Monday 28 October 2013

Memories of the Probate Service - Somerset House

The recent news about the move of the Probate Service searchroom from First Avenue House, with little advance publicity, set me thinking about how things have changed over the years. When I started researching, back in the 1980s, the Probate Search Room was in Somerset House, where it had been for nearly a century. The room, like the rest of the building, was a handsome one, and apart from the introduction of electric light seemed to have changed little during that time. Many of the index books, called 'calendars' were in shelved in free-standing bookcases with a lectern on top, as in the picture above, which actually illustrates the earlier searchroom at Doctor's Commons. The rest were in bookcases around the room, mostly without lecterns or handy shelving, although there were some tables. The most recent indexes were on microfiche, and as I recall there were never enough microfiche readers.

The books were large and heavy, but unlike the birth, marriage and death indexes, did not have handles on the spines, so they were prone to damage from mis-handling. When you found an entry for a will you wanted, you had to decide whether you wanted to read it, or order a copy, then fill in a form and pay the appropriate fee. This was more complicated than it sounds. As well as the form, you had to take the book to the desk for checking, and you could take two at a time - although carrying more than two would have been no mean feat! It cost 25p to read a will, or 25p a page for a copy. Either way, you then had to wait until the will was brought up for you to read, or a note of the number of pages if you wanted a copy to be posted to you. You would hear names being called out as each item arrived, and if you were lucky you'd work out fairly quickly that they called out the testator's name, not your name, or you might have a long wait.

The fun(?) part was paying the fee. You had to go down the corridor to the cashier, and it was a good idea to have the right money, because the cashiers never seemed to have any change. Except during the lunch hour, when the cashier's office was closed and you had to go down a different corridor and up two floors to another cashier who didn't have any change either. They never quite fixed the cashier problem, but the pricing did become simpler, when the price of copies was fixed at 75p, regardless of the number of pages.

Somerset House's days were numbered as a home for the Probate Search Room, though, because it simply wasn't big enough any more. It wasn't just crowded with probate searchers, it also shared the building with the Divorce Registry, which was desperately short of meeting rooms where the parties could confer with their lawyers just before a court appearance. On one memorable occasion I had to step over a barrister, in robe and wig, who was sitting on the stairs with his client as I made my way up to the cashier's office.

The good old days? I don't think so (apart from the price, of course). So the whole operation left Somerset House and moved up to First Avenue House, but that's another story.


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