Wills, Probate, and Testamentary Authority before 1857




Testamentary Authority before 1857

Before 1857, the Church of Ireland, as the Established Church, had charge of all testamentary affairs. Consistorial Courts in each diocese were responsible for granting probate, that is, legally authenticating a will and conferring on the executors the power to administer the estate. The Courts also had the power to issue letters of administration to the next of kin or the main creditor on the estates of those who died intestate.

Each Court was responsible for wills and administrations in its own diocese. However, when the estate included property worth more than £5 in another diocese, responsibility for the will or administration passed to the Prerogative Court, under the authority of the Archbishop of Armagh.


Consistorial Wills and Administrations

The wills and administration records of the Consistorial Courts were held locally in each diocese up to the abolition of the testamentary authority of the Church of Ireland in 1857. After that date, the Public Record Office began the slow process of collecting the original records, and transcribing them into Will and Grant Books. The Office then indexed the wills and Administration Bonds, the sureties which the administrators had to produce as a guarantee that the estate would be properly administered. None of the Consistorial Courts had records of all of the wills or administrations they had dealt with. Very little earlier than the seventeenth century emerged, and the majority of the Courts appear to have had serious gaps before the mid eighteenth century.

All of the original wills and administrations in the Public Record Office were destroyed in 1922, along with almost all of the Will and Grant Books into which they had been transcribed. The only exceptions are the Will Books for Down (1850-1858) and Connor (1818-20, 1853-58), and the Grant Books for Cashel (1840-45), Derry and Raphoe (1818-21), and Ossory (1848-58).

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The indexes to wills and administration bonds were not destroyed, although a number were badly damaged. These are available in the reading room of the National Archives. The wills indexes are alphabetical, and normally give the testator’s address and the year of probate, as well as occasionally specifying his occupation. The administration bonds indexes are not fully alphabetical, being arranged year by year under the initial letter of the surname of the deceased person. They give the year of the bond, the full name and usually the address of the deceased, and sometimes his occupation. Some of the wills indexes have been published, and details of these will be found in Ancestor search.



Prerogative Wills and Administrations

An estate was dealt with by the Prerogative Court, rather than a Consistorial Court, if it covered property worth more than £5 in a second diocese. In general, then, Prerogative wills and administrations tend to cover the wealthier classes, merchants with dealings in more than one area, and those who lived close to diocesan borders.

Up to 1816, the Prerogative Court was not housed in a single place, with hearings generally held in the residence of the presiding judge. From 1816 on, the King’s Inns building in Henrietta St. provided a permanent home. For this reason, the records of the Court before 1816 cannot be taken as complete.

After 1857, all of these records were transferred to the Public Record Office, where the original wills and grants of administration were transcribed into Prerogative Will and Grant Books, and indexed. The indexes survived 1922, but all of the original wills and grants, and almost all of the Will and Grant Books were destroyed. Details of those Books which survived are included in Ancestor Search.


Prerogative Wills: Betham Abstracts

The loss of the original Prerogative wills is mitigated to a large extent by the project carried out in the early decades of the nineteenth century by Sir William Betham, Ulster King of Arms. As well as preparing the first index of testators, up to 1810, he also made abstracts of the family information contained in almost all of the wills before 1800.

The original notebooks in which he recorded the information are now in the National Archives, and The Genealogical Office has his Sketch Pedigrees based on these abstracts and including later additions and amendments. The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has a copy of the Genealogical Office series, without the additions and amendments, made by a successor of Betham’s, Sir John Burke.

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Betham also made a large number of abstracts from Prerogative Grants up to 1802. The original notebooks for these are also in the National Archives. The Genealogical Office transcript copy (GO 257-260) is fully alphabetical, unlike the notebooks.

The first index to Prerogative wills, up to 1810, was published in 1897 by Sir Arthur Vicars, Burke’s successor as Ulster King of Arms, and can be used as a guide to Betham’s abstracts and Sketch Pedigrees with the proviso that wills from the decade 1800 – 1810 are not covered by Betham. The manuscript index for the period from 1811 to 1857 is in the National Archives reading room. As with the consistorial administration bonds indexes, the Prerogative Grants indexes are not fully alphabetical, being arranged year by year under the initial letter of the surname of the deceased person.


Testamentary Authority after 1857

The Probate Act of 1857 did away with the testamentary authority of the Church of Ireland. Instead of the Consistorial Courts and the Prerogative Court, power to grant probate and issue letters of administration was vested in a Principal Registry in Dublin, and eleven District Registries. Rules similar to those governing the geographical jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts applied, with the Principal Registry taking the place of the Prerogative Court, as well as covering Dublin and a large area around it.

Transcripts of the wills proved and administrations granted were made in the District Registries, and the originals forwarded to the Principal Registry. Almost all of the records of the Principal Registry were destroyed in 1922. The few surviving Will and Grant Books are detailed in Ancestor Search. The Will Book transcripts made by the District Registries survived, however. The records of those Districts covering areas now in the Republic – Ballina, Cavan, Cork, Kilkenny, Limerick, Mullingar, Tuam and Waterford – are in the National Archives. For districts now in Northern Ireland – Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry – the Will Books are in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.


Calendars of Wills and Administrations

From 1858 a new system of indexing and organizing wills and administrations was devised. A printed, alphabetically ordered “Calendar of Wills and Administrations” was produced for every year, and copies of all of these have survived. For each will or administration, these record:

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  • – the name, address and occupation of the deceased person;
  • – the place and date of death;
  • – the value of the estate;
  • – the name and address of the person or persons to whom probate or administration was granted.

In many cases, the relationship of the executor is also specified. This means that, despite the loss of so much original post-1857 testamentary material, some information at least is available on all wills or administrations from this period. Very often, much that is of genealogical value can be gleaned from the Calendars, including such information as exact dates of death, places of residence, and indications of economic status. A consolidated index covers the period between 1858 and 1877, making it unnecessary to search each yearly Calendar. The Calendars are on open access in the National Archives reading room and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.


Will Abstracts and Transcripts

As well as the original Consistorial and Prerogative wills and grants, and the transcripts made of them in the Will and Grant Books, a wide number of other sources exist, particularly for material before 1857. The most important of these is the collection of the National Archives itself, gathered after 1922 in an attempt to replace some at least of what had been lost. As well as original wills from private legal records and individual families, this ever-expanding collection also includes pre-1922 researchers’ abstracts and transcripts. It is covered by a card index in the reading room, which also gives details of those wills and grants in the surviving pre-1857 Will and Grant Books. Separate card indexes cover the Thrift, Jennings and Crossley collections of abstracts, and the records of Charitable Donations and Bequests. The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has made similar efforts, and the copies it holds are indexed in the Pre-1858 Wills Index, part of the Subject Index in the Public Search Room.



Will Abstracts: Inland Revenue Records:

The Inland Revenue in London kept a series of annual Indexes to Irish Will Registers and Indexes to Irish Administration Registers from 1828 to 1879, which are now in the National Archives. These give the name and address of both the deceased and the executor or administrator. As well as the Indexes, the Archives also hold a set of the actual Inland Revenue Irish Will Registers and Irish Administration Registers for the years 1828 – 1839, complete apart from the Wills Register covering January to June 1834. The Will Registers are not exact transcripts of the original wills, but supply a good deal of detailed information, including the precise date of death, the principal beneficiaries and legacies, and a brief inventory of the estate. The Administration Registers are less informative, but still include details of the date of death, the administrator and the estate.



ill Abstracts: Land Commission Records

Under the provisions of the Land Purchase Acts, which subsidized the purchase of smallholdings by the tenants who occupied them, it was necessary for those wishing to sell to produce evidence of their ownership to the Irish Land Commission. As a result, over 10,000 wills were deposited with the Commission, the majority from the nineteenth century, but many earlier. The National Library holds a card index to the testators. The original documents are currently in the process of being transferred to the National Archives.



Wills in the Registry of Deeds

The registration of wills was normally carried out because of a legal problem anticipated by the executor(s) in the provisions – almost certainly the exclusion of parties who would feel they had some rights over the estate. Because of this, wills at the Registry cannot be taken as providing a complete picture of the family. Abstracts of all wills registered from 1708, the date of foundation of the Registry, to 1832, were published in three volumes by the Irish Manuscripts Commission between 1954 and 1986. These are available on open shelves at the National Library and National Archives. Although the abstracts record and index all the persons named, testators, beneficiaries and witnesses, they do not show the original provisions of the wills. These can be found in the original memorials in the Registry. You can find out more about the Registry of Deeds here.


Will Abstracts in the Genealogical Office

Most of the will abstracts held by the Genealogical Office are covered by the Office’s own index, GO Ms 429, which was published in Analecta Hibernica, No. 17, 1949 (NL Ir 941 a 10). The manuscript index has since been added to, but is still not entirely comprehensive, excluding all of the Betham material, and many of the collections relating to individual families. A guide to the major collections is included in Ancestor Search. A full listing of Genealogical Office manuscripts is here.


Will Abstracts and Transcripts: Other Sources

There are many other collections of will abstracts and transcripts in such public repositories as The National Library, The Representative Church Body Library, The Royal Irish Academy, The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and Trinity College Library. There are no separate indexes to these testamentary collections. Where a significant group of abstracts or transcripts exists, this is noted in Ancestor Search.















Because of the destruction of nineteenth century census returns, surviving land and property records from the period have acquired a somewhat unnatural importance.

Two surveys cover the entire country, the Tithe Applotment Books of c. 1823-38, and Griffith’s Valuation, dating from 1848 to 1864. Both of these employ administrative divisions which are no longer in widespread use, and need some explanation. The smallest division, the townland, is the one which has proved most enduring. Loosely related to the ancient Gaelic “Bally betagh”, and to other medieval land divisions such as ploughlands and quarters, townlands can vary enormously in size, from a single acre or less to several thousand acres.

There are more than 64,000 townlands in the country. They were used as the smallest geographical unit in both Tithe Survey and Griffith’s, as well as census returns, and are still in use today. Anything from 5 to 30 townlands may be grouped together to form a civil parish. These are a legacy of the middle ages, pre-dating the formation of counties, and generally coextensive with the parishes of the Established Church, the Church of Ireland.

They are not to be confused with Roman Catholic parishes, which are usually much larger. In turn, civil parishes are collected together in baronies. Originally related to the tribal divisions, the “tuatha”, of Celtic Ireland, these were multiplied and subdivided over the centuries up to their standardization in the 1500s, so that the current names represent a mixture of Gaelic, Anglo-Norman and English influences. A number of baronies, from five in County Leitrim to 22 in County Cork, go to make up the modern county. Baronies and civil parishes are no longer in use as administrative units.


Tithe Applotment Books

The Composition Act of 1823 specified that tithes due to the Established Church, the Church of Ireland, which had hitherto been payable in kind, should now be paid in money.

As a result, it was necessary to carry out a valuation of the entire country, civil parish by civil parish, to determine how much would be payable by each landholder. This was done over the ensuing 15 years, up to the abolition of tithes in 1838.

Not surprisingly, tithes were fiercely resented by those who were not members of the Church of Ireland, and all the more because the tax was not payable on all land; the exemptions produced spectacular inequalities. In Munster, for instance, tithes were payable on potato patches, but not on grassland, with the result that the poorest had to pay most. The exemptions also mean that the Tithe Books are not comprehensive. Apart from the fact that they omit entirely anyone not in occupation of land, certain categories of land, varying from area to area, are simply passed over in silence. Although not a full list of householders they nonetheless do constitute the only country-wide survey for the period, and are valuable precisely because the heaviest burden of tithes fell on the poorest, for whom few other records survive.

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From a genealogical point of view, the information recorded in the Tithe Books is quite basic, consisting typically of townland name, landholder’s name, area of land, and tithes payable. In addition, many Books also record the landlord’s name and an assessment of the economic productivity of the land; the tax was based on the average price of wheat and oats over the seven years up to 1823, and was levied at a different rate depending on the quality of the land.

An organised campaign of resistance to the payment of Tithes, the so-called “Tithe War”, culminated in 1831 in large-scale refusals to pay the tax. To apply for compensation for the resultant loss of income, local Church of Ireland clergymen were required to produce lists of those liable for tithes who had not paid, the “Tithe Defaulters”. The lists can provide a fuller picture of tithe-payers than the original Tithe Book, and can be useful to cross-check against the Book, especially if it dates from before 1831 . 127 of these lists survive, in the NAtional Archives of Ireland Chief Secretary’s Office, Official Papers series. They relate principally to counties Kilkenny and Tipperary, with some coverage also of counties Carlow, Cork, Kerry, Laois, Limerick, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Waterford and Wexford. A full list was published in The Irish Genealogist Vol 8 No 1 1990. County by county microfiche indexes have been produced by Data Tree Publishing, Suite 393, 44 Glenferrie Road, Malvern, 3144 Australia. These are available at the National Library of Ireland.

Microfilm copies of the Tithe Books are available in the National Archives and the National Library. Those for the nine counties of Ulster are available in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Microfilm copies of the Books are also available via the LDS Church.

The usefulness of the Tithe Books can vary enormously, depending on the nature of the research. Since only a name is given, with no indication of family relationships, any conclusions drawn are inevitably somewhat speculative. However, for parishes where registers do not begin until after 1850, they are often the only early records surviving. They can provide valuable circumstantial evidence, especially where a holding passed from father to son in the period between the Tithe survey and Griffith’s Valuation. The surnames in the Books have been roughly indexed, in the National Library Index of Surnames, described more fully here.

Indexes to Griffith’s Valuation and Tithe Books

In the early 1960s, the National Library undertook a project to index the surnames occurring in Griffith’s Valuation and the Tithe Books, which produced the county by county series known as the “Index of Surnames” or “Householders Index”. This records the occurrence of households of a particular surname in each of the civil parishes of a county, giving the exact number of households in the case of Griffith’s, as well as providing a summary of the total numbers in each barony of the county. Since it is not a true index, providing only an indication of the presence or absence of a surname in the Tithe Books, and the numbers of the surname in Griffith’s, its usefulness is limited. For names which are relatively uncommon, it can be invaluable, but is of little assistance for a county in which a particular surname is plentiful. It is most frequently used as a means of narrowing the number of parish records to be searched in a case where only the county of origin of an ancestor is known. The Surnames section of this site includes a database version of the same householders count as the “Index of Surnames”, but for Griffith’s only.

The county volumes include outline maps of the civil parishes covered, and a guide to the corresponding Catholic parishes. Full sets of the Index of Surnames can be found at The National Library of Ireland, The National Archives of Ireland, The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and The Family History Library of the LDS Church.