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8. Property, Taxation and the Law


Land and taxation


Civil courts

Church courts

The foregoing chapters have looked at the three core types of genealogical record, the ones which, in principle at least, provide a record for every person who has lived in the British Isles for the last 450 years. But there are, of course, many other types of record of interest to the family historian, and these are covered in this and the following four chapters.

One problem when you start to look for other types of genealogical record is that you cannot be sure in advance whether there will actually be any records pertaining to a particular ancestor. Not everyone served in the military, made a will or was convicted of a crime; many occupations left little or no documentation. In particular, in the female line there may be very few records of this sort before the twentieth century.

But the particular advantage, where these records have been digitized, is that they can be checked very quickly. You might not be able to justify spending a day in a record office going through a whole sheaf of documents in the uncertain hope that an ancestor might be mentioned. But there’s no reason not to check these records if there is an online index.

These chapters look at the most useful sites for the most important types of record, but there is much more than can be covered here. The commercial data services have significant collections of material from sources other than civil registration, census and parish registers, as indicated in the sections devoted to each site in Chapter 4. Where there are official records, the websites of the national or local repositories will give details of any large-scale plans for digitization (see p. 208ff.). But even where there are no such plans, many individuals and groups are publishing small collections of data from other records online. These tend to be piecemeal indexes and transcriptions, rather than the publication of complete national datasets, and some are discussed under ‘Local and social history’ in Chapter 16. In addition, the archives and libraries discussed in Chapter 13 have details of other records which may or may not have been digitized.


Wills are an important source for family historians and there has been a considerable increase in the number of wills available online in the last few years. Wills have been proved in many different places, and locating the right source for the potential will of a particular ancestor can sometimes be difficult, so if you are not familiar with historical probate records it is a good idea to look at the general information before looking for a specific will.

Although wills and probate records are specifically property records — they record what the testator intended to happen to his or her property after death — their importance extends beyond this. Because they indicate an approximate death date, they can provide a substitute for a missing burial record, and they are also valuable for clarifying family relationships. Indeed, apart from rare personal diaries and letters, they are the only major documentary source likely to give information about the personal relations between our ancestors and their families.

England and Wales

My ‘Introduction to Wills’ at <> provides a concise overview of the topic, but for detailed information about wills in England and Wales the best starting points are the ‘Probate Records’ pages for the two nations on the FamilySearch wiki at <> and <>. The National Archives has three guides on wills and death duties, all linked from ’ page at <> but the information provided is very brief. More useful is the ‘Probate records’ article in the Your Archives wiki at <yourarchives.> which gives a lot of background.

Probate records since 1858 are under the jurisdiction of the Probate Service, which has pages on the Courts and Tribunals Service website at <>. There is a page on ‘Probate Records and Family History’ at <>. A 2004 review of probate business by the former Court Service (now in the Government Web Archive at <>, 5 July 2007) concluded that the full Probate Calendar from 1858 onwards should be online by April 2006, but so far this has failed to materialize. However, Ancestry has a National Probate Calendar database, which is a searchable index to the printed indexes of wills and administrations for the period 1861–1941. The search results link to scans of the original index books, which give basic details of the grant of probate or administration.

Before 1858, wills were proved in ecclesiastical courts (mostly in local archdeaconry and diocesan courts) and there is no national repository for these records. This means that you need to establish which court a will is proved in before you can find it. In principle, the will should be in the relevant diocesan record office, which will almost always be the county record office.

Origins has a useful article on ‘Probate before 1858’ at <>, which will give you some idea of how to decide which court may be relevant for a particular ancestor. FamilySearch also has useful material relating to English probate jurisdictions. The search facility at <> will tell you which courts had jurisdiction for a particular place, though so far it covers only London and Essex. The ‘England Jurisdictions, 1851’ map on FamilySearch at <> (see p. 272) includes an overlay which shows which ecclesiastical jurisdiction a particular parish was in (though note this is for England only, not Wales).


Figure 8-1 Will of Henry Purcell (The National Archives)

For locating pre-1858 wills online, there is only one place to start: TNA’s Your Archives wiki has an article on ‘Online Probate Indexes’ at <> which details all the online will indexes for individual counties or jurisdictions. There are four major collections with national coverage:

Note that The National Archives is the only one of these four which provides the wills themselves; the others are indexes and you will need to consult the relevant repository to see the original documents. However, the National Wills Index in some cases includes a detailed summary of the will.

The Your Archives listing also includes will digitization and indexing projects for many individual English counties, and many CRO websites have material devoted to their will collections.

Beyond the CROs there are a number of smaller volunteer-based sources. For example, Maureen Rawson has many Kent will transcripts and some inventory indexes at <>, and the Norfolk Family History Society has an index of around 600 Norfolk wills at <,will-documents/>. The Castle Donington Wills site at <> has wills for just the area around Castle Donnington in Leicestershire.

Findmypast has two related resources:

Disputes about inheritance formed a major part of the business of the Chancery Courts, whose records are discussed at the end of this chapter.


There are guides to Scottish wills and testaments on the National Records of Scotland site at <> and on ScotlandsPeople at <>.

All Scottish wills from 1513 to 1901 are available online at ScotlandsPeople (see p. 50). The site offers a free index of over half a million entries in the Registers of Testaments, and scans of the wills can then be purchased online and downloaded. Unlike the other material on ScotlandsPeople, the wills are not part of the pay-per-view system, but cost £5 each via an online shop (all wills costs the same, regardless of length). The index entries themselves give quite detailed information about testators.

The site also has some examples of wills from each 50-year period covered by the index. On the ‘Wills & Testaments’ page click on the period you want in the right-hand panel under the ‘Wills & Testaments’ heading. For those unfamiliar with Scottish probate records and terminology, the Glossary at <> will be useful. There is also an explanation of the various Scottish courts with a role in probate. Further help is available in the ‘Research Tools’ area (under ‘Help & Other Resources’), which includes material on handwriting, abbreviations found in wills, and occupations.

Wills and testaments after 1901 are not available online and details of how to obtain them are given on the NAS page mentioned above.


A good overview of wills and probate in Ireland will be found on the Irish Ancestors site at <>, and PRONI has a useful set of pages on wills in Northern Ireland at <>. In the Republic of Ireland, probate affairs are managed by the Probate Office, whose web page at <> provides basic information and has a link to the page for the Personal Application Section of the Probate Office (112-character nonsense URL!).

There are three national indexes to Irish wills:

You can also expect to find local transcriptions done by volunteers. For example, there is an index to wills for the Diocese of Raphoe, Donegal at <>, while Ginni Swanton has scanned images of the Phillimore index to Irish Wills for the Dioceses of Cork and Ross at <>. Other sites with Irish wills can be found from the UK and Ireland page in the ‘Wills and Probate’ category of Cyndi’s List at <>, or by using a search engine.

Land and taxation

Property records are important in showing a place of residence before the start of the census or where, as in Ireland, census records are missing. Even those too poor to own property may be recorded as occupiers, though of course only a head of household will be given. However, most older property records are not strictly property records at all. Rather they are generally records of tax assessments based on land ownership and occupation, which was the norm before the permanent introduction of income tax in 1842. They, therefore, do not necessarily give much information about the property held other than its acreage or rateable value, which nonetheless may help to indicate the status of an ancestor in the locality. The 1911 census (see p. 90) is the only general national source to give much information about the properties occupied by our ancestors.

It is not possible here to look at all classes of property and taxation records, only to draw attention to some of the most useful resources available online. The FamilySearch wiki has an article ‘Introduction to Tax Records in England’ at <> which provides an introduction, and a fairly comprehensive Wikipedia article on the ‘History of the English fiscal system’ discusses many of these taxes in their historical context.

The National Archives has a research guide on ‘Taxation records before 1689’ at <>, and there are individual guides to Hearth Tax, Land Tax and Tithe Records linked from <>.

The E179 Database at <> is a catalogue of taxation records. It does not contain any information about individuals, its sole function being to identify the relevant documents for a particular place, tax and period.

National Records of Scotland has a guide to Scottish taxation records at <>.

Many property and taxation records are held at local level, so it is worth checking the relevant county record office website for information. There are few national projects in this area, but many small transcriptions for individual parishes. Also, many of these records have been published in book form by the various record societies, so a search of the digital book archives described in Chapter 12 is recommended.


Tithe records, and in particular the nineteenth-century tithe maps, are important sources for both owners and occupiers of land. A very thorough discussion of tithe records will be found in The National Archives’ research guide ‘Tithe Records: A Detailed Examination’ at <>. The National Library of Wales also has comprehensive pages on this topic at <>. County record office websites often give information about tithe maps and schedules in their collections, and these are obvious candidates for digitization. Devon and Worcester have projects to index their tithe maps — these both have mammoth URLs of 100 or so characters, so follow the links on the site for this book or search from the county council home pages at <> and <> respectively. Cornwall Record Office has a Tithe Project in development, though this still has some way to go and there are no materials online as yet. Details will be found at <>.

A major tithe records project is the University of Portsmouth’s Tithe Survey of England and Wales at <>, which also offers data for 15 parishes.

There are many individual transcriptions of tithe schedules. For example:

The best way to find them is probably to search on the word ‘tithes’ or the phrase ‘tithe map’ and the relevant place-name.

Lay subsidy and land tax

There have many property-based taxes levied on the population since the Middle Ages which have left records, notably the irregularly raised lay subsidy and the later land tax. It is not possible to aim at any sort of comprehensive list of online resources, as there seem to be no national resources devoted to these taxes, but rather many small transcriptions and indexes for particular localities. The simplest way to see if there is any relevant material online is to search on the name of a tax and the county of interest. A few examples:

Land ownership and occupation

There are records of land ownership which are not tied to taxation. The 1873 Returns of Owners of Land list all those who owned more than an acre of land. A complete set of scans of the printed records for England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland are available to Familyrelatives subscribers at <> (see Figure 8-2). The Irish return, dated 1876, is also available to Ancestry UK subscribers — see <>. The return for Wales can be seen free on the Welsh site the Ogre at <>, which has those for Scotland and Ireland available via paid download.


Figure 8-2 The Return of Owners of Land, 1873 (Familyrelatives)

There are also several online transcriptions for individual counties. The most extensive of these is available in the UK Genealogy archives at <>, which has over 30,000 records for the counties of Anglesey, Brecknock, Cardigan, Leicester, Worcester, Oxford, Stafford, Middlesex, Rutland and Hertford. The ‘Explanatory Statement’ explains a great deal about the survey. Further county extracts include:

The National Farm Surveys of England and Wales, 1940–1943 are described in a National Archives research guide at <>.

The most famous survey of property holdings, though few of us can trace our pedigrees back that far, is the Domesday Book. The National Archives has information about it at <>. Open Domesday has the entire work available online at <> as a set of entries for the individual places, with an image of the original manuscript and summary of the details.

Another medieval source, going up to the Tudor period, are the feet of fines, which are legal records of land purchase. Chris Phillips’s Medieval English Genealogy site has a list of feet of fines published (whether in print or online) for each English county at <>. The site itself has transcriptions and images for some counties, while the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website at <> has images of many others. However, the latter provides only images of the original documents written in Latin, and provides no index or transcription. British History Online has transcription of the records for a number of counties and periods at <>.

Medieval English Genealogy has a great deal of information about similar records at <> with many links to online materials.

Griffith’s Valuation

For Ireland, the nineteenth-century property records are all the more important because of the destruction of census records. The sites referred to for Irish census material in Chapter 6 have information on these records, usually under the heading ‘Census substitutes’. Among the most important is Griffith’s Valuation, also called the Primary Valuation, and there is a range of material from this source online.

Ask About Ireland has a free index at <> with images of the original index pages and a pop-up of the accompanying maps. To identify the relevant plot on the map you need to locate the townland under which an ancestor is listed and look for the map reference given in the index’s left-hand column. The Irish Origins site at <> has an index to Griffith’s Valuation and images of the original documents.

There are also many local transcriptions, and links to these will be found on the Genuki pages for Ireland at <> and on the Ireland pages of Census Finder at <>.

The PRONI has a guide to Irish valuation records at <> and James R. Reilly’s article ‘Is There More in Griffith’s Valuation Than Just Names?’ at <> shows just how much information can be extracted from these records.

Insurance records

Useful sources of information on property in London are the surviving fire insurance policies. The Guildhall Library holds records for many insurance companies, and over 50,000 policies from the Sun Fire Office for 1808 to 1839 have been indexed. The index can be found on the Access to Archives website at <>, and detailed instructions on using it are available at <>. The index comprises the name and address of the policyholder, his occupation or status and the location of property insured. There is general information on the Guildhall Library’s fire insurance records at <>.


The official records of the courts and the prison system contain much information about the individuals who came into contact with the law and are generally held by The National Archives. TNA’s ‘Looking for a person?’ page at <> links to sub-pages on bankrupts and debtors, civil litigants, criminal trials and convictions, prisoners and transportees, with information on what records are available. More detailed information is provided by a wide range of research guides which are linked from <> — look under the keywords ‘crime and criminals’ and ‘courts of law’.

The most important online records for those tried for a crime are The National Archives’ Criminal Registers for the period 1791 to 1892, which have been digitized and indexed by Ancestry at <>. While the information given in the registers is very basic — name, when and where tried, crime and sentence — these records will at least indicate whether it will be worth looking for an ancestor in other court and prison records. Ancestry also has the Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books, 1802–1849, searchable from <>. Again, details are minimal, but indicate that other records will be worth seeking out.

A resource providing much more detail, albeit for only a minority of criminal ancestors, is the Proceedings of the Old Bailey site at <>, which contains detailed accounts of almost 200,000 trials from 1674 to 1913, with transcriptions and scanned images from the contemporary printed proceedings. Sophisticated search facilities allow trials to be selected by keyword, name, place, crime, verdict and punishment, or you can browse the trials by date. The text of each trial also contains the names of defendants, victims, witnesses, jurors and judges, which can be found via the name search, so the site is not only of interest to those with criminal ancestors.


Figure 8-3 Proceedings of the Old Bailey

In addition to the records themselves, the site has extensive background material about particular communities, which will be of general interest:

There are a number of online databases relating to particular courts and gaols:

For general information on prisons, the Rossbret Prisons website is an essential resource. This has a list of prisons organized by county with historical information and details of the relevant records. However, the site is now only available at the Wayback Machine with the URL <> (15 November 2010).

There is a PRISONS-UK mailing list, details of which will be found at <>. Historic Herefordshire Online has material on the county’s prisons at <>.

The resources discussed here mostly relate to the modern period. The National Archives has research guides at <> on earlier courts such as the Court of Requests and the Star Chamber. However, you are unlikely to find material relating to individual cases online except where they have been published in print and are available in one of the digital book archives discussed in Chapter 12.

Cyndi’s List has a page devoted to ‘Prisons, Prisoners & Outlaws’ at <>, though many of the UK links relate to policing rather than to criminals. Genuki (see p. 18) lists relevant resources under the headings ‘Court Proceedings’ and ‘Correctional Institutions’ on national and county pages. There are many resources online relating to convict transportation to the colonies, and these are discussed in Chapter 11. Materials relating to the legal profession and the police are covered in the following chapter.

Civil courts

While an increasing number of records for the criminal courts and prisons are online, and are fairly straightforward to use, the records of the civil courts are highly complex and have been little digitized as yet. Their importance for genealogists lies in the immense amount of personal and family detail that may have been recorded in, for example, a dispute about an inheritance. Again the records are held by The National Archives, whose website is the best place for an overview of the courts and their work. The ‘Civil court cases: an overview’ page at <> has links to pages on bankrupts and debtors, and civil litigants. In-depth research guides for this area include:

The Equity Pleadings database at <> is a catalogue of over 30,000 equity cases in Chancery 1606–1722, which can be searched by person or place.

The commercial data services have a number of sets of Chancery records online. Ancestry has a Calendar of chancery proceedings: bills and answers filed in the reign of King Charles the First at <> and British Chancery Records, 1386–1558 at <> with 270,000 records. Origins has two datasets, both linked from <>:

Since 1665, bankruptcies have been announced in the London Gazette (see p. 197), and may well also be recorded in the commercial press (see Chapter 12).

Since 1858, divorces have been under the the jurisdiction of the High Court, and The National Archives’ ‘Looking for records of a divorce’ page at <> gives details of the relevant records (none of which are online). Before 1858, divorces were effected by various means under various jurisdictions. TNA’s research guide ‘Divorce records before 1858’ at <> covers the range of possibilities.

Church courts

The records of the church courts, apart from those relating to probate discussed at the start of this chapter, are probably under-exploited by genealogists, though the fact that they dealt, among other things, with matrimonial matters, and disputes between clergy and parishioners (often about tithes) mean they can often be of interest. Their preoccupation with immorality is the reason they are popularly referred to as ‘bawdy courts’. Basic information about them will be found in Else Churchill’s article on the BBC History site at <> and Origins’ article at <>.

So far there are few of these records online. British History Online has an index and list of London Consistory Court Depositions for 1586–1611 at <>, and origins has London Consistory Court Depositions Index 1700–1713 at <>

In 2011, the Borthwick Institute launched a website with the Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York 1300–1858 at <> with detailed background information about the work of the courts. The index includes the names of all those named in a case — as plaintiff, defendant or witness — and indicates the type of case. For some, there are images of the papers for the case, though these are quite forbidding, since they are in Latin and written in secretary hand. The site also has details of the relevant records for the whole of the province of York.

Next chapter: 9 Occupations