interpret historic wills

6 Tips to interpret historic wills and probate records

1. Don’t think that gifting household items holds no significance – this is not the case. Items such as bed linen, kitchen utensils, and brass were in fact quite valuable. Shakespeare famously left his wife nothing but their marital bed. There has been much debate about whether this showed he had a loveless relationship with her, or that it was in fact a considerable inheritance as the beds of ‘celebrities’ were indeed very valuable.
 
2. Don’t make assumptions about old words. For example ‘Belhaus’ could be miss-translated to mean Bell Tower but it actually means bellow – a device used to pump air.
 
3. Relationship terms differ a lot from what we interpret them as today. For example, the word cousin won’t always refer to the same relationship we know nowadays.  Instead, it could mean a nephew, niece, grandnephew or grandniece. The term ‘mother-in-law’ may not mean mother of spouse, it was sometimes used to mean step-mother. When the testator says ‘my father,’ they could actually mean their father-in-law
 
4. When a child seems to be missing, don’t pay too much importance to this. It was common for heirs to receive their inheritance while the deceased was still living. Similarly, if you see that a first born son has only inherited a shilling, this may mean he has already received his share of the estate. 
 
5. Daughters often received lump sums when they got married so might not be named. It was also the norm to name son-in-laws as beneficiaries rather than daughters.
 
6. While a £100 inheritance from a will in the 1800s may not seem like a lot, it’s actually equivalent to around £3500 in today’s money. Use this currency tool to convert old money to new and find out what it would buy you in those times.

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