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Where there’s a will :: Inside History’s guide to historic wills

Hundreds of thousands of New South Wales Will Books, from 1800 to 1952, are now available online for the first time on Findmypast. To celebrate this exciting collection, Inside History has put together a guide to historic wills. In our latest issue, Jan-Feb, you’ll find tips and tricks on getting the most from wills from State Records NSW experts, plus fascinating colonial-era case studies, a glossary of useful terms and an array of handy links. Below is a sneak peek into our guide to wills. 

As far as official records used for genealogical research go, wills are a peculiarly variable family history document. They are, of course, a legal instrument, subject to official approval through the granting of probate — indeed, they are powerless before the rule of law until that point. As such, they adhere to strict conventions and a terminology that can at times seem bewilderingly jargon-laden.

This official status aside, wills have the distinct potential to be surprisingly personal sources about our ancestors’ lives. Although often couched in legalese and centred upon questions of property, possessions and finances, wills can also proffer a small yet fascinating window into the social fabric of the deceased person’s life — even, in some cases, into their character.

A family portrait photographed by Carl Reinhold Hartmann in 1920. Courtesy State Library of Victoria, ID H2009.143-98.
A family portrait photographed by Carl Reinhold Hartmann in 1920. Courtesy State Library of Victoria, ID H2009.143-98.

They offer insights into whom the deceased entrusted enough to carry out their financial affairs after death; whom they judged close, beloved or worthy enough of an inheritance (and who didn’t quite make the cut). Potentially, wills can help you trace the delicate networks of relationships that overlaid your ancestor’s late life. They have the power to lay bare family secrets, to divulge unknown loyalties, gratitude and perhaps even grudges.

One will on Findmypast with its fair share of surprises is that of Alexander Macleay, a former Colonial Secretary, politician and entomologist who resided in Sydney’s impressive Elizabeth Bay House, and possessed the colony’s largest collection of natural history samples. After he died in 1848, this collection came to form the basis of material held by what is now known as the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney. Much of the rest of his estate was granted to his wife Elizabeth, son George and several sons-in-law. As for his eldest son William, also a prominent natural historian, Alexander had nothing to offer but the following words:

‘In consequence of the rapacious, ungrateful, unnatural and cruel conduct of my eldest son William Sharp Macleay towards me, his mother and all the rest of his family, it is my will and determination that he shall not in any way participate in the real or personal property which shall belong to me at the time of my decease. And I do hereby exclude him therefrom.’

We can only imagine how this was received when William and family read the contents of the will. This is one of the most intriguing aspects of wills: unlike most other family history documents, they could potentially contain a surprise or two for not only the deceased’s descendants but even for their immediate kin!

Learn more about how to find and analyse your ancestors’ wills – plus read expert tips and hints – in the Jan-Feb issue of Inside History, out now

Useful links:

  • State Records of NSW Archives Investigator: Will books – Click here
  • State Records of NSW: Probate Packets guide – Click here
  • State Records of NSW: Index to early probate packets – Click here
  • State Records of NSW: Death records – Click here

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