Hundreds of thousands of Will Books from New South Wales – dating from 1800 to 1952 – are now online for the first time, available exclusively through Findmypast.
Wills are an invaluable source for family historians, particularly for helping to trace your ancestors’ financial history. They can help provide insights, if not detailed figures, regarding the possessions and property of our forebears.
And then there is the sometimes loaded question of who inherited what, and how your ancestor allocated their wealth, estate and belongings. In theory, depending on their holdings and bequests, you may even be able to trace how a particular property was passed down the line over the generations.
But the value of wills extends beyond matters of finance and property, bequests and inheritances. Here are some of the fascinating things we’ve learnt from the Wills Books collection that may apply to your ancestor.
- Unexpected New South Wales connections
Contrary to what you may expect, the New South Wales Will Books contain individuals from far beyond the borders of this colony-come-state.
That it includes the wills of Australians who lived interstate is perhaps not surprising in the early years, considering that the collection dates back to 1800, which predates the foundation of other colonies in Australia besides New South Wales. But even in later years, interstate residents appear among the collection, particularly if they had a financial connection to the state.
But the New South Wales Wills Books also contains wills and related records from people who lived in other countries altogether. Typically this was because the deceased was a resident of New South Wales but their last place of residence was outside the state. In other cases, people who lived elsewhere may have lodged their will in New South Wales despite not living there, particularly if they had property or shares in the state.
For instance, British writer and poet Rudyard Kipling makes a perhaps unexpected appearance in the New South Wales Will Books. While he had travelled to Australia along with New Zealand, South Africa and India in 1891, the writer lived in England up until his death in 1936: as his will describes, he was ‘Rudyard Kipling of Bateman’s Burwash in the County of Sussex’.
Kipling owned shares that were registered in New South Wales and, as such, death duties were assessed on his estate. The will makes for an interesting read, however, addressing not only aspects of his finances within the colony itself but also outlines his wishes regarding his home in Sussex, his literary property and even his wish to be cremated.
It’s a prime example of how family history records can sometimes take you farther across the world than you would have thought, maybe even opening up unexpected leads in your research.
- Sorting the admin
The New South Wills Books 1800-1952 records contain not only digitised copies of the wills themselves but also modifications, additions or revocations that were later made to these wills in codicils.
In addition, the collection also contains records relating to the administration of these wills – sometimes long after the deceased had passed. An example of this relates to the famous explorer Ludwig Leichhardt. One record, dated to 18 February 1859, states that he “is supposed to have perished whilst on an exploring expedition into the interior of this Colony.”
However, it was only on 11 August 1868 that Leichhardt’s last will and testament was granted to his nephew, Siegfried Franck, “the duly constituted other record of the parties interested under the Will residing in Germany”. This was a full 20 years after his mysterious disappearance.
While we may not all have famous explorers on our family tree, even for more ordinary ancestors, it could sometimes take years and even decades after their death to settle their estate.
- Most prized possessions
Wills may provide insight into what your ancestor’s most treasured and valuable possessions were. While many were written in a relatively standardised fashion, replete with legal terminology, some have surprisingly specific and sometimes colourful details.
For example, the first thing that Thomas Johnson of Brickfield Hill (now Surry Hills in inner-city Sydney) noted in his will was: “I bequeath to my dear wife Mary Ann Johnson all my wines, liquors, fuel and other consumable stores and provisions…” For this licensed victualler, it was clear his precious grog came first!
Similarly, innkeeper William Taylor of Berrima in Camden, declared in his will: “I give and bequeath all my wines and spirits and stock in trade of a licensed victualler unto my wife Bridget Taylor absolutely.” A touching gift.
- A snapshot of family relationships – and feuds?
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of wills for family historians lies in their potential to illuminate their relationships with those around them – into the family network, into whom they trusted well enough to make their executor, into whom they judged beloved or worthy enough of an inheritance. And, of course, on the flipside: who missed out.
Sometimes the findings can be unexpected. One such surprise was found in the will of Alexander Macleay, a Colonial Secretary, natural historian and entomologist, who possessed an impressive harbour-side Sydney mansion, Elizabeth Bay House, and the colony’s largest collection of natural history samples. After he died in 1848, this collection was granted to what became known as the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney.
Much of his estate was granted to his wife, second eldest son George and sons-in-law. Yet, for his eldest son William, also a prominent natural historian, he 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.”
- Personal twists and character studies
As legal instruments, generally speaking the wills tend to be straightforward records, following similar patterns. But, at the risk of speculation, some wills feature personal twists or small additions that seem to reflect that particular individual’s beliefs, values and even character.
Sometimes this is in the form of a statement indicating personal belief. For example, before allocating his worldly goods, the will of Uriah Moses, a Jewish “dealer” who lived in Windsor, New South Wales, expressed religious sentiment: “I commit my body to the dust and my Soul to the God who gave it.”
Other potential revelations lie in whom the deceased chose to allocate their possessions to. Pastoralist Sir Sidney Kidman, who built a vast network of cattle stations right across the Australian continent and became the largest landowner in the nation, bequeathed most of his vast wealth to family and friends. But he also made bequests to 17 different charities, ranging from 500 to 100 pounds each, mostly from his home state of South Australia. It’s the sort of generosity that apparently not every millionaire could afford.
While of course no record could ever fully capture the personality of any individual, it is often these little details and quirks that help paint a picture of our ancestors beyond their names and dates (as important as these are to know!).
As they say, where there’s a will there is a way.