Archive of the Month December: Probate Inventories 1629 and 1946

This month we are looking at the legacies we leave behind when we die. The most tangible remains of a life is the stuff that remains once a body has been laid to rest. Sometimes these objects have sentimental value or financial value, maybe even both. In our collection we have many probate inventories: lists of goods and chattels belonging to someone who has recently died, which are an attempt to get a handle on the problem of what to do with these possessions. This month we are showing-off two examples, one from the 1629 and another from 1946.


D/A/W/F/28/56a, probate inventory of Elizabeth Freebodye, 1629

Elizabeth Freebodye of Newport Pagnell

When Freebodye died in 1629 she was a widow, living in Newport Pagnell. Her inventory is short; if convention of the time was followed it would have been conducted by her neighbours, named at the bottom of the document as James Hartley and Thomas Williamson. Items in the inventory are grouped roughly by location and/or function, with each group being given a value. For example clothes are bunched together as “woringe apparel”, and valued at 40 shillings.

In 1629 it was compulsory to produce an inventory when someone died leaving a will as probate would not be granted until such a document was presented to the court responsible for proving the will, in this case the Archdeaconry of Buckingham. Inventories only offer a partial view of someone’s wealth as property and land are never mentioned. We can see at the bottom of this inventory that sometimes financial ‘items’ are included, in this instance it is Bonds worth £100. It is interesting that the value of these bonds dwarfs the value of the goods owned by Elizabeth, which together come to just over £15.

As a widow Freebodye owned her possessions. Had she predeceased her husband, no inventory would have been drawn-up upon her death, as all of these possessions would have belonged to him. To our eyes today Elizabeth owned very little beyond the bare necessities of life: clothes, beds, tables, pots and plates. At the time she would have been considered wealthy; but a relatively small portion of this wealth resides in physical possessions.





D-HJ/A/5/39/13/4 probate inventory of Evangeline Priscilla Starbuck, 1946

Evangeline Priscilla Starbuck

Starbuck lived at 8 Temple Square Aylesbury. She died on 15 June 1946, this inventory document was drawn-up in July the same year. The inventory walks through the house and sets out the items in each room, room-by-room. It gives an intimate insight into Evangeline’s life that even photographs would find hard to replicate. The kitchen is a particularly rich source of arcane objects to modern eyes: butter coolers, chauffing dishes and crumb scoops boggle the mind a little!

Unlike Freebodye’s inventory, this was drawn up by professionals: clerks from the Aylesbury-based firm of solicitors Horward & James. Three-hundred and seventeen years have elapsed between these two inventories, and the law has changed: producing a list of possessions is no longer necessary to obtain probate. Inventories were still carried out though in a minority of cases: if the value of the estate was high, or if the solicitors could predict disputes arising between heirs.

This may be why an inventory of Evangeline Starbuck’s possessions was conducted. It is clear that the estate was full of high-value items, including a Chippendale desk and many items of valuable jewellery. Also, she was she was unmarried and without children; this could mean that there was a complex inheritance situation with many parties involved, and scope for disagreements.

In contrast to Freebodye’s inventory, the most valuable item on the list is a group of “Assorted 9 ct, 15 ct and 18 ct rings, brooches and trinkets” at £85. The most valuable item belonging to Elizabeth Freebodye is a set of bedroom furniture at £4. It is not so much the contrast in financial value that is impressive here (comparing the value of money over three-hundred years is not straightforward), more the difference in the items: the utilitarian versus the decorative.


Inventories at CBS and Beyond
Inventories are interspersed throughout our collections, sometimes they are attached to wills that came to us from the Archdeaconry of Buckingham (D/A/Wf + D/A/We); sometimes they are in estate collections, or business archives, and sometimes they are a standalone document. Regardless of their provenance, they are small in number. Probate inventories for the county can also be found in other archive collections; in 1988 the Buckinghamshire Record Society published a volume of transcripts one-hundred and fifty-nine probate inventories that are stored at the National Archives in Kew. Copies of this book are available on our shelves.


Our references D/A/Wf/28/56A; D-HJ/A/5/39/13

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