NSW Will Books now on FindMyPast

FindMyPast Australia announced in June last year that they had acquired the rights to digitise and publish the Will Books held by State Records NSW. I don’t usually publish press releases but I was so pleased I just had to do it!

All things come to those who wait, as they say, and the Will Books are finally here.

The Will Books are hand-written copies of the wills made by the office of the Probate Registrar. They contain a summary of the probate process and the value of the estate. They have been on microfilm for some time, and I imagine it was the microfilms that were digitised. The original will is kept in the probate packet, access to which is restricted until the packets are sent to the Archive at State Records NSW. See the entry for this series in Archives Investigator.

The records are easy to find and download. I searched first for all my Easons, because even though I have images of the actual probate packets I had never looked up the wills in the Will Books. Here is the entry for Irwin Eason, who has his will drawn up in November 1914, after the oubreak of World War I, and died on 12 October 1945 having seen both world wars. Irwin died childless and left his estate to his beloved wife Annie.

4-310621 Irwin Eason

And here is the first page of an earlier, handwritten entry for Irwin’s uncle Robert Ewin, who died on 21 October 1921 survived by his second wife and nine of his eleven children.

4-111--2 Robert Ewin

 

These records are well worth searching for, even if you have the probate packet, for the easy-to-understand summary they contain.

It’s also worthwhile checking the transcription of the entry. It doesn’t transcribe the whole entry for you but it picks out the most important names for you. Here is the transcription for Robert Ewin:

4-111002 Robert Ewin transcriptionMake sure you search for absolutely everyone you can think of – the siblings and neighbours of ancestors can be just as informative as the records for your own ancestors, and may have references to them. The names of the heirs and executors listed in the transcription do not seem to be indexed so you can’t search for mentions of people in the wills of others, although perhaps that will come.

The last Will and Testament of a WWI soldier

I have previously written about the service file Douglas James Stewart (1899-1918), downloaded from the National Archives of Australia’s website. The file is 61 pages long, and I was unable to do it justice in a single post.

Douglas embarked for England on 10 May 1917 after months of training and medical examinations and inoculations. Ten days before he left he made out his last Will and Testament, lodging it with the Officer in Charge Base Records. A certified copy of the will was kept in his file. I imagine the original was removed on his death.

Certified copy of the Last Will and Testament of Douglas James Stewart

He left everything he owned to his mother, Annie Stewart. I don’t imagine that his property and effects amounted to much. He was 18, he lived at home with his parents; he was a telegraph messenger. Perhaps he owned a bicycle.

His will was witnessed by W.M. Dorney and A. J. Cowled. A search of the National Archives of Australia RecordSearch reveals the identity of these two witnesses.

William Michael Dorney from Raymond Terrace was a State School teacher who had passed his 2nd Lieutenant’s exam at Duntroon in 1916, before he enlisted, aged 30, in Raymond Terrace, near Newcastle. He sailed from Sydney on board HMAT Port Melbourne on 16 July 1917 with the 33rd Batallion, and was wounded in action in France in April 1918. After two months in hospital he was sent back to France and was killed 12 days later by a direct hit from an enemy 77 [gun] while leading his platoon at ‘Road Wood’ on 30 August 1918. His effects were returned to his wife.

Agustus John Cowled was a farmer who enlisted at Cootamundra on 29 March 1916. He was 22. He was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant on 1 May 1917 before leaving Australia on 31 October 1917 aboard HMAT Euripides. He lived through the war, despite being wounded and gassed more than once, and returned to Australia on 20 August 1919.

I can’t see that Douglas served with either of these two lieutenants. Douglas had landed in France after training in England on 20 May 1918.

A ‘Certificate re Will’ is also on file. This appears to be a stub from which the will, filled out by the men on a standard form, had been removed. You can see the pin marks on the left hand side. Other men provided their own wills, especially, I suspect, the married ones.

Certificate re Will - Douglas James Stewart

The certificate is signed by by the Commanding Officer of the battalion. I would welcome a more accurate explanation of this form.

Sources for witnesses:

National Archives of Australia: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920.

Cowled Augustus John : SERN LIEUTENANT : POB Junee NSW : POE N/A : NOK F Cowel Albert Clayton

Dorney William Michael : SERN Lieutenant : POB Raymond Terrace NSW : POE N/A : NOK W Dorney Gertrude Margaret

This post was originally published in May 2010 in my old blog ‘Genealogy in New South Wales’.

14 sources of death information

NSW Death 1873/3798

I was inspired recently by William Dollarhide’s article (reproduced here) giving a checklist of documents to be acquired for the death of every one of your ancestors and their siblings and children. William is American and his list is necessarily American in focus, so I thought I would write one for Australians and New Zealanders.

  1. Death Registration – a death certificate should always be obtained if the death occurred after civil registration was introduced in the colony (see dates below). The information varies from state to state, and may not have been filled in even if requested. Bear in mind that the information has been provided by someone other than the deceased, and that the more distant the relationship the less reliable the information is. In general, though, a death certificate may be the most useful document you can find about your ancestor, containing parents, children, birthplace and time in the colony.
  2. Church burial - if your ancestor died before civil registration was introduced then the church record of burial is all you will be able to find. Even if you have the death certificate it is worthwhile to find the entry in the burial register, as their may be more information listed than was required by civil registration, particularly in small communities where the minister was likely to have known the deceased personally. If you don’t know what religion they were, find out; it will be useful when looking for the grave, particularly in a large cemetery.
  3. Funeral director’s register – these are not always available or easy to find but may pay you for your perseverance, especially if you haven’t found the more obvious records. Some societies have indexed these or copied them on microfilm. It’s worth asking.
  4. Headstone – the grave in the cemetery can tell you so much. Information on a headstone can tell you where they were born, when they arrived in the colony, who was buried with them, who their spouse and children were. Look at the graves around your ancestor’s grave; there may be other family members you didn’t know about buried nearby. If indexed then check for all others with the same surname or that of the spouse or married daughters. Bear in mind, though, that the information on a headstone has been provided by the family to the funeral director who then may have passed it on to the stonemason’s office, who then passed it to the stone mason. There  is a lot of room for errors. The headstone may also have been raised by descendants many years after the death, or only when younger descendants were buried in the same grave. Even so, it’s something to go on that can be corroborated by other sources. The headstone may be indexed and even photographed by a local family history society or volunteer.
  5. Cemetery register – the cemetery register can tell you where in the cemetery the grave is located, which can be enormously helpful for large cemeteries. In cases where no headstone was erected the cemetery register may be your only proof that your ancestor is buried in that cemetery. The family may not have been able to afford a headstone, particularly if the father of the family died relatively young.
  6. Obituary or death notice – a notice of the death may appear in the local paper. An obituary will only appear if the deceased was notable in some way in the town or district, and a death notice will only appear if the family put one in. There may be both. Don’t just rely on Trove to find the notice, as many local newspapers have not yet been digitised. Most local newspapers have been microfilmed but complete runs may not be available. The Ryerson Index is a good place to start.
  7. Funeral notice – the funeral notice is usually separate from the death notice and advises friends and relatives where the funeral is to take place. These are not common in local papers that were only published two or three times a week, as it was impossible to give enough notice of a funeral before publication. The funeral notices may appear on the same page as the death notices so make sure you look for both. Funeral notices can also be given more than once, as family and  organisations your ancestor belonged to, such as unions or clubs, may have paid for separate notices.
  8. Death noticesNewspaper article about death – if your ancestor died in unusual circumstances or was well-known in the district there may be a news article in the local paper about the death. Be prepared for graphic detail that may be upsetting.
  9. Probate or intestate estate – probate (proving the will) or intestate estate files can give much information. If there was a will it should be in the file, along with the date that probate was granted. The executors may have been family members, perhaps even siblings you knew nothing about. Sometimes the death certificate and newspaper death notice will be in the file.
  10. Deceased estate (death duties) if death duties were payable at the time of your ancestor’s death it is worthwhile to find the file and see what assets they had. Sometimes assets are listed in some detail, down to the cost of furniture and pictures on the walls, and references to land and property that can be used to find titles and parish maps. There may also be declarations from relatives about their ability to pay the death duty on behalf of the deceased, so you can find out a lot about the economic circumstances of siblings and children.
  11. Inquest – again, if you ancestor died in unusual circumstances there may have been an inquest. The death certificate will usually indicate whether an inquest was held or dispensed with. The file may not have survived but the entry in the inquest register may. The file may have nothing more than a verdict, or it may contain graphic descriptions and transcriptions of evidence, and large glossy photographs of the scene of the crime or accident, so be prepared. The inquest may also have been reported in the local newspaper, and often much more detail is available in the newspaper article than in the inquest register.
  12. Military service file – if your ancestor died in military service the file may be able to tell you more. The National Archives of Australia holds military service files and are digitising them and making them available online as fast as they can. All Word War I files are available, and they are working their way through World War II. If your ancestor’s file is not yet digitised you can pay to have it done early (currently $16.50, or more if you want them to send you colour copies). Other wars are also represented.
  13. Broken Hill Miners' MemorialMemorials – every town has a war memorial, listing sons and daughters of the town that gave their lives in wars and conflicts. It can be very moving to find your ancestor’s name on a memorial. There are other memorials to look out for, for example, Broken Hill has a Miner’s Memorial (see this panoramic display) listing names and causes of death by year. In addition, some cemeteries now have a Children’s Memorial, when parents can pay tribute to the children they’ve lost.
  14. Hospitals and asylums – not all hospital records have survived, and not all surviving records are on open access, but if you can find them you might find out more about the cause of death and the last days of your ancestor. You may also find information you didn’t expect. In South Australia the admission registers of the Royal Adelaide Hospital recorded age, residence and ship of arrival, which may be just the breakthrough you need to distinguish your ancestor from others of the same name.

Look for records in all of these places. They may not always exist, but you won’t know if you don’t look, and you won’t know what’s in them if you don’t try to find them. I can’t guarantee that you will find something useful in all of these sources, or even that you will find all of these sources. The more information you can find, the more likely you could make that breakthrough you’ve been looking for.

Even if you don’t find anything you didn’t already know, you will have the confidence that comes from finding confirmation in a number of sources that what you have is correct. That’s what family history is all about.

Headstone

Dates for civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in Australasian colonies:
ACT – 1 Jan 1930 (see NSW to 1929)

NSW – 1 Mar 1856

NT – 24 Aug 1870 (see NSW to 1863; see SA to 1870)

QLD – 1 Mar 1856 (as part of NSW)

SA – 1 Jun 1842

TAS – 1 Dec 1838

VIC – 1 Jul 1853

WA – 1 Sep 1841

NZ – 1 Jan 1848 (births and deaths); 1 Jan 1854 (marriages)

 

How to search for probate files at State Records NSW

SRNSW Western Sydney Records CentreProbate is the process of proving that a will left by a deceased person is genuine. Probate files are created by the NSW Supreme Court (or equivalent in other States) and transferred gradually to State Records NSW. They are more commonly called ‘probate packets’, since all the documents are folded in three into an envelope.

Probate packets can contain all sorts of goodies, including a copy of the will, an inventory of assets, affidavits from family members, and sometimes a copy of the death certificate and newspaper notices. Intestate Estate files can also be found, where the deceased did not leave a will.

State Records NSW holds probate packets up to the 1980s, but to find the reference involves searching the index on microfiche created by the NSW Supreme Court.  State Records NSW has been gradually adding each packet to it online catalogue, Archives Investigator, so that we can search from home.

Now and Then, the State Records NSW newsletter, describes the packets that have been listed so far and how to find them, and I can do no better than to quote the article here (updated September 2014).

More probate packets listed in Archives Investigator Over 300 000 individual (NRS 13660) Probate Packets are available in Archives Investigator! Listed so far are:

•             Series 1: April 1817 to c. May 1873

•             Series 2: 1873 to 1876

•             Series 3: 1876 to c.1890

•             The years 1928-1976 from Series 4 – Series 4-152150 to Series 4-828673. Part of 1989 has also been listed.

To check if the details of your ancestor’s Probate Packet is now available online just go to Archives Investigator – Simple Search, key in the name of your ancestor followed by the word ‘death’ and click on the ‘Search’ button. If you locate a relevant result you then have the option to order a photocopy of the probate or preorder the probate packet to view in person at the Western Sydney Records Centre (WSRC). A more comprehensive explanation can be found here.

Search for your elusive ancestor today http://investigator.records.nsw.gov.au/

Do a search for all your New South Wales ancestors, male and female, and plan a trip out to the Western Sydney Records Centre (WSRC) at Kingswood. Take your digital camera, or use the camera setup they have. Be prepared to pay for photocopies if you can’t deal with the folded up pages. You won’t regret it!

Retrieval orders for probate packets are only sent at certain times of the day, so you can save time by pre-ordering up to four packets a day or two before your visit, to be waiting for you when you arrive.

Beyond the death certificate – probate, deceased estates, and inquests

image_paperworkYou probably already have a copy of your ancestor’s death certificate, which tells you where and how your ancestor died and who was left behind. Probate and deceased estate files can give you much more – what property did he/she have, who was to get what, and who was involved in the distribution process. If there were unusual circumstances surrounding the death an inquest was often held, which will give you details about how they died. This is invaluable information for anyone looking for those details that make up a clearer picture of your ancestor.

Probate is the process of deciding who is authorised to administer a will on behalf of the deceased. In the absence of a will letters of administration are issued for the same purpose. A probate packet is all of the documents submitted to the Supreme Court to enable this decision to be made, and can include the original last will and testament and any codicils; asset inventories; affidavits of death, witnesses, and the executor, and sometimes the death certificate and death notices in the local newspaper.

The reference numbers for probate packets can be found by checking the Probate Index 1800-1985 on microfiche, which is available in the State Records NSW Reading Rooms and many libraries. Probate Packets are progressively being indexed in State Records NSW Archives Investigator, which is their “on-line archives information and access system”, and so it’s worth checking here first, especially for deaths in the 1800s. In Archives Investigator use a Simple Search and enter the first name and surname of the deceased, and the word “death”; eg. “John Smith death”, and change the Using to “All Words”. Once you have the reference number (it will give a Series number and a number up to 6 digits long) you can go out to the Western Sydney Records Centre at Kingswood and order the file to look at. Copies can be made.

The Supreme Court transcribed wills that had been the subject of probate from 1800 to 1977. These books were handwritten until 1924, and then were typed. The books have been microfilmed up to November 1952 by State Records NSW and are available there.

Occasionally the estate was administered by the Public Trustee (previously the Curator of Intestate Estates until 1913). Reasons include missing or non-existent heirs, unwilling executors, delay in administering or applying for probate, or the Curator or Trustee was appointed directly. Case papers after 1913 would be held by the Public Trust Office. Cases prior to 1913 have been transferred to the Western Sydney Records Centre and the index has been microfilmed. An online index is progressively being created by State Records NSW volunteers here.

Deceased estate files were created by the Stamp Duties Office. Death duties were payable from 1880 to 1974. An inventory of all assets of the deceased was compiled for the purposes of calculating the death duty payable on the estate. The file can contain wills; inventories of property, farm equipment or business, household furniture, and clothing; property valuations; statements from relatives, valuers and agents; birth, death and marriage certificates; and other documents – depending on the circumstances of the deceased.

State Records NSW has an index to deceased estate files on microfiche at both Reading Rooms. An online index is progressively being added to, currently covering the period from 1880 to 1923, giving name, locality, date of death and date duty paid. This last date, the date the duty was paid, determined how the records were filed and so is required to access the file at the Western Sydney Records Centre. Deceased estate files are available for inspection up to 1958.

Inquests were held by the Coroner to investigate cause of death. The death certificate should indicate whether an inquest was held. Reasons for conducting an inquest include death by accident, suicide, violence or fire; deaths that took place in public institutions such as hospitals, asylums or police custody; or if the person is unidentified. The inquest may have taken place some time after the death, sometimes years later.

Reports of inquests before 1826 can be found on microfilm at State Records NSW Reading Rooms. The Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence sometimes mentions them, and are indexed here. Inquests from 1826 to 1963 are indexed in the Reading Rooms on microfilm, supplemented by a card index at the Western Sydney Records Centre. The inquest files are also available for inspection at the Western Sydney Records Centre.

All indexes on microfilm and microfiche are available at State Records NSW Reading Rooms. The records themselves can be examined and photocopies made at the Western Sydney Records Centre at Kingswood in Sydney. Probate packets can be pre-ordered in advance of your visit online here and other files here. Please remember that there may not be a file for the person you are researching, and that the file may be dated many years after the date your ancestor died, so that it cannot be found within the date ranges given.

Once you have your copies you will spend many hours examining them and marvelling at the wealth of information they contain, even if your ancestor wasn’t actually wealthy!

Sources:

State Records New South Wales, Archives in Brief Nos. 4, 29, 53, 84. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2004-7.

State Records New South Wales, Archives Investigator. Accessed at http://investigator.records.nsw.gov.au/. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2007.

Five essential websites for NSW genealogy

Today I want to discuss websites that I find to be essential for researching family history in New South Wales. Genealogy has come a very long way in the last few years, with so many government repositories and others putting indexes, and even images of the actual records, online. Here are the websites that I use most often.

1. NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages Historical Index Search is a necessary first step for anyone starting on their family history. Starting with the people you know – your parents and their parents, you can then start putting the meat on the bones – the hard evidence of birth, death, and marriage registrations. The index allows searching for births from 1788 to 1906 by name and/or parents’ names; deaths from 1788 to 1976 by name or parents’ names; and marriages from 1788 to 1956 by either or both parties’ names. The upper search limit increases each year by one year. Once an entry is found the certificate can be ordered and paid for online. Current cost for a certificate is $25.00.

2. NSW State Records was previously names the Archives Office of NSW. Their indexes online has many useful indexes including some censuses; Colonial Secretary Correspondence; Convicts; Court, Police and Prison records such as civil and criminal cases, divorces, gaol photographs, police service records, and some early probate records; Deceased Estate files of the Stamp Duties Office; Education and Child Welfare; Immigration and Shipping; Indigenous Australians; Insolvencies; Land records and Naturalization. Additional records and series are added to as indexing progresses. The Convict and Immigration indexes are essential resources for finding out how your ancestor arrived in Australia. Some indexes are held on the websites of other organisations.

3. Society of Australian Genealogists is based in Sydney and is a marvelous resource for Australian research and NSW research in particular. Their research guides are enormously helpful – factual and very informative. Online databases include Convicts’ Tickets of Leave, Electoral districts for Sydney Streets, Soldiers and Marines from 1787 to 1830, and NSW Ships Musters 1816-1825. The catalogue shows what resources are available when you visit the library and is being added to all the time.

4. State Library of NSW has many resources that are also available in other repositories such as State Records NSW. I always check their catalogue to see if it is worthwhile to visit for records on microfilm or microfiche, both Australian and from the UK. They also have some records for other states. Mitchell Library and the William Dixson Library in particular specialise in Australian and New Zealand books and manuscripts. The State Library also has a vast collection of maps and plans, pictures, photographs and newspapers.

5. NSW Department of Lands is not an immediately obvious source for family history, and it does allow some limited property searches here. What I use it for most often is its Historical Parish Maps, which can be viewed in small sections from here. It may be useful before doing a map search to find the correct parish using the search at the Geographical Names Board. All the existing parish maps that have been superceded by more recent versions have been digitised and put online. Towns are included to the street level, and portions of land have the names of the original purchaser. Hours can be spent looking at these maps. CDs of the maps are also available from the Department.

6. I know I said there would be five websites, but I think the State Records NSW website must be mentioned again apart from its online indexes. This is the place to find out whether the records you want actually exist and have been archived. As the progressive indexing of their holding continues more and more records can be found by searching in Archives Investigator, their catalogue search facility. For example, probate files can be found by searching for the name and the word “death” as keywords (and using “All Words” not “Exact Phrase”). Their Archives in Brief series are very useful guides to the records they hold and are available online or in hardcopy in State Records Reading Rooms.

These are the NSW sites that I use most often in my research for myself and others. I would be very interested to hear from others if they disagree with anything on my list, or have others they would like to share.