Wiltshire Wills Project, Lucy Jeffries


The outstanding Salisbury Diocesan Probate collection contains 90,000 wills and inventories dating from c.1560-1858. This unique collection covers the whole of Wiltshire and Berkshire, parts of Dorset, and Uffculme in Devon. The collection is an invaluable primary source. In particular, inventories provide fascinating lists of personal possessions and trade goods, and wills can supply evidence for the network of family and friends who shaped an individual’s life.

The cataloguing of all the probate documents and linked registers on to a database is a principal aim of the Project. Using this database, the Wiltshire Record Society will be publishing its own indexes to the collection.

We made excellent progress with the cataloguing over the past year and, in total, over 47,000 wills have now been added to the database. We estimate that we have listed in the region of 140,000 individual documents. The work has already located at least 20 lost wills, not to mention pieces of wills; during the year, the top half of the inventory of Thomas Dennis of West Dean, (Arch.Sarum 1601) was discovered with the bundle of probate documents relating to Walter Brasyar, also of West Dean, 1551 (WSA, P2/B/5). The top of the inventory shows signs of insect damage and storage in damp conditions, whereas the bottom half is still fairly sound, the difference indicating that they have been separated from each other for many years – if not centuries.

Our conservators are repairing badly damaged documents. In addition, every single document is being carefully flattened and repackaged in custom-made archival quality folders and boxes. The repackaging work is led by the conservation staff with the able assistance of our team of volunteers.

We are planning to digitise the collection and have now ordered a digital camera for the purpose. A room in the Record Office is currently being rewired and converted into an imaging studio and the camera itself is due to arrive in February. A digital technician has been appointed to operate the system and the imaging work will run until March 2004. Images of the collection will initially be made available to the public via DVDs at the Record Office in Trowbridge and at the Central Reference Library in Swindon.

Interestingly, we have hosted visits from, and spoken to, archivists planning similar projects in other parts of the UK. In addition, we have hosted visits from academic researchers planning to use the index and images for their work.

The Project was originally made possible by the local organisations whose support enabled us to apply for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £200,500. All local contributions are therefore vital. The Wiltshire Record Society is now contributing £1,000 a year to the Project and we are most grateful for their generous financial – and moral – support.