Beyond the Internet: Week 23 Probate and Deceased Estate

Beyond the Internet

This is Week 23 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. This week the topics are probate and deceased estates. I’d love it if you would join in and either comment or post on your experiences with wills around the world.

“Money makes the world go around” says the song, and it’s always worth remembering this when doing your family history. Strange to say all those clerks didn’t have future genealogists in mind when they wrote up the various documents that become our research bread and butter. More often than not their concern was to follow the money trail and make sure matters financial were accountable.

This is particularly so in the context of this week’s post which follows on from wills last week…all part and parcel of the process which finalises our deceased ancestor’s property and assets no matter how meagre.  The will can sit happily in a drawer while the person is alive but once deceased the legal divvying up generates more documents. Not all of these survive and different jurisdictions will retain different records so you will need to investigate what’s available for your region of interest. Most archives now have useful online guides to these holdings so that should be your first port of call.

Once probate is commenced and advertised in the local papers, the summarising of legal matters arising from the person’s estate begins. In the archival probate packets you may find a dazzling array of information from original death certificates, signed authorisations from the executor or other family members, lists of property and other odds and ends, payments of debts etc. It’s a bit of a legal lucky dip.

Most of my research has been in Queensland or New South Wales so this post will be biased to those resources, though I’ve also had a bit to do with English records. As examples, over the years I’ve found:

  1. My great-grandfather George Michael Kunkel left an estate in Queensland valued at £433. There was £70 in the government savings bank, £200 in a life insurance policy and another £76 in the Railway Service Friendly Benefit. Living priorities were reflected in the property left behind: £47 for a harness and saddlery and only £18 for household furniture and effects, £3 for a water tank and £12 for a moveable hut.[1] George was only a railway ganger so it shows that its worth exploring these records even our labouring ancestors.
  2. The probate record for someone who had died in South Africa but who had property in Queensland (turned out he wasn’t related).
  3. Signatures of every adult “child” in a family when probate took place over 20 years after the husband’s death…who knows why the delay. John Widdup’s death is not recorded in the death indices or inquests or newspapers: only his grave in Urana and the probate records provide any clues.
  4. Lists of property in the will bequeathed to specific family members, some quite distant on the family tree or left to charities.
  5. Lists of debts owed by the deceased including medical and business expenses giving potential insights into the expense of medical treatment relative to income and other living expenses.
  6. Lists of individual land parcels owned at the time of death, allowing you to then chase up the land records to learn more about when and how they were bought. They will also lead you to local histories where you can learn more about the area in that era.

Deceased estate records have similar information but in my experience with them in NSW they provide a far more comprehensive summary of the deceased’s estate. After all the government was lining up for its share of the estate in the form of death duties.  In these I’ve found incredibly detailed lists of furniture and fittings in each room, providing a fascinating insight into how the family lived on a daily basis. Where the family member had a business you may also find a detailed list of their business assets with even more clues for research into land and business.

Another resource you may like to search in the official records (sometimes indexed on microfiche) is Transmission of Real Estate by Death. These provide another clue into the transfer of land from the deceased to his/her beneficiaries. Bear in mind however that if you have an ancestor who is into succession planning he may have done this prior to death – my George Mathias and Mary Kunkel sold their property to their youngest son presumably in quid pro quo to provide them with co-residence and support in their old age. Despite then not owning any property they do not appear to have applied apply for the pension.

Finally don’t forget the newspapers now that Trove makes it so easy to search in Australia. Even if the wills have been destroyed over the years you may get clues about the estate sales through public notice in the papers.  I wrote here about how I found a goldmine of information on the estate of my great-grandfather Peter McSherry through Trove even though that period of wills is not available at Queensland State Archives.

Are you surprised that I ensured my own will includes some specific bequests to listed people? I was happy to ignore the solicitor’s advice that this was unnecessary. On the flip side, a cousin’s even more detailed list of bequests generated an awful rigmarole as we tried to establish what had happened to each minor item, but it also showed that only one cousin and her children had been remembered.  What will generations in the future make of these I wonder?

What’s your experience with Probate or Deceased Estates? I’d love to hear more from a different perspective.  Once again this post comes with a warning that this area is not one of my research strengths. If I’ve got something wrong, including terminology please set me straight so others can benefit as well.


[1] Queensland State Archives: SRS4486- 3- 466. SCT/P466 560/1902. Microfilm Z1670.

Trawling Trove – Peter McSherry –house sale and property auction

I guess there are not many Australian family historians who haven’t discovered the joys of Trove, which get better with each expansion of the program (currently at 5 million pages!).

Even so I was ecstatic at what I discovered through Trove yesterday. My McSherry families were historically concentrated in Queensland especially Townsville and Rockhampton so the online availability of the Townsville Daily Bulletin and the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin has been great for my research (microfilms not available here). I’ve picked up a whole range of snippets about my family, of which more in another post later.

The auction notice for Peter McSherry's estate in the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin 10 February 1951 page 9.

Trawling through Trove yesterday I picked up an advertisement in the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin which was probably better than finding my great-grandfather’s will. There in an auction notice was a full description of his home and belongings….a bit like hanging your world out for inspection by others. His daughter, Mary Ellen Quinn, was obviously executor of her father’s estate and she had put everything up for auction. Without having yet sighted the will it seems evident that Peter McSherry had left the property to his wife for her use until her death (1950) and then to be sold and the income to be shared between their nine surviving children.

What the advertisement tells me is that they had a good quality home in a traditional Queensland vernacular style made of timber, highset and with verandahs on three sides, battens around the base of the house and a dedicated space downstairs for a laundry. What was a bit unusual was the scale of the house as with four bedrooms this made it above average, especially as they only moved into it with their adult children in their later years. Not surprisingly it was stated to be very close to the railway workshops and railway station in Rockhampton. Ironically it’s only now occurred to me that we went so close to their old property on the Sunlander train heading north several times. Dad would jump off at Rockhampton station just before the train stopped (another railwayman!) and cross the road to buy the world’s best fish and chips. Whether my mother knew where her grandparents had lived I don’t know –I don’t believe she ever mentioned it and she had only very rarely seen her grandparents as they lived in different places.

Peter McSherry had joined Queensland Rail immediately on his arrival from Gorey, Wexford, Ireland with his wife (Mary nee Callaghan) and two small children, one of them my grandfather, James. Peter had probably worked for the railway in Ireland as his father also did. Over the years the family moved around Queensland from Longreach to Townsville, Hughenden and Rockhampton. He worked with the railway for nearly 60 years, right up to the absolute maximum age limit before retiring. (His son James similarly worked until old age). By the end of his career Peter was a Chief Inspector of Railways being responsible for the upkeep and general maintenance of a particular area of the railway lines.

Railways run in the blood lines of many Australians and Queenslanders, perhaps in particular because of the extensiveness of the lines, and the correlation of railway construction with the commencement of the colony of Queensland. My generation is the first of five generations (on both sides of my family) in which no family member works in the railway, though other branches of the family have done so into the fifth generation.

But all this is a diversion. As well as a full description of the house in this advertisement, an earlier one had detailed the property’s allotment number as re-subdivision 2, subdivisions 1 to 3, allotment 5, section 77, City of Rockhampton. Plainly this will need further investigation when next I visit Queensland. However I do know it was on the corner of Alma and South Streets with an address of 32 South Street. Thanks to a Google Earth search and street view, I now know that the house was obviously demolished at some stage and is now occupied by a battery business.  The location is in close proximity to the heritage Railway Roundhouse with its distinctive shape as seen on Google Earth.

Location of the McSherry family home on Google Earth.

In the mostly Queensland wills I’ve found, I’ve very rarely located a very detailed inventory of belongings, though even the “overview” inventory can still be helpful. However where detailed inventories exist they provide such a great insight into the style and standard of living. I have not yet found Peter McSherry’s will –another on my “to do” research list for Queensland visits – but this advertisement is likely to exceed what I’ll find in the will packet, if available.

The comprehensive list of furniture and household belongings being auctioned tells of a solid, working class living standard probably above that of the average worker. The house was kitted out with silky oak furniture, very typical of the times. Although not luxurious the extent of the furnishings tell their own story of a family who had done reasonably well since they’d arrived in Australia 65 years earlier. The items range from the comfortable to the mundane: Bookcase, squatters’ chair, seagrass tables and lounges, ice chest, copper boiler, commode and garden tools. The item on the list which saddened me was the sewing machine because it was regarded as a way of earning an income and therefore generally reserved from being recovered in cases of bankruptcy yet here it was being sold after the death of its owner, Mary McSherry nee Callaghan, about a year after her husband’s death. And what of the zinc lined piano case –had there once been a piano as well?

So this Trove discovery has opened up new research paths and provided me with insights into the family’s living standards. All very exciting!

UPDATE: At a recent (June 2011) visit to the Queensland State Archives, I found his name does not appear in the indices of wills or intestacies for the relevant period. So this Trove find really was a treasure.