates transfer from the church to the state and it is the probate calendar books, in which grants are summarised and collated annually by the state, that are now on Ancestry.com.au.
In addition to the material value of the estate, the probate calendar books provide a rich source of information for family history enthusiasts as each entry may also include the name of the deceased, the date and place of death, the name of the executer and, in some cases, bequest recipients.
Anyone able to locate an ancestor in the England and Wales National Probate Calendar 1861-1941 will be able to delve further into that person’s life, learning more about their social standing and worldly possessions.
Included in the index are numerous famous names, including Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba (who died in 1931 with £43,095 – approximately AU$2.2 million today) and newspaper proprietor James Reading Fairfax (in 1919 with £8,347 – approximately AU$556,000 today).
Other famous names include once-rich polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who died in 1922 leaving an estate of just £556 (AU$34,700 today), having lost his fortune in failed money-making schemes while allegedly trying to recapture the adventure of his youth.
Fittingly, the anti-capitalist Karl Marx, who died in 1883, was almost as poor as Shackelton, leaving just £250 (AU$39,900 today) to his youngest daughter Eleanor.
By contrast, Thomas Holloway, a man who made his fortune selling medicines and ointments, left one of the largest estates in the index, worth £600,000 in 1883 – the equivalent of over AU$95 million today.
Other notable names include:
- Charles Darwin – the acclaimed naturalist Charles Robert Darwin is listed as having left a personal estate worth £146,911 (around AU$22.5 million today) when he died in 1882
- John Cadbury – the ‘King of Chocolate’ John Cadbury died with a personal estate of £43,773 (around AU$7.3 million today) when he died in 1889
- Charles Dickens – the famous Victorian author Charles John Huffham Dickens died leaving ‘effects under £80,000’ (around AU$12.3 million today) when he died in 1870
Those using the England and Wales National Probate Calendar 1861-1941 can obtain a full copy of the wills listed from the Probate Registry, which will help them to uncover further information such as details of the deceased’s family and additional detail about the estate.