Inventories in the Probate Records of the Diocese of Durham


4. Executors and administrators

The use of inventories by the executors and administrators shows in the accounts rendered by them. Presentations of accounts were not always required by the probate bonds and executors and administrators were trusted with a great deal of freedom, as they still are. Sometimes, however, one finds a date for presentation specified, but often enough the bond requires an account to be presented to court only if or when asked for; this should have ensured that accounts were made, even if they were not later requested by the Consistory Court. Few accounts of executors and administrators survive but there is the interesting documentation for Robert Spain who, in 1716, successfully claimed expenses whose relevance insurance companies today would certainly question. The account for John Finch in 1623 provides further insights into the work of executors and administrators because it has with it rare receipts to prove the administratrix did make the payments she claimed, whilst the 1646 account for Robert and Jane Thompson is a sad detailed inventory of repeated depredations made on the estate by the Scottish armies over the years 1641-6, naming specific Scottish officers.10 However, the most detailed of these cases involves the estate of Hugh Hopper, draper of Durham City, whose will was proved in November l605 according to the clerk's endorsement this was without the exhibiting of an inventory. The story is complicated, but the case later produced numerous inventories of debts in County Durham and Northumberland, unpaid or paid in stages, matched by a series of Consistory Court hearings documented in the Court Books in 1623-24.11 Nearly 400 people in County Durham and Northumberland owed Flopper small debts and his assets at death (including what he was owed) were 1210 14s. 2d.; this included his goods, household stuff, plate and stock of cloth of which no specific detail is given. This case provides a good example of the detail the Court could require, if the case merited it, and indicates how flexible the system was. Importantly it shows also how the inventories were produced as part of a process, whose sequence of papers adds circumstantial evidence to the inventories. There was, admittedly, a great deal of opportunity for dishonesty, but the Court did provide the machinery to investigate cases if anyone concerned, or the authorities, thought it appropriate to ask questions.

5. The role of the appraisers

The appraisers who drew up the inventories usually numbered between two and four. Their possible influence on inventories could be conscious or unconscious. They would know heirs and potential purchasers who were watching their valuations. They had various connections with the deceased, the Parliamentary Act 21 Henry 8 cap.5 laying down that the inventory makers should be Two at the least, to whom the said Person so dying was indebted, or made any Legacy, and upon their Refusal or Absence, Two other honest Persons, being next of kin to the Person so dying, and in their Default and Absence Two other honest Persons'. If the appraisers describe themselves at all, they refer to their role as that of 'indifferent men', a phrase which means that they are unbiased; John Sidgwick's inventory in 1690 was made by 'five honest neighbours'. Appraisers might also be people who shared a particular interest with the deceased. This can show up in several ways. The 1676 inventory of William Albon, for example, listed his animals in detail, but subsumes all his farm working gear under one figure and all his furniture and house contents were another one figure;12 animal husbandry was these appraisers' interest. Equally, if the appraisers list workshop contents, or merchandise, in detail, one can suppose that they were business colleagues with appropriate specialist knowledge. Valuations of the goods at various stages of manufacture, of shares of different ships, and the minutely listed stock of drugs, again show colleagues as appraisers. Sometimes, of course, the appraisers give their own occupations in the inventory's heading.
How appraisers were actually chosen is not clear. Probably the family of the deceased chose them but the Court might take responsibility for nominations in awkward cases. A clear example of such an intervention is provided by Clement Colmore, the Bishop's Vicar General and Official for probate business, who sent out a commission, dated 15 November 1617, to remake an inadequate inventory for Thomas Greenwell of Wolsingham. He sent this commission to four named local yeomen, saying he had been informed that the goods were apprized at a lower rate than they were worth and thus much undervalued. The four were to make another inventory promptly, giving Michael Greenwell, the deceased's son, the chance to be present if he wished. That this was an unusual proceeding is shown by the number of deletions and rephrasings on the commission sent out which the four returned with the new inventory, dated 20 November 1617. As this inventory was specially commissioned it may be taken as a model of an ideal listing but the debts section is still unclear, with several challenges which the appraisers prudently refer to the frustrated Colmore 'for his consideration'. Perhaps Colmore was supplied with these appraisers' names by his colleague, the Bishop's Steward, who held the Bishop's Halmote Courts for Wolsingham and other places, and would know the local society. The network of lawyers and administrators in Durham would have, somewhere, detailed knowledge of many localities and personalities. A variety of appraisers, perhaps suggested by several authorities, aimed to iron out bias or prejudice, conscious or otherwise.13
To appoint only one appraiser was rare, though this does occur when there is only a single asset involved, such as a cash bond, or something supplementary to an earlier inventory. In the more usual cases of multiple appraisers, probably each appraiser knew more than the others about the value of different parts of the estate, the furniture, crop and stock, or trade goods. This clearly emerges when complicated inventories betray evidence of different sectional responsibility, but usually the inventories are presented as the joint work of the appraisers. A particularly explicit example of such specialised knowledge emerges in the 1629 case of John Wiske of Durham aged 37, who records that he, 'amongst others was intreated to apprice Certaine Drugges remaininge in Certaine boxes within the house or shopp of ... Katheran Bartlett after her death ... which they did value to the somme of 27s or thereabouts, but saith he helped to price no other or more of the said goods'. He does not say who entreated him, but it sounds like an unofficial request.14
Sometimes the appraisers could misjudge the market, as they did in 1637 with Nicholas Lambton. His inventory (not surviving) was for about 25, but the goods fetched about 42. The price of everyday goods would be relatively predictable, but unusual items and luxury goods would depend on the presence of particular potential purchasers. The difficulties of appraisers were legion. It was a little late in the day when Alice Thompson's inventory was made in 1711 as her possessions were already on sale in the Groat Market in Newcastle - whilst some of the goods of George Henderson had been carried off feloniously in l664.15
Usually at least one of the appraisers could write his own name, rather than making his mark, and thus could probably be capable of checking that the valuations made verbally were indeed the same as those written down. The handwriting of the inventory is not, however, always the same as that of one of the appraisers, because a professional scrivener could sometimes be used; the inventories in 1691 of Thomas Shippard, Elizabeth Suggett and Dorothy Swaddell, all of Newcastle upon Tyne, were, for example, written out by the same person.16 As a result of this variety of scribes, styles of presenting the inventories vary in their groupings and layout.


10 DPR, 1716, Robert Spain, will with account.
DPR, 1623, John Finch, inventory with account.
DPR, 1646, Robert and Jane Thompson, account.
11 DPR, 1605, Hugh Hopper, will.
DPR, 1623, Hugh Hopper, account, inventories, etc.
DPR, 1624, Hugh Hopper, account and debt list and DPR Probate Act Book 12, 1623-4, many refs.
12 DPR, 1690, John Sidwick, will, inventory and bond 165.
DPR, 1676, William Albon, inventory and bond 141.
13 DPR. 1617, Thomas Greenwell, will, inventory and commission
14 Durham Diocesan Records (DDR) Deposition Book V.12, f.122, 1629.
15 DPR, 1637, Nicholas Lambton, account of administration and bond 196.
DPR, 1711, Alice Thompson, inventory and bond 103.
DPR, 1664, George Henderson, will, inventory and bonds 138 & 218.
16 DPR, 1691, Thomas Shippard, will, inventory and bonds 88 & 89.
DPR, 1691, Elizabeth Suggett, inventory and bonds 70 & 71.
DPR, 1691, Dorothy Swaddell, will, inventory and bond 200.
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