Wills are one of the most valuable types of document for those researching their family history. Although some are sadly very brief and short on detail, wills can contain a much wider range of information than official documents such as census returns and certificates of births, marriages and deaths. They can often help tie together the information found in other documents.
Since January 2011 we have had an index to some 1,500 wills on Jerripedia. It was compiled by Keith Vautier, who lives in New Zealand, and is an index to wills relevant to his own family research which he extracted from Court records. It covers the period from 1660-1829, and links to this index can be found in the section further down this page.
In 2015 in the region of 15,000 wills from 1660 to 1948, held by Jersey Archive, became accessible on their website. They are indexed by year groups and have been split into 120 web pages. Each of these contains links to over 100 wills in date order of when probate was granted. Thumbnail images of the wills enable subscribers to the Archive's online service either to open the wills on screen and move from one page to the next of multi-page wills, or to download individual pages. These images are of sufficiently high resolution to allow the wills to be read, and considerable detail can be found about some ancestors in this way.
We were prevented by the Archive from using thumbnail images of wills to link to their site, but we created a text index to all 15,000 wills, and then added a list of wills to our 1,200-plus family pages; either on the pages themselves, or in separate linked pages where substantial numbers of documents are involved. This enables Jerripedia users to discover very easily whether the Archive site contains wills for members of their family, and then go to that site for further research.
In 2018 we added a further 18,000 wills from 1949 to 1980 and redesigned our indexes to give more details, iron out some problems with sorting by family names and given names, and provide links to individual Archive documents, rather than a set of 100 or more wills. We will update the lists on our family pages as time permits.
We also have a fully searchable set of records in in the new Miscellany section of our database
The majority of the early wills are written in French, and in the 17th and 18th centuries the handwriting was generally very poor, so many of the documents can be very difficult to read. In the early years, even those islanders who owned substantial properties and other assets were poorly educated, if at all, and unable to read and write. So the wills were written for them by lawyers, clergymen or anybody known to them who was able to write, and rather than sign them, the testator would usually make a mark in the form of a cross, and witnesses had to be found who could append their signature to the document.
All early wills were written in very much the same format, starting by expressing the testators' devotion to God, followed by words suggesting that although their bodies were aged and causing much suffering, they were nevertheless of sound mind and ready to meet their maker.
Realty and Personalty
Wills in Jersey were generally made by men, widowed women and spinsters. This is because a wife's property was considered part of her husband's from the time of their marriage, and only reverted to her if he died first. Since 1851 property owners have generally made two wills, one concerning any houses, land and other properties they owned - Realty; the other relating to their possessions, cash, shares, rentes and other personal property - Personalty. Prior to 1851 it was only possible to leave Personalty by will, Realty passed to heirs at law. The wills in the Archive collection generally concern Personalty, but often issues of life enjoyment of a property by a spouse with subsequent reversion to children are covered in a will of Personalty. Wills of Realty are registered in the Public Registry of contracts.
There have been varying rules over the centuries restricting the freedom of Jerseymen and women to bequeath their property as they wish. Many wills are very brief, indicating that a husband leaves the proportion of his property stipulated by law to his wife and children, with the unrestricted balance to his wife (or perhaps to the eldest son). Some wills, however, contain a number of small bequests, usually to charities. In early years there was often a bequest to the testator's church, requesting that, in return, the parish Rector said masses for the deceased. Sometimes the number was left to the discretion of the priest, sometimes as many as 200 were specified.
Other will makers would make separate bequests for the upkeep of the church, the maintenance of their family grave, or simply for the poor of their parish, and other parishes in which they may have lived.
Sometimes the bequests seem trivial - as little as 5 sous - but the changes in the value of money over the years have to be taken into account.
It is by no means easy to compare the value of a bequest a century or two ago with today's money. Any number of different formulae can be found online, and none relates specifically to Jersey. A multiple as high as 1,000 is suggested by some to be applied to changes in the value of money from 1750 to today, whereas others suggest that the multiplier should be only 100. Even taking the latter figure, a bequest of 5 shillings to a charity in the second half of the 18th century would equate to £25 today. At the higher figure a bequest of £1,000 - and they were made - would be worth £1 million today.
Index to wills
Our index shows the name of the person making the will, address where available, possibly an extract from the will, either or both of the dates when the will was drawn up, and when probate was granted, and the Jersey Archive reference number for the will in their catalogue.
The Archive index sometimes includes the date on which the will was made and dates when codicils were added. Please note that the date of probate is not the same as the date of death of the testator, but usually follows shortly after.
There are many errors of transcription in the details in the Archive index. We have corrected these when possible, but without making changes which would make it difficult to find the entry in the appropriate Archive folder. It is interesting to see the variety of spellings of surnames which can be found for Jersey families in the 17th and 18th centuries, and where possible new variations have been added to our family pages, based on what is contained in the wills.
As we have indicated above, there is a tremendous variety of bequests to be found in Jersey wills. Charities such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, Jersey Society for the Blind, Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, National Waifs and Strays Society (Dr Barnardos Homes), and particularly church charities, feature prominently.
In the 20th century it is common to find motor cars specified as individual bequests, and household appliances, sewing machines and the like are often listed.
- Annie Ticehurst, the wife of Harold Charles Mauger, St Helier, bequeathed her marmalade machine and cream machine to Susan Underwood in a will which obtained probate on 6 February 1942.
Wills sometimes indicate that the deceased did not enjoy a good relationship with their family;
- Peter Flood, of 18 New St Johns Road, St Helier, in a 1942 will, decreed that 'If none of his relatives come to his funeral' he bequeathed 'a number of personal effects to the Little Sisters of the Poor'.
- Ethel Sebire of Coniston, Oxford Road, St Helier, was even less hopeful. Her 1948 will instructed that she bequeathed to the Blind Society all the money that her household furniture would fetch, and to the Aged People in Regents Road any money left after her funeral expenses had been paid, noting that 'she leaves nothing to any of the family because they never bothered about her, and no mourning or flowers by special request'.
Codicils are frequently to be found amending or cancelling bequests, perhaps because the legatee has died, or was no longer in favour with the will maker.
The list of artists whose works are specified as bequests in wills includes many of the greatest known. It would be interesting to know where these works are to be found today.
Among the more bizarre bequests are that of Edmund Wright Younger, of St Brelade, who bequeathed his 'secrets in connection with his magic and blueprint plan of illusions' to a Mr Wilson.
On a more sombre note, it is interesting to record that will makers frequently expressed fears that they might not really be dead when the time came for their burial. The following is a typical request:
- Laurence Yates, Mon Rêve, Route Orange, St Brelade ... desires that an artery be opened at his death and that his coffin is not closed down until distinct signs of mortification have set in.
Sometimes records indicate that all was not quite as it seemed when the original will was registered:
- 'Copy of the Act from the Royal Court dated 2 July 1938 relating that Frank Augustus Swetting is the name of the testator whose will was passed on 18 March 1938 under the name of Francis Seaton and that Dorothy Hawkins who was granted probate of the Will was not the wife of the testator, but Florence Ethel Thackham was - 23 September 1938'
The records contain many documents relating to wills made and registered overseas. Often it is not clear from the index what connection the testators had with Jersey. Sometimes they relate to property in Jersey being bequeathed by will makers who have no other personal connection with the island. Sometimes they indicate that the testator originated in Jersey but has died while living a long way distant.
As already referred to above, in the 1990s New Zealand genealogist Keith Vautier extracted the details of wills relevant to his family from Jersey Royal Court records. He created an index for the period 1660-1829 from the microfilms created in 1965 by the LDS.
He included in his index names of the spouse, children, relative, or other legatee for each entry. These old records were written in French and the writing is often very difficult to decipher.