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Durham University News


North East Inheritance project starts to unlock secrets of the dead

(13 July 2006)

Thomas Bewick's will

Wills from Tudor to Victorian times are to go online, thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to Durham University.

People all over the world will soon be able to access the wills of their North East ancestors online thanks to Durham University Library securing a £274,500 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Known as the North East Inheritance project, the team at Durham University Library are creating an online catalogue of over 150,000 wills and related archives, from across County Durham, Tyne and Wear and Northumberland. Dating from the 16th Century to the mid 19th Century (1858), many of the wills are accompanied by inventories of the goods belonging to the deceased. They represent almost all the surviving wills and inventories proved within the region during the period, and provide an invaluable insight into North East people and communities, their family relationships, trades and lifestyles.

The North East Inheritance project will enable historians, genealogists, schools and anyone interested in the history of the region and its people, to search the Durham probate records by name, place, occupation or date. The catalogue will be linked to a comprehensive set of digital images of the actual wills themselves on the Genealogical Society of Utah’s website, which offers free access to genealogical information and images from all over the world. The project will also fund the conservation of the most fragile of the archives, and ensure their preservation for future generations. Access to both the catalogue and the digital images will be free and available worldwide. The catalogue will be completed and available online in 2009.

Dr John Hall, Durham University Librarian, has welcomed the grant, which is matched by contributions from the University and from the trustees of English Record Collections. He said, “People with origins in the North East are now living all over the world, from Canada to Australia, so we are expecting worldwide interest in this project. We are very excited that these unique documents, which have been in the care of the Durham University Library since 1958, will at last be made more widely and freely available, and that important conservation work will ensure their preservation for future generations.”

Dr Christine Newman, President of the Northallerton and District Local History Society, welcomed the announcement saying: “The creation of this online catalogue will bring immense benefits to local and family historians and to all those interested in the history of the region. The practical and logistical advantages of being able to easily access this resource, via a computer, will ensure greater use of the probate records. Such widening of access will undoubtedly encourage users to extend and expand their areas of research, thus serving to add further to our understanding of the history and heritage of North East England.”

Keith Bartlett, Regional Manager for the Heritage Lottery Fund, said: “The North East Inheritance project is a fantastic resource and we are so pleased to help bring it to life. HLF is dedicated to opening up heritage resources to as many people as possible, and this project will enable everyone to explore a huge variety of historic documents that cover much of the region.”

The project has funding for a conservator and cataloguers for three years and they are joined on a weekly basis by local volunteers, drawn from family and local history societies, to complete the cataloguing work on the Durham probate records. Anyone who is interested in volunteering to be involved with the project should contact Dr Sheila Hingley at Palace Green Library on 0191 334 2965 or by email:

Durham University Library has recently won a new accolade for its outstanding work in looking after the nation’s heritage from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), which has extended its museums designation scheme to libraries for the first time. Durham University holds the only designated library and archive collections in the North East.

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