Preface probate records at Carlisle

The Diocese of Carlisle and the Counties of Cumberland and Westmorland (now Cumbria)
From its foundation in 1133 until 1856 the Diocese of Carlisle covered only the northern parts of the old counties of Cumberland and Westmorland (see maps, pages xiv-xvii). Nether Denton, a small parish on the Northumberland border, was originally in the Diocese of Durham but became part of Carlisle in 1703. The diocese was the smallest in England, with one archdeaconry comprising the deaneries of Allerdale, Carlisle, Cumberland and Westmorland. In addition there were three manorial peculiars, two of which, Ravenstonedale and Temple Sowerby, were within the diocesan boundaries and one, Docker near Kendal, was outside (see map). The southern parts of the two counties were, from 1541, in the Deaneries of Copeland (Cumberland - see note below), Kendal and Lonsdale (Westmorland), in the Archdeaconry of Richmond, Diocese of Chester.

In 1856 the Diocese of Carlisle was enlarged to cover the whole of what is now the modern county of Cumbria, thus bringing within its boundaries not only the above mentioned Deaneries but also the area of Lancashire covered by the Deanery of Furness (formerly also in the Archdeaconry of Richmond, Diocese of Chester). The only continuing anomalies in the diocesan boundaries are the parishes of Alston, Nenthead and Garrigill and of Sedbergh, Dent and Garsdale. The first three parishes, although always in the historic county of Cumberland, were never in the Diocese of Carlisle. Until 1882 they were in the Diocese of Durham and since that date have been in the Diocese of Newcastle. The parishes of Sedbergh, Dent and Garsdale came into the county of Cumbria from the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1974 following Local Government Re-organisation. They were historically in the Diocese of Chester but in 1836 were transferred to the Diocese of Ripon and since 1920 have been in the Diocese of Bradford. Since 1858 the Carlisle Probate District has covered Cumberland, Westmorland and the Furness area of Lancashire (i.e. present day Cumbria).

Location of probate records
The Carlisle diocesan probate records which date back in the main series to 1564 have always been kept in the city and were transferred to the Cumberland (now Cumbria) Record Office, Carlisle, from the local Probate Registry in the 1960s. Pre-1858 probate records for those areas formerly in the Diocese of Chester and/or now in the Diocese of Bradford are to be found in the Lancashire Record Office at Preston. Records for those areas formerly in the Diocese of Durham are now at Durham University Library, Archives and Special Collections. As the Dioceses of Carlisle, Chester and Durham are all in the Northern Province, probate records up to 1857, for people living in these areas, may also be found among Prerogative Court of York records held at the Borthwick Institute, York. Addresses of all these repositories, as well as information about the whereabouts of microfilm copies of some of these probate records, can be found in Cumbrian Ancestors: Notes for Genealogical Searchers, 3rd edition (1998), published by Cumbria County Council at #6.99. Enquiries to Cumbria Record Office, The Castle, Carlisle, Cumbria CA3 8UR (tel. 01228 607285). Regularly updated information on addresses etc. is also provided in current editions of Record Repositories in Great Britain (PRO Publications) and Record Offices: How to Find Them (FFHS).

Consistory Court of Carlisle
Because Carlisle was such a small diocese before 1856 there was no separate archdeacon's court and all probate matters were dealt with by the Consistory Court or the manorial court in the case of the peculiars ('peculiar or exempt jurisdiction', not subject to the local - in this case Consistory - court). However, there were sittings of the court at various places in the Deaneries to make it easier for people to take probates and administrations, e.g. Appleby, Penrith, Wigton and Keswick. Unfortunately no 'cause papers' have survived at Carlisle so it is not possible to follow up disputed cases in the Consistory Court. It is thought that many wills were never proved at all if there was no dispute about the disposition of property. This also avoided the payment of fees and the inevitable delays in the ecclesiastical process!

The old probate indexes and other records
When the Carlisle records were transferred to the Cumberland Record Office the earlier ones, up to about 1750, were folded in narrow bundles arranged alphabetically by year. Inventories were generally kept in separate bundles, particularly for the period 1661 - 1750, and some of these had been totally destroyed or severely damaged by damp. With the records were the finding aids prepared by the Probate Registry, which consisted of a number of manuscript volumes each covering fifty or a hundred years. The wills were listed alphabetically by surname and by year, but gave no indication of whether an inventory or any other document survived with a will, and often did not indicate a parish. Administrations were listed separately. Names on early wills seem to have been often misread by clerks, some documents were just not entered up at all and others which are listed have subsequently gone missing from the series. One early Probate Act Book (1661-70) has survived, but there is then a gap until 1727. In that year the Carlisle Diocesan Registry was re­organised. A new series of Probate Act Books was started and at the same time a series of Registers was begun providing a useful second copy of the wills (but not inventories or other documents). Although no recent microfilming of the original Carlisle probate records has been done, the registers are now available on film, in the Record Office, from 1727.

Re-Indexing of the Carlisle probate records, 1661-1750
At the time of writing (1998) all the Carlisle probate records have been flattened, labelled and re-indexed on to slips. Re- indexing started in the 1960s and the period 1661-1750 was chosen because of the large quantity of wills and inventories available and the interesting content of many of them. It was also a natural starting point after the mid-seventeenth century break in the records. Unlike other dioceses where inventories were often not found in great numbers after about 1720, Carlisle has a good series up to 1750 and they continue (albeit in decreasing numbers) to the end of the eighteenth century. Although an index for the letters A- E was produced in the 1960s, further work continued only in a very haphazard way until the present writer was employed on a Manpower Services Commission Scheme in the early 1980s. There are probates, administrations, bonds and other documents from some twenty thousand individuals in these years, so they represent a rich resource not only for family history but for social, economic and religious history as well. The wills are particularly interesting, many having a vividness and individuality which is lacking at a later date.

Method of Indexing
Details of the documents for each person were entered on to a proforma slip recording surname (standardised surname and variant spellings), Christian name (abbreviated if a common one), status or occupation (abbreviated where possible), year of probate, name of house or farm (if given), township and parish (this last abbreviated where possible), type of document surviving, e.g. will, inventory, administration bond, tuition bond etc. (abbreviated to 'W', T, 'A', 'T'), folio number of entry in Probate Act Book in square brackets (if applicable) and page number of entry in Register of Wills (if applicable). Because the nature of the MSC Scheme allowed more time to be spent on the indexing than would have been available to an archivist working under normal Record Office conditions, it was possible to record interesting items on the slips such as unusual religious preambles, references to causes of death, interesting requests for burial, bequests, references to provision for family members, particular conditions for inheritance etc. Such details cannot be incorporated into the alphabetical list but have been transferred on to index cards kept at the Record Office searchroom in Carlisle. The original slips, filed alphabetically, were subsequently re-sorted into parishes. These two extra finding aids mean that the documents can be accessed for other than just family history purposes.

Particular features of the Index
The most common status designation for Cumbrians during the period was 'yeoman' (yeo). This simply indicates someone who has an estate and is independent. There can be very wide divergence in the wealth of individual yeomen. People sometimes describe themselves as 'carpenters', 'shoemakers' etc., but in many cases during this period it is only in the will or inventory that references to 'gear' and 'tools' reveal that other activities are being carried on. When no ocupation is specified but there is some such evidence it is indicated in the list with brackets and a question mark.

The second half of the seventeenth century was a very religious period in Cumberland and Westmorland. There were several congregations of Dissenters (Independents and Presbyterians), but it was membership of the Society of Friends (Quakers) which grew very rapidly centring on certain areas, e.g. Burgh-by-Sands, Scotby (Wetheral), Holme Cultram in Cumberland and Morland in Westmorland. Although it would be extremely unusual, particularly in the seventeenth century, for a Quaker or other Dissenter to declare them­selves as such, because of the heavy penalties imposed upon them, there are many indications given in the records, e.g. a particularly religious preamble, arrangements for burial, bequests to meetings and above all Quaker dating and 'affirmation' instead of swearing oaths by witnesses. It was felt that the information was worth recording on the slips, and in the index it is usually indicated by the words 'Quaker' or 'Dissenter' in brackets with a question mark.

The seventeenth century, particuarly, is a period of wide variety in spelling and this especially effects surnames and placenames. Every effort has been made to standardize surnames for the purposes of this index, but also to record the many variants. Similarly, odd spellings of place-names appear in more than one parish and inevitably, since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some have simply disappeared from the map. The wills of the manorial peculiars are kept separately from the main series, but for the purposes of the index have been integrated. They are denoted by 'Tem', 'Rav' and 'Doc' in the right-hand column.

The Deanery of Copeland
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the southern deaneries of Copeland (in Cumberland) and Kendal and Lonsdale (in Westmor­land) were in the Archdeaconry of Richmond, Diocese of Chester.

The Cumbria Family History Society has published (1997) an Index to Copeland Wills, 1541-1857, compiled by Neville Ramsden. This means that there are now published indexes available for all locally proved Cumberland wills, 1661-1750.

The British Record Society wishes to acknowledge with grateful thanks the many who helped with the production of this volume, and the Curwen Archives Trust for a grant towards its cost. The text was typed by Mrs Maureen Young from slips prepared at the Cumbria Record Office, mainly by Mrs Susan Dench. Cliff Webb edited this text and prepared the supplementary indexes of ships, trades and conditions, and placenames, whilst Jeremy Gibson retyped this Preface with minor additions. The Society is also grateful to the County Archivist and the Cumbria Record Office for permission to publish this index.

S.D. top of page