Bequeathing the Booze

Michelle Hunter

05 August 2020

Earlier this year, when I was just in the middle of transcribing some 17th century wills for my university course, an email popped up saying that the will I’d ordered of my great great grandfather John Taylor was ready to be viewed.

I always love the excitement of a will or certificate arriving, laden with the promise of genealogical treasures which might be unearthed. However this time I was struck by the opening lines:

This is the last Will and Testament of me John Taylor of Whisby in the County of Lincoln Farm Bailiff to Mr Richard Moss made and signed this sixth day of May one thousand eight hundred and sixty eight I give and bequeath to my wife All my wines, liquors . . . .

Hold on, all my wines and liquors! How come these items were named first? And how many wines did the man own?

OK agricultural labouring in the 19th century was probably pretty thirsty work, plus John did have the added stress of managing his employer’s farm, but I was suddenly struck by the strangeness of seeing alcohol at top of the list of items being bequeathed. Just how much alcohol did John actually have knocking round his agricultural cottage! I was reminded of the incredible Parisian wine cellar recently featured on BBC’s Remarkable Places to Eat in the basement of the one Michelin starred La Tour D’Argent. Did my ag-lab ancestor have something of a similar discerning palate, with an extensive cellar to boot? 

It’s funny how phrases you see many times in documents such as wills and inventories can strike you as strange when you stop to think about them. As I was actually working on 17th century wills at the time, it was the contrast with the piety of these earlier times that made it really stand out.

In the glorious old wills of Tudor and Stuart England, and earlier, the testators (or the ecclesiastical authorities!) were often at pains to make sure that souls were very much the top priority in testamentary records.

Take for example, the will of Richard Manning 1705:

…ffirst I commend my Soul into the hands of Almighty God my Heavenly ffather trusting to obtain pardon of my manifold sins and eternal Salvation through his mercy and the Meritts of our Saviour Jesus Christ And my Body to the Earth to be decently buried therein hoping for a joyfull Resurrection at the great day of recompence…


Or the will of Paul Petit 1686:

…Imprimis I bequeathe my soule to God that gave it trusting for a joyfull resurrection in the merits of my Saviour Jesus Christ my body to some convenient place as my hereafter named Executor shall see meet…

Or the will of Jane Nye 1669, who wanted to make doubly sure of her salvation by naming the poor of her parish as beneficiaries before her own family:

….ffirst & principally I comit and Comend my soule into the mercifull hands of Allmightie God my Creator & redeemer and my body to the earth to expect a joyfull resurrection And as touching my Worldly goods I give bequeath the same as followeth Item I give and bequeath to the poor people of the parrish of Horsham aforesaid the sume of fforty shillings of goods & lawfull money of England to be distributed amongst them by my overseers hereafter named…

So, as my mind was clearly still somewhere in the 17th, I can probably be forgiven for being a little astonished by the incongruity of “I give and bequeath to my wife All my wines liquors..” Didn’t he care about his soul?!

It really made me think how times and attitudes had changed over the previous 200 years.

The use of such religious preambles at the start of a will was very common in medieval and early modern wills but it gradually declined as society became more secular throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It is pretty unusual to find one later than the 1820s.

Similarly, probate inventories which are a rich source of information for genealogists and social historians, were rarely made or retained after the 18th century. Basically, people wealthy enough to be making wills were simply acquiring too much stuff for the appraisers to bother writing it all down!

A will generally had the format:

  1. Religious preamble (pre-1800s)
  2. Charitable or ecclesiastical bequests
  3. Provision for the widow
  4. Provision for the children
  5. Other bequests including the residue of the estate, often described as all other goods and chattels, movable and immovable

Widows could be left with a small property, or room and board, or the right to stay in the property (liferent in Scotland), often with very specific descriptions of what she is entitled to have or use.

In his will dated the 16th of February 1815, Thomas Johnes bequeathed his wife:

a leasehold messuage and premises called Langston…and also all other his household goods and furniture, plate, linen, china, books, prints, pictures, household utensils, wines, spirits, liquors, and other household stores, and all his live and dead stock.

Thomas wanted there to be no doubt over his wife’s provision and clearly in this situation, Mrs Johnes could rest assured that she would receive the living cows as well as the carcasses!

By the early 1800s, the laws and regulations (or lack of them) surrounding wills had become a confusing mess. The 4th report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the Law of Real Property in the 1830s had noted:

Any scrap of paper, or memorandum in ink or in pencil, mentioning an intended disposition of his property, is admitted as a will and will be valid, although written by another person, and not read over to the testator, or even seen by him, if proved to be made in his lifetime according to his instructions.

The ensuing 1837 Wills Act not only raised the age of testator (from 14 for boys and 12 for girls) to 21, it required all wills, whether for real estate or personal property, to be in writing and signed, or acknowledged, in the presence of at least two witnesses. Nuncupative, or oral wills, were abolished.

The 1840 Concise Forms of Wills was described as a ‘portable volume of short forms’ which was written mainly with the layman in mind and was no doubt drawn up in response to the new law.

In the introduction, the authors don’t hold back in their attack of inexperienced and barely educated will-writers, lamenting the fact that ‘the disposition of a man’s property by will may be safely confided to the minimum of legal knowledge.’

In other words, any old Tom, Dick or Harry could write up a will for someone!

In the introduction, they point out that ‘one half at least of the cases laid before counsel arise out of informal wills’, something that the Wills Act 1837 attempted to redress by simplifying and repealing the ‘mass of incongruities, technicalities and distinctions of old feudal tenures, ecclesiastical laws and more recent acts of legislation’ which had arisen since the 1540 Statute of Wills.

The Concise Forms of Wills and similar tomes provided guidance and formularies for the local schoolmaster or village solicitor to whom the rural population might turn when the time came for them to write a will.

Perhaps Richard Moss consulted a copy of this book, for in it there are several suggested texts suitable for a married man providing for a wife and his adult and/or infant children, two of which begin:

 So the wording with which I cast aspersions on my poor ancestor’s character was nothing more than the adaptation of a standard formulary! Quite why they chose to start with the alcohol still baffles me a little. I love the note in the margin ‘wines etc to wife’!

It seems odd to us, living in a privileged society where warehouses the size of villages are stacked with foodstuffs, where a bonanza of provisions from all over the world can be delivered at the click of a button, that people thought to include food, drink, fuel and consumables in their provision for their beneficiaries but to an impoverished recipient, or a widow with no other immediate means of support, it might mean the difference between food or starvation, warmth or cold, even life or death. Wines and liquors would also have had a monetary value.

Interestingly, the wording ‘wines, liquors and consumable stores’ is not as archaic as you might think. Can you believe that it was only in 2014 that the Inheritance and Trustees Powers Act updated the definition of ‘personal chattels’ to ‘tangible moveable property’ from the description outlined almost 100 years ago in the Administration of Estates Act 1925, section 55 (1)(x) as including:

carriages, horses, stable furniture and effects (not used for business purposes), garden effects, domestic animals, [silver] plate, plated articles, linen, china, glass, books, pictures, prints, furniture, jewellery, articles of household or personal use or ornament, musical and scientific instruments and apparatus, wines, liquors and consumable stores, but excluding: any chattels used at the death for business purposes, or any money and securities for money.

Most people probably don’t own a horse and carriage these days, so there clearly was a need to redefine ‘chattels’ but how many of us still have wines and liquors listed in the small print of our own wills without realising it!

Funnily enough, ‘tangible moveable property’ now does not include:

  • money or securities for money
  • property used by the deceased at his death solely or mainly for business purposes
  • property held by the deceased at death solely as an investment

which means that an expensive wine collection would be considered an investment and no longer as personal chattels.

So the current owners of extensive wine cellars would wanted their wine to go to someone specific would quite literally find themselves bequeathing the booze!

To end, here are few alcohol-related bequests.

If you know of any others, do let me know in the comments!

1. In 1407, Robert Gerthe left his wife Agnes ‘a brew-house called ‘le Flourdelys’ in Goldyng lane in the parish of S. Giles aforesaid for life’. That Fleur de Lys brewery, just outside the wall of London was in existence for almost 300 years.

2. In his will proved in 1788 David Davis wrote:
I give and bequeath to Mary Davies, daughter of Peter Delaport, the sum of 5s, which is sufficient to enable her to get drunk with, for the last time, at my expense; and I give the like sum of 5s 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.

3. In 1998 in Portland, Oregon, 8 year old Pascal Brooks inherited an entire winery, after the sudden death of his father, Jimi. His Aunt stepped into help run the business Brooks Wines, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

4.The RNLI (see my earlier blog post about this great institution!) and the World Wildlife Fund UK received an interesting bequest back in 1980. Mary Sennett bequeathed a 1914 bottle of brandy, along with instructions that it should be sold at auction in 2014 and the proceeds divided between the two charities. After being locked in a sealed box since 1990, the bottle went up for auction in November 2014 and fetched £520!

5.In 2015, Roger Brown left £3500 to his friends to go on a boozy weekend away together. After fulfilling his wishes in Berlin, one friend said “We would like to formally apologise to Roger’s two sons, Sam and Jack, for taking away some of their inheritance. We spent most of it on beer, the rest we wasted.” I’m sure Roger Brown approved!

Bibliography and references

McLaughlin, Eve. (1989) Wills before 1858. 3rd ed. Birmingham: Federation of Family History Societies. pp. 3-9.

Raymond, Stuart A.(2012) The wills of our ancestors. Barnsley, Yorkshire: Pen & Sword.

McLeod, Alan. (2015) The Hillars of Golden Lane, Cripplesgate Without. A better beer blog. [blog] 13 June. : accessed 05 August 2020.

Kirby, R. S. (1820) Kirby’s wonderful and eccentric museum or magazine of remarkable characters. Vol. 5. London: R. S. Kirby. p. 20. : accessed 05 August 2020.

Eierdam, Viki. (2018) Twenty years young. Oregon wine press. [blog] : accessed 05 August 2020.

RNLI. Seven surprising gifts left to the RNLI. : accessed 05 August 2020.

Dorset Echo. (2014) Brandy auctioned for £520 to benefit two charities. Dorset Echo. 24 November. : accessed 05 August 2020

Testamentary records. England. 09 November 1705. MANNING, Richard. Will. Prerogative Court of Canterbury. [Transcription] : accessed 05 August 2020.

Testamentary records. England. 12 February 1686. PETIT, Paul. Will. Prerogative Court of Canterbury. [Transcription] : accessed 05 August 2020.

Testamentary records. England. 01 February 1669. NYE, Jane. Will. Chichester Court. West Sussex Record Office. [Transcription] : accessed 05 August 2020.

Testamentary records. England. 06 May 1868. TAYLOR, John. Will. Prerogative Court of Canterbury: Will Registers.

Dunlap, John A. (1843) Reports of Cases Decided in the High Court of Chancery: with notes and references. Vol. 3. New York: Gould, Banks & Co. p. 511. : accessed 05 August 2020.

Yorkshire Gazette. (1837) The Wills Bill. Yorkshire Gazette. 09 December. p. 2g. Collection: British Newspapers. : accessed 21 January 2020.

Wills Act 1837. (1 Vict., c.26). United Kingdom (but not Scotland). London: George Eyre and Andrew Spottiswoode. : accessed 21 January 2020

Images: Photograph. Museum Victorian interior. Unknown date. Unknown photographer. : accessed 05 August 2020.

Images: Photograph. Wine cellar. Unknown date. Hanna SC, photographer. : accessed 05 August 2020.

Images: Photograph. Wine, beer, alcohol. Unknown date. Unknown artist. Library of Congress. ID: 429731. : accessed 05 August 2020.

Cory, Samantha. (2020) Have you heard of Personal Chattels? Do they apply to you when writing your Will? Goughs solicitors. [blog] 02 March. : accessed 05 August 2020.

Farrell, Richard. (2019) Did the UK Wills Act of 1837 Pass Its Use-By-Date? Avery Associates. [blog] 28 July. : accessed 05 August 2020.

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