Tuesday 9 June 2020

‘Where there’s a will’: Charles Dickens and York’s Church Court Records

By John-Francis Goodacre, Archives Trainee

On the 12th of October 1850, an exposé reprinted in the York Herald sparked a small controversy in the city. Criticising the way that York’s ecclesiastical records were kept, the article generated a flurry of accusations and denials in the city’s newspaper over the subsequent weeks. However, no attempts were made to draw the author into this dispute, perhaps as the piece had appeared without direct attribution. We now know that the article, which was the second in a series of four under the title ‘The Doom of English Wills’, was written by the 38-year-old Charles Dickens and had first appeared in his weekly journal Household Words. But what made Dickens, one of Victorian England’s best-loved authors, so interested in the storage of historical records - the same records that are now housed at the Borthwick?

As the Borthwick’s current Graduate Trainee, a large part of my time has been spent providing access to the centuries of wills and probate records in the York Diocesan Archive. I was fascinated to learn that Dickens wrote about the very pieces of paper and parchment that I have been handling day to day. The tightly rolled documents, often covered with a layer of smoky residue that obstinately coats the fingers, sometimes feel like they belong to a Dickensian world of candlelit intrigue.

Rolled probate bundles from the York Diocesan Archive

Katharine Longley has already written a fantastic account of all four ‘Doom of English Wills’ articles and their place in record-keeping history in the Journal of the Society of Archivists. However, this left me curious about how they fitted into Dickens’ career as a writer. I am fascinated by the way Dickens brought his skills as a novelist to the investigation of York’s historical records, while exploring issues that would play a central role in his novels of the early 1850s.

The Doom of English Wills

The article that appeared in the Herald (subtitled 'Cathedral Number Two’) was the second in a series of journalistic investigations into the keeping of England’s historic records. A young lawyer and antiquary named William Downing Bruce had made expeditions to four of England’s great ecclesiastical registries (the church archives of the time), and Dickens, together with his assistant editor William Henry Wills, turned Bruce’s experiences into articles for his newly-established magazine Household Words.

Charles Dickens in 1850 (Wikimedia Commons)

Dickens gives Bruce the pseudonym ‘Mr William Wallace’, and narrates his experience in York. Wallace goes in search of the registry, where he wishes to look at some documents for the purposes of historical research. When he finally finds the registry, a shed sticking to the outside of the Minster ‘like a dirty little pimple’, his research is thwarted by its obstructive management. The Deputy Registrar questions Wallace’s motives, refuses to let him see any wills from after the year 1500, and repeatedly claims that the records he wants to see have been lost or stolen. After a week of apparently fruitless struggle, Wallace is forced to ‘beat a dignified retreat’.

Corruption and reform

Until 1858, the Church of England had jurisdiction over matters of probate in England and Wales. This meant that a small number of civil law courts had the (often lucrative) job of approving wills and giving grants of administration if a testator had died intestate - that is, without leaving a will.

Dickens was already familiar with the technicalities of these legal processes. After leaving school, he had worked for a year as a junior clerk in a law office, and spent a subsequent four years as a freelance legal reporter at Doctors’ Commons, the London Inn of Court for civil lawyers which played host to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. Doctors’ Commons and its record office even appeared in one of Dickens’s first forays into legal satire, an episode of his Sketches by Boz which appeared in the Morning Chronicle in October 1836.

The registries that housed the wills and other records created by the courts had an important function. The documents could be vital evidence in settling inheritance disputes, not to mention being rich historical sources. Public access was thus a serious matter. Yet despite parliamentary debates and inquiries throughout the 1830s and 40s, and the passing of the Public Record Office Act in 1838, the conditions of storage and ease of access to such documents was haphazard. Additionally, it was suspected that some registries were charging extortionate fees for their own gain.

In his novels of the 1850s, Dickens turned his attention to antiquated institutions that in his view were keeping England stuck in a morass of corruption and bureaucracy. David Copperfield, which was reaching the end of its monthly serialisation when ‘The Doom of English Wills’ appeared, gave him an initial chance to satirise the apparent corruption of the registries. David, who is apprenticed to a proctor (the civil law version of a solicitor), gets to observe the registry where the wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are stored. He remarks that the office is 'rather a queerly managed institution', where registrars with 'magnificent sinecures' store the public’s wills haphazardly, ‘having no object but to get rid of them cheaply'. 

Wallace’s misadventures in York take us deeper into these charges of corruption. With characteristic irony, Dickens claims that the registry generates ‘about ten thousand a year for the Registrar who does nothing, and the like amount for his Deputy who helps him.’ Dickens also intersperses the narrative with anecdotal accounts of York’s records being sold as waste paper or being used as a private source of income by the registry’s clerks. 

While ‘The Doom of English Wills’ portrays the immediate consequences of inadequate storage for records, Dickens would depict the wider repercussions in his next novel. Bleak House, published serially between 1852 and 1853, presents a dysfunctional society whose problems can be traced back to legal corruption and poor record-keeping. The novel’s central characters are all ensnared in the web of a legal case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, that has been going on for years and has become ‘so complicated that no man alive knows what it means’. The impasse stems from the multiple conflicting wills left by a testator. 

Dickens leads us to believe that the crucial will, which will allow the case to be resolved, is in a rag and bottle shop in the shadow of Lincoln’s Inn, filled with 'heaps of old crackled parchment scroll, and discoloured and dog’s-eared law-papers'. The shop is presided over by a grotesque and illiterate alcoholic named Krook who obsessively hoards documents that he has no means of understanding. To drive the point home, Krook is known by his neighbours as the 'Lord Chancellor' and shop as 'Court of Chancery'. This is Dickens’s nightmarish vision of a dysfunctional record office taken to its extreme - a place of filth and disorder where nothing can be found and documents lose their meaning.

Smoke and fire

When he first steps into the registry, Wallace finds himself in a ‘confined den’ with a ‘pestilent little chimney in it, filling it with smoke like a Lapland hut'. This first impression, its outlandish imagery contrasting starkly with the descriptions of York’s opulent mansions, primes us for the article’s other serious criticism of the registry - that the documents were at risk of smoke and fire. Despite the specific complaints made by an 1832 Ecclesiastical Commission, Wallace finds that the registry has done nothing to fire-proof itself. Reflecting on the prospect of spending a week there, he remarks that he ‘did not enjoy the notion of being smoke-dried; and of returning to the Middle Temple a sort of animated ham.'

Dickens was well aware of the danger that fire posed to historical records. He had been working as a journalist in London in 1834 when Parliament was consumed by fire, destroying centuries of procedural records for the House of Commons. It is quite possible he saw the blaze with his own eyes. Major fires at York Minster in 1829 and 1840, in which York’s records were rescued by local bystanders, are unlikely to have escaped his notice.

The Palace of Westminster on Fire, 1834, unknown artist (Art in Parliament)

Speaking about the burning of Parliament in an address to the Administrative Reform Society in 1855, Dickens dwelt on the irony that the fire was itself a product of poor record-keeping practice. The blaze had started when two cartloads of tally sticks - small notched pieces of wood used as tax receipts since the twelfth century - were used as fuel in a heating furnace designed to burn coal. Dickens mocked both what he saw as the ‘obstinate adherence to an obsolete custom’ well into the nineteenth century, and the perverse decision to incinerate them rather than distribute them to locals in need of fuel.

Yet for Dickens, the cause of Parliament’s incineration had a metaphorical significance that surpassed mere fire safety. The moral he drew was that ‘all obstinate adherence to rubbish which the time has long outlived [...] will some day set fire to something or other’. In other words, the failure to reform England’s stagnant institutions and outdated systems would lead to disaster. 

This image of a corrupt system consuming itself in flames is one that Dickens used to great effect in Bleak House. Krook, the ‘Lord Chancellor’ of the rag and bottle shop who parodically embodies the ills of Chancery, apparently dies of spontaneous combustion ‘engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself’. Smoke too, together with the thick London fog, is one of the abiding images of the novel, evoking the confusion and opacity that shrouds the lives of its characters. 

Krook’s smouldering remains, illustrated by Hablot Knight (Flickr Commons)

Humour and humanity

Finally, it is worth acknowledging quite how funny ‘The Doom of English Wills’ is. Dickens takes what could be a dry subject - the appropriate storage of historical documents - and makes it engaging, satirising corruption and using narrative intrigue and memorable characters to humanise the issue.

There is of course a real person behind the mask of ‘Mr William Wallace’, but Dickens takes advantage of the pseudonym to craft a likeable novelistic protagonist in the vein of David Copperfield. Rather than depicting Wallace as a hard-headed investigative journalist out to expose corruption, Dickens endows him with a naive optimism about the state of York’s ecclesiastical records. After listing the historical distinctions that make York the second city of England, Wallace exclaims 'this is surely the place for an unimpeachable Registry!'. 

We know from the start that Wallace isn’t going to find the flawless institution he is dreaming of, so his search among all of York’s grand buildings takes on a comic futility, and all of his efforts lead up to one big punchline. Unable to find his way to the registry, Wallace reflects that 'there must surely be a flaw in the old adage, and that where there was a will (and a great many wills) there was no way at all'. Having finally located the registry and started the arduous task of finding the information he needs, Wallace takes on the quixotic role of a ‘kind of knight-errant in the matter of rescuing ancient documents from their tombs of filth’.

The other ‘characters’ in the article seem to have stepped out from the pages of a novel: from the ‘farmer-looking man’ with the comedy Yorkshire accent who finally points Wallace to the registry, to the officious Deputy Registrar who laughs incredulously at the idea that Wallace might actually want to see the documents himself. (Dickens describes this reaction in a way that recalls the disbelief of Mr Bumble when Oliver Twist asks for more gruel.)

While Dickens is writing reportage here, describing people and events that have a basis in reality, his persuasive techniques are quite comparable to the ones he uses in his fiction. He could have advocated for reform using argumentative and factual prose (as William Downing Bruce would go on to do). Instead he uses characterisation and narrative to highlight the injustices of the situation. In the words of social historian David Vincent, 'Dickens’s fundamental claim [is] that contemporary abuses are best understood and communicated by means of an intense imaginative engagement with individual lives'. 

Dickens’s articles, along with the sustained campaigning of Bruce and certain sympathetic politicians, did help bring about reform. Efforts were made to improve the storage conditions in York’s registry, and in 1858 the entire probate system was reformed, transferring jurisdiction from the church courts to a new centralised Court of Probate with specific registries for the new records. 170 years on since the publication of ‘The Doom of English Wills’ (and 150 years to the day since Dickens’ death), the records are now kept safely in the Borthwick strongroom - but the persistent layer of smoky residue on some of the wills reminds us of this chapter in their long history.


Dickens, Charles, Bleak House (London: Penguin, 2003).

Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield (London: Penguin, 1996).

Dickens, Charles, Sketches by Boz (London: Penguin, 2006).

Dickens, Charles, Speeches Literary and Social (London: Chatto and Windus, 1880).

Dickens, Charles, and William Henry Wills, ‘The Doom of English Wills: Cathedral Number Two’, Household Words, vol 2, pp. 25-28.

Longley, Katharine M, ‘Charles Dickens and the “Doom” of English Wills’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, 14.1 (1993), 25-38.

Vincent, David, ‘Social Reform’, in John Jordan, Robert L. Patten, and Catherine Waters, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 420–435.

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