England and Wales will have wills archive available online

Millions of wills – including those of Sir Winston Churchill and Princess Diana – are to be available online.

Among them are also the last wishes of economist John Maynard Keynes, who wanted his unpublished manuscripts and personal papers destroyed, and war time code breaker Alan Turing. Turing, who died of cyanide poisoning in 1954 and whose story was recently adapted for the big screen in The Imitation Game, left a brief will sharing his possessions equally among a group of colleagues and his mother.

In his will, Charles Dickens stipulated that there should be no monuments put up to him, instead “I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works”.

The will in cursive script laid out highly specific directions for his funeral.

“I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner,” he wrote, adding that mourners must not wear scarves, cloaks, long hatbands, “or other such revolting absurdity”.

When he died he left about £80,000, worth more than £7m in today’s money.

AA Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh, left a share of future royalties and copyright to a London club after he died in 1956, as well as his alma mater, Westminster School.

The writer George Orwell, who died in 1950, insisted that all his notes, manuscripts, pamphlets, press cuttings and other documents be preserved.

The new database allows the public to search a government archive of 41 million wills dating back to 1858.

Wills have always been public documents and the existing £10 fee for each document applies to downloads. Though basic details of some are freely available.

The archive can be used to trace family history, and to view the wills of famous names.

It contains wills from England and Wales. Different procedures apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The database also includes the wills of those who died while serving in the British armed forces between 1850 and 1986.

BBC correspondent Nick Higham said the scheme would be supported by staff at the Birmingham warehouse where the documents were housed.

“For many wills, someone still has to locate the physical copy in the warehouse, scan it and send it off,” he said.

“They’ve taken on extra staff, but admit that no-one’s ever made such a large database of documents available to order online and it’s hard to predict demand for the service.”

Courts minister Shailesh Vara said: “This fascinating project provides us with insights into the ordinary and extraordinary people who helped shape this country, and the rest of the world.”

HM Courts and Tribunals Service masterminded the project, calling in digital data storage group Iron Mountain, as part of the drive to “open up public services”.

The first phase saw more than 2 million searches of the site that digitised wills including 230,000 of the soldiers who died on the front line during the First World War.

In 2010, ancestry.co.uk released 6 million Victorian and early 20th century wills.

The National Archives also carries the documents, with some dating from as far back as the 14th century.

Though the archive has been converted into digital format, the original paper records will still be kept in a temperature-controlled environment.

If you’re interested, you got to log on to http://www.gov.uk/search-will-probate and create an account.

Choose the section you wish to search – Wills and Probate 1996 to present; Wills and Probate 1858 to 1996; or Soldiers’ Wills.

There are two search fields – the surname of the deceased and year of death. Both must be filled in. You can also carry out an advanced search, which requires more information.

In the 1996 to present section, a list of results will appear, giving the names, date of probate, probate number, date of death and registry of each person with that name. For instance, for a person called Stanley Wood who died in 2005, there are 12 results. To order a document, click ‘Add to basket’.

Under the 1858 to 1996 section, a page from the probate calendar for that year is returned in search results, providing summaries of names, birthplace and other details. These must be typed into an online ordering form on the right of the screen.

Click on ‘Proceed to checkout’ to pay. The files can be accessed for 31 days.

Source Credits: BBC, Sky News, The Independent, MailOnline, AFP

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