Save Our Wills

Jane Whittle and Harry Smith

In 1942 a bombing raid on Exeter destroyed the cathedral’s probate archive, and the pre-1858 wills of Devon, Somerset and Cornwall went up in flames. Their destruction left a large hole in our knowledge of the ordinary inhabitants of south-west England between the Middle Ages and the mid-19th century. The Ministry of Justice is currently consulting on whether it should get rid of all of the UK’s post-1858 wills apart from those of a few ‘famous people’. Everyone else’s would be destroyed and only digital copies preserved.

Wills have existed in largely unchanged form since Anglo-Saxon times; more than three million survive for England and Wales from the 14th century to 1858, and many millions more after that date. They are the only personal documents that exist for the mass of the population over hundreds of years.

Historians have used wills to explore attitudes to religion, death, property, family relationships, gender, work, slavery, global trade, personal finance and demographic change. It’s widely known that Shakespeare left his wife their second-best bed. In 1603 a Londoner called William Radcliffe left his sister ‘a gold ring with a picture of death’s head, for all her unkindness’. Daniel Winnock, a clockmaker, in 1726 left his cousin ‘two pieces of clockwork, one … in the form of a cuckoo and the other in the form of a milkmaid’. Margaret Adams of Bury St Edmunds left her sister a pot of gilly flowers in 1632. The bequest had no monetary value: it may have been an expression of affection for her sister, or she may have wanted to make sure the flowers were still watered after her death. Perhaps both.

The suggestion that paper copies should be preserved of the post-1858 wills only of famous people overlooks the two most important facets of wills as historical documents: they survive for people who otherwise left little record, and they survive in large numbers. The MOJ’s consultation outlines only two reasons for preserving wills: as legal documents for settling questions of inheritance, and because they have sentimental value to the families of the deceased. Their historical and cultural importance isn’t mentioned. The consultation acknowledges the difficulties of deciding who is famous enough to have their paper will preserved, but that’s missing the point that the ‘ordinary’ wills of everyone else matter more.

None of this would be a problem if the preservation of digital copies were equivalent to the paper archive. The effort to single out and keep famous wills suggests it is not. Digital copies are great when they work: easy to access and read. But digitisation and the preservation of digital records are not simple or cheap tasks. The proposed destruction of the archive is a money-saving scheme. We’re told that the outsourced preservation of the existing paper archives costs £4.5 million a year. We are not told the cost of digitising the archive, of storing it safely or of maintaining a digital interface so the documents remain accessible. Paper archives are vulnerable to damp and fire but have survived remarkably well for the last five hundred years. We simply don’t know how durable digital archives will be: it is likely to depend on how much the government is willing to invest in designing and future-proofing this unprecedented scheme of mass-digitisation. Their existing record on careful planning and expenditure is not promising.

The destruction of paper wills doesn’t only risk the permanent loss of some or all of them if something goes wrong in the digital preservation; it also closes down further avenues of research. Even the highest quality scan cannot reproduce all the information contained in a physical object. The consultation assures us that the digitisation process will produce scans that maintain all the marks on the paper, but the material qualities of the paper and ink are also meaningful. We cannot know how scholars in the future might make use of such information, but we can know that nothing will be possible if all the physical wills have been destroyed. It will also be impossible to resolve any dispute over the contents of a digital copy of a will without the original.

The historical record is inevitably incomplete. What does survive may be lost or destroyed by accident, as with the south-west’s probate records, or the 1931 census, destroyed by fire in 1942. It is rarer to see the intentional destruction of records, and where it has happened it has been a source of regret for scholars. This government claims to appreciate the value of history, but such a commitment cannot sit alongside the wholesale destruction of a valuable archive for the sake of a small fiscal saving.

The Ministry of Justice consultation closes on 23 February 2024.


  • 6 March 2024 at 10:21pm
    Nicholas Hampson says:
    While many digitised documents are easy to read, I have come across some which are not; to the extent that I have had to request production of the originals, fortunately available. Finding a particular document is often tricky, to say the least, though no doubt practice will make perfect, and younger readers will find it easier. Further, access to digitised records can be expensive (though I suppose we're lucky that's not the case for paper records, and access is a factor).