This probate document comes without any provenance, other than it was purchased on EBay in April 2013 from a seller with an Norwich postcode (NR8). It relates to the settlement of an estate in the county of Somerset, but surfaced in Norfolk clear across the other side of England, so there is no apparent connection. The chain of custody for this document is totally unknown, so how do you tell if it is real and genuine?
The risk of forgery is very low as the purchase price was less than £10, and the people involved were not notable. Documents that are decorative, connected with famous persons or grant significant privileges may command prices that would make forgery profitable.
The legal and administrative procedures that produced this document have left clues about its authenticity in the form of a seal, tax stamp, content and materials used.
The document is made up of several parts. A strip of paper passes through slits in the vellum and two paper sheets and is embedded in the wax seal, holding the parts together.
A Seal of Authority
In England, prior to 1858, the ecclesiastical or church courts dealt with probate matters. This will was proved in the Archdeaconry of Taunton. That is why it carries the seal of the Archdeacon of Taunton, John Turner. John Turner was first ordained as a deacon in 1756 and as a priest in 1758, by which time he had been qualified with an M. A. (Master of Arts) from Hertford College, Oxford University. He became Archdeacon of Taunton on 19 September 1780 and vacated the position on his death on 19 April 1817. The seal is embossed with “THE SEAL OF JOHN TURNER M . A . ARCHDEACON OF TAUNTON * 1780 *”.
Although probate was granted on the authority of the Archdeacon, the case was brought before Reverend Francis Hunt Clapp who acted as a surrogate or deputy judge. Francis Hunt Clapp was first ordained in 1786 and became a curate at Taunton St Mary Magdalen in 1786 and served as vicar there between 1803 and 1818.
The careers of John Turner and Francis Hunt Clapp indicate that they served in Taunton at the time of probate, 7 July 1810. This is consistent with the document being genuine.
Procedure and materials
William Stuckey made his will on 9 April 1810, in which he appointed his wife, Ann, as sole executrix. William signed the original will and two witnesses, James Thompson and Nicholas Thomas, authenticated it with their signatures and seals in William’s presence. These formalities guarded against concealment of the will or fraudulent substitution of it. After his death Ann presented the original will at the probate court. The court accepted that the will was valid and granted Ann the right to distribute the estate according to its terms.
The grant of probate is recorded on the vellum sheet. The will, recorded on paper, is a copy. It is written entirely by one hand, and does not have any signatures or seals. Original wills were either retained by the ecclesiastical court, or copied into the court’s records and returned to the executor. In this case, the former is more likely.
Vellum or parchment, made by curing calf or sheep skin, has long been regarded as a durable writing substrate suitable for important legal documents. The probate grant is an important original legal document. Vellum was more expensive than paper, so that may account for its use for the copy of the will. The paper used is hand-made laid paper, which bears a watermark: GOLDING & SNELGROVE 1808. Laid paper was made from rags (usually linen) which were pulped. The pulp was strained through a wire sieve in a mold, which leaves the impression of the sieve in the paper. Manufacturers of high quality paper incorporated watermark patterns in the sieve.
The use of vellum and laid paper dated to 1808 is consistent with a genuine document produced in 1810.
The Stamp Act of 1694 first introduced the use of embossed paper stamps as a means of proving the tax on legal instruments had been paid. Without a valid official stamp legal documents could be rendered invalid. Vellum can’t be stamped, so the blue paper stamp was glued and stapled to the front and the paper cipher glued to the back covering the metal staple.
The Coat of Arms on blue tax stamp appears to be the one used by George III between 1760 -1801. This is a few years earlier than the date of probate, but could still have been valid.
Overall, there is substantial evidence that demonstrates this probate is authentic.
 Kings College London. 2008. ‘Turner, John (1756-1817) (CCEd Person ID: 20125)’, The Clergy of the Church of England Database 1540–1835. http://db.theclergydatabase.org.uk/jsp/persons/DisplayCcePerson.jsp?PersonID=20125 , accessed 14 Oct 2015
 Kings College London. 2008. ‘Clapp, Francis Hunt (1786 – 1819) (CCEd Person ID: 27187), The Clergy of the Church of England Database 1540–1835. http://db.theclergydatabase.org.uk/jsp/persons/CreatePersonFrames.jsp?PersonID=27187 , accessed 14 Oct 2015
© Sue Adams 2015
Every newly discovered document points to further research, as does this week’s 50 Marriage Mondays entry. The trick to successful research is to have a plan so that I avoid The pinball approach to genealogical research.
Bride: Elizabeth Mead
Groom: Thomas Hirons, a farmer resident in East Claydon
Date: 26 January 1853
Location: East Claydon, Buckinghamshire
Bride’s father: William Mead, a farmer resident in East Claydon
Groom’s father: Charles Hirons, a farmer resident in East Claydon
Thomas and Charles Hirons were both farmers, so I want to know more about their farming careers. How might I go about investigating? First, I’ll focus by asking some questions; second, identify types of sources that are likely to provide insights; third, locate said sources. Then armed with a research plan I will access the records, analyse new information and formulate new questions.
Ask some questions
- Can I corroborate that the Hirons really were farmers?
- Did father and son farm the same land?
- Exactly where was the farmland, which fields within the parish?
- Did they raise crops or livestock, or a mixture?
- Did they own land or were they tenants?
- Was farming a profitable living?
I could ask many more questions, but I want to stay focused.
Identify potentially useful sources
Census records include occupational information, so should confirm the Hirons’ occupation and might name the farm. As the censuses are readily available online and provide supplementary information, so I will check them before exploring other sources.
Tithe apportionments list land plots with owners, occupiers, land use and area for the calculation of tithe payments, a tax raised on the value of produce collected for the support of the clergy. The land plots are marked on the accompanying tithe maps. Tithe apportionments were mostly undertaken between the 1836 and the 1850s, in compliance with the Tithe Commutation Act. If the Hirons were recorded on them, the tithe apportionments and maps could substantially answer my more detailed questions. Three copies of tithe records were created, one each for the tithe commissioners, the diocese and the parish. The National Archives collection of tithe commissioner’s copies, which can be ordered online for a fee or examined for free at Kew, are the most conveniently accessible.
Trade directories and county histories from the nineteenth century provide descriptions of the parish and list prominent community members and local businesses. This background context will give me a feel for the agricultural community in which the Hirons family lived.
Probate records such as wills and administrations indicate the value of the estate and may indicate if the deceased owned property.
Of course there are other sources, but in the interests of staying focused, I have limited the search for now.
I have jumped ahead, accessed and analysed the census records. In 1851 Thomas Hirons, aged 41 lived with his father Charles Hirons, a farmer aged 79 at Moncklon [?] Farm, East Claydon, Buckinghamshire. On tracking Thomas through later censuses, I find the birth places of his children reveal time frames of residence in several locations:
|census||East Claydon, Bucks||
|farming 190 acres with father|
|marriage Thomas Hirons & Elizabeth Mead||East Claydon, Bucks||
|birth Thos Chas Willm||East Claydon, Bucks||
|birth Ann Elizth||East Claydon, Bucks||
|birth Elizabeth Ann||Westbury, Bucks||1857/1858|
|birth Sarah Jane||Westbury, Bucks||
|birth Alice Ellen||Westbury, Bucks||
|farmer 150 acres|
|birth John J E||Bucklebury, Berks||
|birth Henry G W||Shipton Lu, Bucks||
|Out of business|
My original questions assumed that only one farm was occupied by the family, but this is not the case. ‘Out of business’ tempts me to search for bankruptcy records. I made a plan to avoid being sidetracked, so for now, I will only investigate the farm at East Claydon.
Locate and evaluate specific relevant records
A simple search using the terms ‘East Claydon tithe’ of the new National Archives catalogue, Discovery brings up East Claydon’s tithe apportionment and map entries. The apportionment is dated 5 November 1857, so falls in 1857-1858 period when the census records suggest the family moved from East Claydon to Westbury, so could narrow down the date of the move. The apportionment description comments, “Apportionment is in condensed summary form, with little detail”, so it sounds like the agricultural detail I had hoped for is lacking. The tithe map description is similarly discouraging, “Scale: 1 inch to 8 chains. Only a few large enclosures shown”, so does not identify fields as I hoped.
The East Claydon entry in the Victoria County History for Buckinghamshire, available at British History Online, tells me that dairy farming was the main agricultural activity, mixed with arable crops of wheat , beans, roots and oats. The description dates from the early twentieth century, so may not reflect the Hirons’ activities some 40 years earlier.
A couple of directories at Historical Directories include relevant entries for East Claydon. The 1854 Post Office Directory lists Thomas Hirons as a farmer and the 1864 directory lists a Charles Hirons as a farmer at Monkomb Farm. As Charles was aged 79 in 1851, this may not be the father of Thomas, but may well be a relative. Monkomb Farm seems suspiciously similar to Moncklon.
The National Probate Calendar summarises estates that were administered after 1858. An entry from 1879 states:
Personal Estate under £1,500
17 April. Administration of the Personal Estate of Charles Hirons late of East Claydon in the County of Buckingham Farmer who died 23 February 1879 at East Claydon was granted at the Principal Registry to Catharine Ann Hirons of East Claydon Widow the Relict.
Could this be the Charles listed in the 1864 directory? I can order copy of this administration by post using the above information to complete the application form PA1S for a £6 fee.
|First name||Last name||Place||Occupation||Year will proved|
The 1853 entry is a good candidate for Charles the father of Thomas. As Thomas’ birthplace reported on the censuses is Chetwood or Chetwode, I wonder if the earlier wills are relevant to this family. The website includes online ordering, so I am tempted to save on postage by ordering them all.
I have confirmed Charles and Thomas Hirons’ occupation as farmers, possibly dairy farmers. Sadly the tithe records are not as detailed as I had hoped, so I think I will pursue more promising avenues before accessing them. Investigating the younger Charles and ordering the wills is now my priority. On to the next research iteration…
 William Page (editor), “Parishes : East Claydon,” A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 4, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=62526&strquery=east+claydon
© Sue Adams 2013