Records 'missing' from new version of government Find a Will website

The new version of the government’s probate records website has been strongly criticised by users

Published: February 10, 2022 at 10:23 am
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The new version of Find a Will, the government’s website for ordering English and Welsh probate records, has been criticised by users who have been unable to find records using the search function, including those of the Victorian prime minister William Ewart Gladstone and author Charles Dickens.

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UPDATE: We have now discovered that the issue is with the search engine not picking up names. If you cannot find someone using a standard search, then search using a wildcard asterisk for the second half of the name. So, for example, Glad* and Dick* will find Gladstone and Dickens although the pages of results are, unhelpfully, not in alphabetical order and you may have many pages to search through.

Find a Will, also known as Probate Search, allows family historians to purchase copies of probate records from 1858, when the present system of civil probate was introduced, for £1.50 each.

Between 24 January and 8 February the website was down, with an error message saying it was “under maintenance”. The date when it was due to be restored was repeatedly changed.

On 8 February the website was restored, with a different design.

For example, the homepage previously offered the option to search for records from 1858 to 1996, records from 1996 to the present, or soldiers’ wills.

However, it now simply asks users to enter the individual’s surname and date of death and say whether they were a soldier who died while serving.

The old Find a Will homepage
The old Find a Will homepage
The new Find a Will homepage
The new Find a Will homepage

On social media, family historians with pre-existing accounts on the website complained that the new version of the website rejected their password and required them to set up a new one. They also found that probate records they’d previously purchased were not available to view, and that records they knew existed could not be found using the website’s search function.

On Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine’s Facebook page, Alison Forrest commented: “I can sign in (after changing the password) but the will I should have had available is nowhere to be seen - very frustrating.”

Clare Abbott from Oxford contacted us to say: "I ordered a will on Jan 23rd and have not had it yet. But worse, it says my email is not a valid email. It is. I can't get beyond this, either to order another will or ask about the one I've paid for."

Teresa Goatham noted, "The system insists on something in the folio number field, despite the 'help' saying otherwise. Someone else realised you could just enter a space and it worked but I never received an order confirmation message as I had for previous orders, so I don't know if the order has entered the system properly."

Simon Golding said: “The site is back up... but you can't login, password reset doesn't work, and a search (even for a will I know exists, because I've got a copy) turns up no results.”

To discover how many records were missing, Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine compared the lists of wills now available on Find a Will with the Probate Calendars available on Ancestry.

Probate Calendars were produced annually and listed all those who left a will, or who died intestate but with an estate that had to be administered, in alphabetical order.

Comparing random years and letters showed that pages of records were missing, suggesting that large numbers of records now cannot be found on Find a Will.

These included a number of famous individuals including the author Charles Dickens and prime minister William Ewart Gladstone. Searches for other individuals on those pages as well as neighbouring pages suggest that hundreds of records are 'missing' from the current website.

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This 1870 page of the Probate Calendar, including the will of famous writer Charles Dickens, is not available on Find a Will
This 1870 page of the Probate Calendar, including the will of famous writer Charles Dickens, is not available on Find a Will

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine editor Sarah Williams said, "When I found the will for the celebrated author Charles Dickens was no longer coming up in search results I was shocked. Checking against the probate calendar on Ancestry I found that as many as 143 pages from 1870 covering entries from Daley to Dixon are failing to appear in search results. Spot checks on other names have also found significant gaps, although results are coming up for some names on a page, for example Crook in 1916, but not other names on that page such as Cronshaw. I have no idea if whole pages of records are missing or whether the search facility is not picking them up, but this service is clearly not doing what it should be doing and I hope it is quickly fixed.”

After later finding a workaround solution to the missing names using asterisks to replace letters (see update above), Sarah Williams added, "Although we have now found the records are there, the fact that they are hidden and can only be found using wildcards is clearly unacceptable".

UPDATE 11 FEBRUARY: A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We have resolved the technical issues impacting some users and the time limit for accessing paid-for wills has been extended by 14 days.”

The Ministry of Justice did not comment on the issues with searching for the records.

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Rosemary Collins is the features editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine

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