Paul Stebbing, BMBC’s Archives & Local Studies Officer examines a probate inventory which provides a window into a 17th century house in Bolton Upon Dearne
Probate is the process whereby somebody is appointed to implement the contents of a deceased person’s will. As part of the process, from the 1530s onwards, it became customary for church courts to ask local men (valuers) to produce an inventory of the possessions of the deceased. These are what we know as probate inventories and they provide a treasure trove of information. They are not only useful for family history, but also local history, agricultural history, social history and house history. If you come across one in your research, you are extremely lucky. They tell you a great deal which cannot be gleaned from other sources. The details provided give a valuable insight into the deceased’s material culture, their working and family life, their interests and concerns.
Barnsley Archives and Local Studies hold a number of original probate inventories which can be viewed and used by researchers, dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Many of these relate to the area to the south east of the Barnsley borough. One of the earliest dates from 1632, during the reign of the ill-fated King Charles I. Compiled on November 8th that year, it details the home of one John Bingley of Bolton upon Dearne, and reveals that he had quite a sizeable residence. Contents of his two parlours, the buttery, two chambers, the kitchen, and the kilnhouse (where beers and spirits were produced) are all listed. In addition, a wide variety of livestock are described, including oxen, horses, sheep, kine (cows) and quys (calves). There are also quantities of wheat, barley, rye and peas. Valuations are given, estimated by William Pygott, Thomas Pygott, William Baxter and Thomas Mathewe, the four local men tasked with compiling the inventory. The rye bread in the buttery is valued at five shillings. The twelve swine (pigs) are valued at four pounds, and in the parlour there are “Twoe cubberds with pewter therupon” valued at seven pounds. Once familiar with 17th century handwriting and spelling, researchers can easily navigate through the inventory, with many of the household items featured still familiar to us nearly 400 years later.
Compiling an inventory served several functions. Not only did it protect the executor from allegations of fraud and safeguard the beneficiaries’ inheritance; it was also the basis on which court fees were calculated. The survival of probate inventories is patchy, because they were not always kept, and as time went on the custom of compiling one gradually declined in importance. As in the case of the inventory of Bolton upon Dearne’s John Bingley, most inventories relate to the estates of farmers, not surprising considering the agricultural nature of Britain before the Industrial Revolution. From them we can discover what crops were grown, the number of livestock kept, the farming implements used and other useful details. They were usually compiled on a room by room basis so this gives us a very clear picture of the home of the deceased. It details his or her furniture, the tools of their trade and what was lurking on the mantelpiece! It’s worth remembering that values given for items are only rough estimates and inventories relate only to moveable assets, fixtures and fittings. Any real estate would still be detailed in the will itself. Inventories also vary greatly in format and content. Some are more useful than others. Nevertheless, they are an invaluable source – each one providing a window into someone’s life – a snapshot from centuries ago!
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