A Moving Tale

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I spent a day in London last week, pounding the streets in search of ancestors. Over the course of a long day, I visited four ‘live’ archives: the Bank of England Archive, Guildhall Library, the London Metropolitan Archives and the National Archives. But I also took time out to visit the sites of some former libraries/archives/reading rooms, took photos of them and then set people the challenge of identifying them.

Eight former London libraries/archives/reading rooms. How many can you name?

As I was sorting out the answers to the quiz, and making sure that I’d got all the facts right, I realised that there was one detail that I wasn’t at all sure about. I knew that the 1857 Court of Probate Act had led to the establishment of the civil probate system in 1858 and I knew that the Probate Search Room had ‘always’ been at Somerset House. But did ‘always’ mean that it was there from 1858? I needed to find out and my research led me to the discovery of a fascinating article published in the Daily News on 21 October 1874, comprising a blow-by-blow account of the relocation of ‘waggon-loads of wills’ from Doctors’ Commons, the ancient establishment in Knightrider Street, close to St Paul’s Cathedral, to the new (partly) purpose-built facility at Somerset House. The article also includes a brief and colourful history of Doctors’ Commons, an institution described by Charles Dickens in his semi-autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, as a ‘pernicious absurdity’. For people like me, with an (admittedly fairly niche) interest in the ‘history of family history’, the article is a precious treasure. So here it is, in its entirety…

Interior of the Prerogative Will Office, Doctor’s Commons, Pictorial Post, January 1846, p.16


A very remarkable and miscellaneous list might be formed of the strange articles which from time to time are carted through the streets of London. A live tiger from Wapping to the Zoological Gardens, a consignment of Egyptian mummies on their way from the docks to the British Museum, waggon-loads of yellow gold to the Bank, slabs scored with Assyrian inscriptions – such commodities as these would form items in the catalogue; but never until yesterday have waggon-loads of wills passed along one of our thoroughfares.

Under the tilted hoods of furniture, all the last wills and testaments which have accumulated for centuries in the principal registry of the kingdom were carted yesterday, or will be carted during the next three days, from their late home in Great Knightrider-street to their new receptacle in Somerset House.

The removal is wholesale. The laconic will of Henry VIII., the famous holograph will of Shakespeare, the last testament of the acute old gentleman who founded the great moneyed family of Rothschild, the wills of Mr. Morrison, the millionaire, and of Elwes, the miser, the wills of the deceased Browns, Joneses, and Robinsons, are all included in the universal flitting.

This is the last blow to Doctors’ Commons – the last blow of many. Times have sorely changed with the dingy venerable precincts since Dickens first took pen in hand to photograph their features and abuses. The day is gone by when pimply-faced apron touts button-holed the stranger passing under the archway of the Deans’-court, and carried him off to invest in a marriage licence, totally irrespective of the question whether or not he nourished the design of being married at all.

Before that ruthless Act of 1857, which abolished all ecclesiastical jurisdiction in testamentary and cognate matters, Doctors’ Commons was a nest of tribunals, the practitioners and pleaders before which were a body distinct from all other legal practitioners.

The visitor, as he entered Carter’s-lane, where the Royal Wardrobe Palace once stood, to which was brought the “Fair Maid of Kent,” the widow of the Black Prince, on the evening of the day that Wat Tyler’s followers broke into the Tower, became at once sensible of a holy calm, and a strong smell of parchment and pounce.

Every house was the office of a proctor. The present explorer will find at the east end of Knightrider-street, close to St Benet’s-hill, a square plot of ground, partly tenanted by scaffold poles, partly occupied by a pile of new buildings, which extends down to and has a frontage in Queen Victoria-street. This plot was the site of the old College of the Doctors of Civil and Canon Law. The dim old pile had a history. The college as an institution, although not as a building, was founded before the reign of Henry VIII., and in 1586 Dr. Henry Hervey, Dean of Arches, obtained a lease of, and presented to the college, a ruinous pile on the site referred to, named Mountjoy House.

Detail from the Agas Map (ca.1561), showing the location of ‘Knyght Ryder Street’ just to the south of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The college repaired the structure, and abode there, dining together in its Common Hall until the Great Fire destroyed their quiet home, whereupon they migrated for a time to Exeter House in the Strand, where they held their courts. In 1672 the college was rebuilt, and Charles II, having “authorised and required” the doctors to occupy it, they did so with probably their accustomed sleepy alacrity. Here they droned on comfortably until 1858, when the thunderbolt fell upon them.

Their college home was a pleasant abiding place. The chambers of the doctors occupied three sides of the principal square; on the fourth was the Common Hall, where the doctors dined together, and which formed, too, the Common Court-room for the various courts which had their home in Doctors’ Commons. The few doctors of the old regime who still continue to practice in the reformed courts under the new dispensation must remember with fond regret the snug old hall, with its dark-polished wainscot reaching half way up the walls, and above it the emblazoned coats of arms of all the doctors for a century back, the fire burning cheerfully in the open stove in the centre of the spacious room, the picturesque dresses of the doctors in their scarlet and ermine, and of the proctors in the ermine and black.

In this room all the old Ecclesiastical Courts held their sittings: the Court of Arches, the Pleas, tried before which Chaucer speaks of as cases

“Of defamation and avouterie,
Of church reves and of testaments,
Of contracts and lack of sacraments,
Of usure and simony also:”

the Prerogative Court, where contentions arising out of testamentary causes were tried; the Consistory Court, and the Court of Admiralty, whose ecclesiastical connection is somewhat obscure. Where the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together. The proctors “admitted exercent by virtue of a rescript,” and the doctors, the bulk of whose fees came from testamentary litigation, naturally harboured around the registry, where were received and stored the wills of the Province.

Doctors’ Commons from Microcosm of London, 1808-1810. British Library C.194.b.305-307 (Public Domain)

For centuries the receptacle of these has been in or about Doctors’ Commons. There are copies of wills dating as far back as 1383, and the original wills begin with the year 1483. In what manner the valuable documents were cared for in the early days may be judged from the fact that some seventy years ago they were stowed away into cupboards and odd corners and closets about the Registry Office in Knightrider-street. It then occurred or was suggested to the registrars of the period, who of course were the sons of an archbishop, to build a strong room for the safe storage of the documents in their charge, and this structure was accordingly erected behind the Registry, and abutting into the garden of the Doctors’ College.

Detail from Richard Horwood’s PLAN of the Cities of LONDON and WESTMINSTER the Borough of SOUTHWARK, and PARTS adjoining, 1792-1799. Romantic London http://www.romanticlondon.org/horwoods-plan

Times are changed, and across the old garden, in the shady walks of which the learned doctors were wont, no doubt, to hold sweet converse of knotty points in sacerdotal, bottomry, and salvage law, Queen Victoria-street now runs. The New Civil Service Co-operative Store stands somewhere about its north-eastern corner.

A right pleasant rus in urbe was the old garden, with its great branching elms, among the limbs of which there was a rookery until within the last fifteen years, the rooks, ultimately deserting their haunt when one of the old trees fell. The story goes that the registry clerks used to shoot at the rooks with stones from crossbows, and that a learned doctor, once finding a bird lying dead that had thus been killed, wrote a laboured treatise to prove that it had died from epilepsy. The garden was ten feet above the level of the present street.

The bolt fell which abolished the ecclesiastical jurisdiction in virtue of which Doctors’ Commons had prospered so snugly ever since Charles II.’s time, and the doctors and proctors for the most part acted as did the rooks, and forsook the scene of their former fortunes. The courts were transferred to Westminster, and the close borough of Doctors’ Commons passed into Schedule D., solicitors being allowed to practise freely in them. Most of the doctors and proctors retired on their dignity and the compensation which the Act of Parliament awarded to them, and for some years the old place existed, forlorn and dismantled, the Admiralty Court only continuing to be held in its precincts. The court-room door of long-discoloured baize flapped listlessly on its rusty hinges, and the Common Hall became a nest for spiders.

Demolition of Doctors’ Commons: The Great Quadrangle, The Illustrated London News, 4 May 1867, p.440

The courtyard and garden fell temporarily into the hands of Captain Shaw and his merry men of the Fire Brigade, and firemen were drilled at the hose where the doctors had promenaded. Then the contractors came and demolished everything, sweeping college and garden, and even the very soil of the latter, away into the havebeens, and the new street grew slowly into shape, among the Roman remains and the mouldering brick foundations of Mountjoy House.

Foreseeing the ruin that was to come, alike to the garden and to the strong room built out upon it, the authorities about ten years ago built another series of fireproof apartments fronting Knightrider-street, into which the accumulated wills, the mass of which had quite overwhelmed the old garden storehouse, were removed, and in which they remained until this last removal was commenced yesterday morning.

But the whole place had grown too small for its parchment tenants and their suite of custodians, recorders, clerks and engrossers. The search-room of the Registry could not accommodate the numbers who thronged to it to examine wills, and the volumes into which the wills are copied had overflowed into passages and lobbies. The bulk of the records which accumulate in the Registry of the Court of Probate naturally increases in proportion to the national growth in wealth and prosperity.

The copies of the wills for the year 1383 are contained in one volume two inches thick: now the copies for a single year fill twenty huge tomes of six inches thick, each weighing half a hundredweight. About ten thousand “town” wills are registered annually, and in addition copies of about 17,000 country wills are filed every year in the metropolitan registry.

To the consideration of scanty space was added the argument of the inconvenience of the situation in relation to the Court of Probate sitting at Westminster, and for every reason the arrangement was wise and advisable that the registry and its archives should be moved westward to Somerset House in default of the once anticipated accommodation in the New Courts of Law buildings.

Somerset House and St. Mary le Strand, 1851-1855. Government Art Collection

The wills are being conveyed from Doctors’ Commons to Somerset House with the utmost care. They are packed in locked baskets, which are carried in covered vans, each accompanied by a responsible person. The baskets when discharged are at once carried into the new strong-room, and there unpacked, and the parchments are immediately refilled and stowed away in order by careful and experienced officials, on the shelves on which they are to remain permanently. The wills of most recent dates, and the books in which all the wills from the commencement are registered are removed first, with a view to meet the convenience of the public by rendering it possible to open the new search-room at an earlier date than if the older wills, which are less frequently asked for, had received the precedence which their greater age might claim.

The portion of Somerset House which the registry will occupy is that on the river-front recently vacated by the Admiralty. The wills are being stored in a long gallery which has been fitted up – indeed, reconstructed – for the purpose under the terrace which runs parallel to and overlooks the Thames Embankment. It is sufficiently removed from the river to obviate any danger of injury from damp to the valuable archives which it is to contain, and the officials regard it as a receptacle extremely well adapted in every way for its new purposes. The iron shelving which was in use in the Doctors’ Commons registry has been removed and re-adjusted here, resulting in an economy of some £15,000.

The New Registry of Wills Office, Illustrated London News, 30 January 1875, p.96

The room which is to be devoted to the public examination of wills is a large, handsome room, conveniently fitted up for its special purpose, and is an immense improvement on the old cramped and gloomy search-room. Its is on the ground floor of the side of the inner quadrangle of Somerset House, opposite to the Strand entrance and the doorway leading into it will be found exactly opposite the archway opening into the courtyard from that thoroughfare. The registry will open the doors of its new abiding-place to the public on the 24th inst., and until then expectant legatees and suspicious relatives must possess their souls in patience, since the Knightrider-street office was finally closed on Monday.

So, I had my answer: the Probate Search Room at Somerset House had opened its doors on 24 October 1874, 16 and a half years after the establishment of the civil probate system. The descriptions of the ‘large handsome room’ struck a chord with me as it was the same room that I first visited as a young researcher in the early 1980s. Indeed, the image from the Illustrated London News will be instantly recognisable to researchers of a certain vintage: the big arched windows, the shelving … the staff…??? Well, perhaps not…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 30 July 2022

Further reading:

Anyone with a serious interest in the ‘history of family history’ is well advised to read Anthony Camp’s stunningly detailed ‘Diary of a Genealogist’. https://anthonyjcamp.com/

Walter Thornbury, ‘Baynard’s Castle and Doctors’ Commons’, in Old and New London: Volume 1 (London, 1878), pp. 281-293. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol1/pp281-293 [accessed 30 July 2022].

Gwyneth Wilkie, Charles Dickens, the Doom of English Wills and Chester, Genealogists’ Magazine, Volume 32, Number 3, September 2016, pp. 92-101

Jane Cox, Hatred Pursued Beyond the Grave. London HMSO, 1993

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield. 1849-1850, esp. Chapter 33

This entry was posted in Document Sources, Stories, research, Archives and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Moving Tale

  1. Pingback: Friday’s Family History Finds | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

  2. Glenys Sykes says:

    Thank you for this delightful and fascinating piece, most enjoyable and a little glimpse of lost London.


  3. Linda Stufflebean says:

    An interesting history, but I love all your images. Great job!


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