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Geoffrey Copus Local History Researches of Chelsfield etc

With some justification, local historians may often be accused of being excessively territorial about the parishes in which they are interested, and I must admit to having had a rather possessive attitude towards Chelsfield. As I get older, however, I begin to think that it would be pity if the fruits of my researches on the parish (which I began in 1947) should not be recorded for posterity. It seems to me that the best way of making a permanent record is to put my transcripts onto the Kent Archaeological Society's Website, for them to be readily available at the touch of a button to any interested person throughout the world.

   Wills have always been a great interest of mine, and the list of I have produced consists of my abstracts of all wills proved in the PCC (the Prerogative Court of Canterbury) in which the testators describe themselves as being "of Chelsfield". It is only quite recently that the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) has published on its website detailed indexes of wills in the whole period 1383-1858, which may be searched for under surnames or parishes. Under Chelsfield 115 wills are listed and I subsequently found four more which had somehow been omitted, in the pre-1700 period.

   The testators range widely across the social scene. At the top end are Lords of the Manor, wealthy 18th and 19th century Rectors and well-off landowners, while at the other extreme are wills of farm labourers. The longest will is that of the hard-headed John Fuller of Woodlands, whose estate in Chelsfield had been built up during his minority by his mother, and who continued to buy up many small farms in the parish during and after the Napoleonic Wars. His will proved in 1820 took a very long time to abstract, since in it he lists all his landed property in great detail, with field names and acreages, and the names of the tenants. Even in abstract the will runs to 11 pages, and it forms a valuable link between the Parish Survey of 1798 (now in Bromley Local Studies Library) and the Tithe Award Schedule & Map of 1838.

   Among the wills of lesser inhabitants, it was only in completing the list for the website that I abstracted the will of Mary Sales. I thought the name sounded familiar, and found that indeed she figures on the tomb of the Crawfords of the Court Lodge, in Chelsfield churchyard - "Mary Sales, of this village, for upwards of 40 years the faithful and devoted servant of Elizabeth Crawford and her family."  Touchingly, in her will proved in 1852 Mary left £12 stock each to six of her former charges - the spinster daughters of the family, who by then had had to sell up and leave the parish, and were in somewhat reduced circumstances.

   The value of wills to family historians is of course enormous, and a complex network of relationships in the parish shows up well in the many wills of yeomen and small farmers. Perhaps the most useful wills from this point of view are those of moderately well-off, childless people, who often leave small bequests to a great many servants, friends and distant relations. It is clear too who were the most respected inhabitants of the parish, from the number of times their names appear as Executors and Trustees, while the Rev. George Smith, Rector from 1576 to 1626, witnessed and in some cases himself wrote out many wills made on the testators’ deathbeds.
Geoffrey Copus November 2005.

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