The Contents of 18th-century Wills

When a person writes their will, they focus on the end of their life whenever it may occur, and it is an opportunity to ensure that family and friends are provided for and to gift keepsakes. When researching family history, wills are often a really rich source of information, but many wills don’t really provide anything unexpected, except perhaps occasionally an unknown name, which is always a bonus. However, I came across these extracts from wills in ‘The (Kirby’s) Wonderful and scientific (eccentric) museum’ which seemed worthy of sharing as they give a slightly amusing insight into the persons’ thinking at the time of writing. As I wasn’t totally convinced they were genuine, I did take the trouble to check them out, just in case they were fictional.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; View on Clapham Common; Tate

We begin with the will of a Mr David Davis of Clapham, Surrey which was proved in 1788. David and his wife, Mary had only been married a few years when David died. Mary was a minor at the time of their wedding which took place on 3 May 1780. Their son, Charles Peter Davis was baptised 15 April 1781, so just under a year after their marriage. Clearly, David, despite having his name in the baptismal register, had doubts about the legitimacy of the son, so perhaps the honeymoon period was over somewhat abruptly!

I give and bequeath to Mary Davis, daughter of Peter Delaport, the sum of five shillings, which is sufficient to enable her to get drunk with, for the last time, at my expense, and I give the like sum of five shillings to Charles Peter, the son of the said Mary, whom I am reputed to be the father of, but never had, or ever shall have any reason to believe.

Priest, Thomas; The Thames at Battersea, London; Wandsworth Museum

The next will is that of lighterman (a worker on light flat-bottomed boats), Stephen Church whose will was proved in November 1793.  He and his wife, Diana had been married for 18 years at the time of Stephen’s death and he wanted to ensure that his wife and children were provided for.  He was not a wealthy man but had sufficient funds to ensure that Diana would receive twenty-five pounds a year until her or, should she choose to marry again, then this money would transfer to their daughter, Elizabeth.  Stephen also had children by his first wife, again whom he provided for in his will,  but clearly, one child was not in favour:

I give and devise to my son, Daniel Church, only one shilling and that is for him to hire a porter to carry away the next badge and frame he steals.

William Darley, of Ash, Hertfordshire died in 1794 and clearly wrote his will with much resentment toward his wife Mary. William was clearly an affluent gentleman and in writing his will he left everything including properties, both leasehold and freehold, money,  in fact, everything he owned to a Mr and Mrs Thomas Hill. As for his wife he simply stated:

I give unto my wife, Mary Darley, for picking my pocket of sixty guineas and taking up money in my name, of John Pugh, Esq. the sum of one shilling.

Hill, John; Interior of the Carpenter’s Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield; Tate

In the will of Stephen Swain, late of the parish of St. Olave, Southwark, proved February 1770, it noted that Stephen was a carpenter who provided, as you expect, for his wife, Sarah and family members, then added this bequest, with no further explanation. I would love to know what John and his wife had done to warrant this bequest.

I give to John Abbot, victualler, and Mary, his wife, the sum of sixpence each, to buy for each of them a halter, for fear the sheriffs should not be provided.

1719, saw the death of the Right Honourable Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Stafford, who wrote a very lengthy will and in it made a derogatory reference to his wife, Claude-Charlotte Gramont, and his in-laws, Philibert, Count de Gramont and Elizabeth, daughter of Sir George Hamilton. I find;t manage to spot the quote in his will, but I’ve no reason to assume it wasn’t there, hidden amongst all the other bequests.

Portait of Elizabeth Hamilton comtesse Gramont by Lely
Portait of Elizabeth Hamilton comtesse Gramont by Lely

I give to the worst of women, who is guilty of all ills, the daughter of Mr. Gramont, a Frenchman, who I have unfortunately married, five and forty brass halfpence, which will buy her a pullet for her supper, a greater sum than her father can often make her; for I have known when he had neither money or credit for such a purchase, he being the worst of men, and his wife the worst of women, in all debaucheries. Had I known their character, I had never married their daughter, nor made myself unhappy.

William Blackett, Esquire, late Governor of Plymouth, Devon, died in 1782 and wanted to be absolutely certain that he was dead when he was buried, so added this little gem into his will:

I desire that my body may be kept as long as it may not be offensive and that one or more of my toes or fingers may be cut off, to secure a certainty of my being dead.

I also make this further request to my dear wife, that as she has been troubled with an old fool, she will not think of marrying a second.

Rowlandson, Thomas; A Long Queue of Angry Patients Agitating outside the House of a Doctor (Surgeon-Apothecary); He Squirts a Syringe at Them from an Upstairs Room; Wellcome Collection

The final offering is courtesy of a Joseph Dalby, apothecary of the parish of St Marylebone, who died in 1784 and this extract from his will conjures up quite an image.

I give to my daughter Ann Spencer, a guinea for a ring, or any other bauble she may like better.

I give to the lout, her husband (William), one penny, to buy him a lark-whistle. I also give to her said husband, of redoubtable memory, my fart-hole, for a covering for his lark-whistle, to prevent the abrasion of his lips, and this legacy I give him as a mark of my approbation of his prowess and nice honour, in drawing his sword on me, (at my own table), naked and unarmed as I was, and he well-fortified with custard.

I give to my son, Joseph Dalby, of the Island of Jamaica, one guinea, and to balance accounts with him, I give him forgiveness and hope the Almighty will give him a better understanding.


The (Kirby’s) Wonderful and scientific (eccentric) museum, Volume 5

Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions: Will Registers

16 thoughts on “The Contents of 18th-century Wills

  1. sylvia wright

    Brilliant! So funny! I, too, have found wills invaluable, I have found quite a lot unknown daughters..girls, of COURSE, being unimportant!!!


    1. Sarah Murden

      Thank you Charlotte 🙂 Watermen were required to hold a badge i.e. licence to work the riverways, but I’m really not sure what a ‘frame’ was. Perhaps someone is able to shed some light on that part. I did look but found nothing.


  2. sylvia wright

    Sarah, could you please find out something for me?
    It has always struck me as interesting, all the people who owned houses in the smart parts of London & Bath, but who WERE they? The houses were furnished, so they had to lay out quite a lot of money in furnishing them & fashionably decorated, too. Just a thought….



    1. Sarah Murden

      Goodness, that’s a good question. I would have thought it would be pretty much as it is today, people bought them if they could afford to, and if they had enough money they might choose to pay the designers of the day to ‘furnish’ them. For more specific details, the rates returns give a lot of clues about who lived where, so they’re a good place to start researching specific streets/areas. Did you have a specific place in mind?


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  4. Greatly enjoyed! Especially the custard. I’ve got a beauty – not funny – but interesting. The testatrix (my 5x great grandmother) married twice The first time in the Fleet in 1853 (William Wyatt) and again in 1791 with a trust deed so that her second husband couldn’t get her money. She separated from him before 1798 when she wrote her will, and she died in 1810. She left £200 with a £20 bequest to her grandson (my 3xgreat grandfather). I’d love to show you the documents, and will put them on my website if you would like to see them.


    1. Sarah Murden

      Hello Judy

      I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. There are so many interesting facts contained within old wills, yours sounds like a fascinating story, so yes, please, I’d love to know more about it 🙂


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