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.


Monday, 12 August 2013

Fantastic find in a newspaper!

I've always loved using newspapers for family history. Mostly this has meant looking at old newspapers, online, on film or even in hard copy - which reminds me, I must pay a fond farewell visit to Colindale before it closes later this year. More and more titles are being made available online all the time, revealing new details and sometimes astonishing breakthroughs for researchers.

But this time it is a current newspaper that got me and my family excited. On 27 July the paper in question ran a feature to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty of Panmunjom which brought the Korean War to an end. My aunt is a regular reader of the paper, and was interested in the feature because her late husband, my uncle Tommy, had served in that war. She got the surprise of her life when she looked at picture of a group of soldiers and right in the middle of the picture, there was Tommy!

She rang the newspaper and asked if she could have some copies of the picture, which she was perfectly willing to pay for, but instead they said they would send her a couple of copies, free of charge! We are a big family, so quite a few of us wanted copies. Technology to the rescue; you can take pretty good pictures with a mobile phone, so a copy of the photo has now been emailed around (it took me about half an hour on the phone instructing my mother, step by step, how to forward an email to me, but we got there eventually).

I've chosen not to show the picture, because the copyright belongs to the paper, and I haven't named the paper either, because they might not appreciate being 'outed' as a paper that gives away free pictures. Sorry about that. So you have a nice generic picture of the badge of the Black Watch, my uncle's regiment. I thought the story was worth telling, though, because it shows how you can find pieces of family history in surprising places, and when you are least expecting them. So remember to keep your eyes peeled, folks