REGISTERS OF SEAMEN'S WILLS
Transcribed by Lindsey Withers
The Source (NAVY)
To understand the nature of this source you may need to be aware of the similarities and differences between two classes of documents held at The National Archives, Kew, those with the references ADM 48 and ADM 142. The former is a large but incomplete collection of original wills of Royal Navy seamen, dated 1786-1882. (A small proportion of the wills were left by mariners of higher and more specialised ranks.) The latter class of documents includes a (downloadable) set of fourteen ledgers recording the execution of probate of all wills of R.N. seamen between 1786-1861. The ADM 142 ledgers show the seaman, his rank, his ship, whether he died on board or somewhere on land, and the name and address of the person the seaman appointed as his executor. Neither the online index to the ADM 48 wills nor the ADM 142 ledgers show the seaman's own hometown or anything concerning his origins.
Given the name of an ancestor or relative who was a Royal Navy seaman, the online index of ADM 48 may lead you to a downloadable copy of his will. However, in addition to the fact that the ADM 48 collection of wills is by no means complete, it is often not possible from this online index to be sure you have found the right man. This is because the online index entries do not include the main additional clues as to whether you have located the right will, i.e. the name and the abode of the executor of the seaman's will. However, by downloading and looking at the appropriate ADM 142 ledger, you can see abstracts of all seamen's wills, including those where the original has not survived, and you may feel more certain you have located the right man from the name and abode of his executor.
Note: There are also a few wills from ADM 45: Navy Board, and Admiralty, Accountant General's Department: Officers' and Civilians' Effects Papers. (Applications by executors or administrators, often next of kin, for the unpaid wages or pensions of deceased officers of the Navy and Royal Marines or their widows, and of civilian employees of the Navy and the Naval Dockyards. Some applications are supported by birth or marriage certificates or wills.)
DWP's editing process
To this end the Devon Wills Project has decided to extract from the fourteen ledgers all the entries which show that the executor lived in Devon - and a few places now in Cornwall just across the border. We have called this source NAVY. It should identify a whole host of Devon-born seamen, together with the names of the ship on which they were serving. (It should be noted that, armed with the name of your ancestor's ship, it is possible to find out an extraordinary amount of detail about his career in the Royal Navy. Using ships' musters, ships' paybooks and ships' logbooks, one can almost re-create his day to day existence. Furthermore, if his widow received a pension, more details of his career may appear in her pension records.)
We have also included a few men who may well not have come from Devon at all, but who died there, in a Plymouth Hospital. Their executors often did not live in Devon, but it is still just possible that such seaman may have had Devon origins. Because neither the ledgers (ADM 142) nor the original wills (ADM 48) show the abode of the seaman himself, we have decided to show in Col E the abode of his executor, thinking and hoping that this may give some clues as to the seaman's origins.
The surviving original wills (in ADM 48) rarely show anything more than that which appears in the ADM 142 ledgers, because the wills were of a pro-forma nature and required the seaman to leave his whole estate to one named person, usually his wife, a parent or other close relation. However, this official injunction to be brief did not stop all seamen from writing more, and a few wills do in fact mention a goodly number of relatives.
N.B. The (probate) year given for a NAVY will in our index may well turn out to be the date when the will was made, rather than proved, dates which may in fact have been several years apart. So, please treat the year given for NAVY entries in our index with 'a hearty pinch of sea-salt'!
Locating the source and acquiring copies
Because a large percentage of the original wills have not survived, it is probably better to look for a seaman's will in the ADM 142 ledgers, which are much more complete. It is certainly cheaper to do so, given that the ledgers can be downloaded for free from The National Archives. Those original wills that have survived in ADM 48 are also downloadable from The National Archives, the present cost being £3.50 per will.