Thursday 29 August 2013

Soldiers' wills online - good news (up to a point)

Will Form in a soldier's pass book 1945
As reported in the Guardian and on the BBC, the long-awaited collection release of soldiers' wills is at last being released by HM Courts and Tribunals Service. Like most other genealogists I am delighted that the Probate Service has finally made some data available online, but I'm afraid that as it stands, the service leaves a great deal to be desired.

On the positive side, they have provided an online index to some of their records, which is something that the General Register Office for England and Wales has yet to achieve. And at long last it is now possible to pay by credit or debit card, a particularly welcome move for overseas searchers. Also, the range of years covered, 1850 to 1986, starts 8 years before the Principal Probate Registry, and continues 20 years after the most recent calendars from the main collection, online at

So far, so good, but there is still a long way to go. First of all, unless you use the link from one of the news stories, the introductory search page might be hard to find, since it is not in the Probate Service part of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service site, but in the Death and Bereavement area of GOV.UK. The Courts and Tribunals site is due to be merged into GOV.UK, so this confusion should only be temporary. The information, or lack of it, on the search page is of much more concern.

The introductory page gives only the coverage dates (1850-1986) and:

     You will need: 

    • the soldier’s last name and year of death to search for a will 
    • to register for the service with an email address 
    • to pay £6 to access a will

Regrettably it does not tell you that only the years 1914 to 1921 are included in the initial launch, or indeed give any indication that the collection is incomplete. Nor is there any background information whatsoever.

There are both basic (surname and year) and advanced search functions, but both searches will only allow you to search a single year at a time, there is no facility to search a range of years. The extra fields in Advanced Search are: Forename, Month of Death, Day of Death and Regimental Number. I don't know how or why these criteria were chosen, but they are not the ones I would have picked. For an ancestor who died in the two World Wars the exact date and regimental number can easily be found on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site, but outside of these time periods you are unlikely to know these details, although you might know the man's regiment, or at least be able to hazard a guess. As it stands, searching for the will of a man with a common name could prove very expensive at £6 a time, with only a name, year and number. This is much less information than is provided in the regular probate calendars.

A regular calendar entry (which include wills and administrations of some soldiers who died in the World Wars) might read as follows:

COLEMAN Reginald John of 36 Trewsbury Road, Sydenham, Kent, lance-corporal 36th Machine Gun Company died 19 June 1917 in France or Belgium, Probate London  30 October to Frederick Vincent Buckhurst, bank inspector and Edward Ffoulkes Jones, commercial clerk. Effects £3433 5s 3d

If this had been one of those in the newly-released collection, his entry would simply read:

COLEMAN Reginald John 71482 19 June 1917

The search page contains a link at the top 'Beta: This is a new service - your feedback will help us to improve it' and I can only suggest that anyone who is interested in these wills gives the site a thorough road test and feeds back their own opinions and suggestions.



  1. So far as I can see, there is no wildcard search either - so the ability to look for McLaren mis-spelled as MacLaren, McClaren etc (welcome to my world) isn't there. This needs some serious work to make it usable.

  2. Audrey, I checked out the search function last night and had two different suggestions for improving the site. As you suggest use the feedback button. Both emails came back as undeliverable. Maybe they don't want to hear from the users.
    Paul MIlner

  3. I think you are a little harsh - the search fields are all you need to find a soldier, although I agree it would be useful to search across all years. The main problem is that it is not complete - with 230,000 wills it roughly includes wills for about 1 in 3 of the men who were killed during the war (about 705,000 British servicemen were casualties). For example, I have a soldier's paybook will for my great-uncle Stanley Crozier who was killed in October 1918, but there is no entry for him.
    The best you can say is this resource is one of several probate sources that could be checked - the others being the National Probate Calendar (which contains a surprisingly large number of soldiers' wills) on Ancestry and the Scottish and Irish resources on the websites of their respective national archives.
    Even so for the majority of men there will be nothing.

  4. History Man, I think you too are being somewhat harsh. Writing a Will was not (to my knowledge) compulsory. It is highly likely that a very large percentage of servicemen did not do so. Of those that did, if as was suggested that it be carried with paybook in the tunic pocket it is probable that a great number did not survive a battle. It should also be borne in mind that the bodies of many soldiers were never found and that many were buried by the Germans who if they retrieved Wills, e.g. for intelligence purposes, probably did not preserve them. In my view, 230,000 surviving Wills is a far greater number than might have been expected in the circumstances.

  5. The date range is wider than 1914-1921. Playing about I got 127 hits for Smith in 1943, but only 1 in 1948 and none in a random selection of years in the 50's and 60's.

  6. Luckily for me I did have the information I needed to identify my grandfather, who died in 1942. I found him instantly, ordered his will on Saturday, and it arrived just after midnight this morning (Monday).

    Naively, though, I was expecting a document something along the lines of other Wills I have. Prepare to be disappointed. Mine consisted of two sentences - one to name the executor, the other to name the beneficiary. Plus a signature and date, all on a standard pre-printed form.

    Oh well, at least it confirmed the money was never coming MY way.....