Where are the records? Custody of Durham probate records

The pre-1858 Durham diocesan probate records (ref: DPRI) are deposited at Durham University Library, in its Archives and Special Collections at Palace Green Library. The original records are accessible in the search room at Palace Green Library. Readers wishing to visit the search room are advised to check the opening hours on the Archives and Special Collections website. Of course, the completion of the NEI project in 2009 with the online publication of images of the probate documents should significantly reduce the necessity for researchers to consult the original documents.

January 1833 saw the establishment of Durham University Library on the Palace Green site, which stands between the Cathedral and the Castle, with a foundation collection of 160 volumes donated by William Van Mildert, the last Prince Bishop of Durham and the founder of the University itself. In order to house the original stock of the University Library, William Van Mildert had a gallery constructed in 1834 within Cosin's Library, which had first been founded in 1669 as the Episcopal Library by Bishop John Cosin (1595-1672) on Palace Green.

Durham University Library has recently won new accolades for its outstanding work in looking after the nation's heritage. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) extended its museums Designation Scheme to libraries and archives during 2005, and Durham University holds the first designated library and archive collections in the North East. Durham University Library won one of the two top ICON Conservation Awards 2007, known as the Oscars of the conservation world, for a groundbreaking initiative by our conservation team to roll out expertise and training to small museums and libraries all over the North East.

Probate jurisdiction in the diocese of Durham and the custody of the probate records were historically the responsibility of the bishop of Durham and his officials, the spiritual chancellor of the diocese and the diocesan register or registrar, with the latter having particular responsibility for the safe-keeping of the records. The repository for probate records used to occupy one arch of the north side of the Galilee chapel in the Cathedral. This chapel was also the usual location of the bishop's consistory court (whose business included the administration of probate jurisdiction in the diocese) from at least the Reformation until 1796, when the court was moved to the 'North Aile of the Middle Transept' (DDR/EJ/CCG/2/2, p.72) of the Cathedral. The probate registry was enlarged in 1770 and extended to take in the whole north side of the Galilee in order to house both the wills and related documents and offices for the deputy registrar and his clerk. A new registry designed to accommodate both the diocesan and the probate records was built on Palace Green in ca 1820/21. This registry building is now partly incorporated in the Palace Green Library. Between 1653 and 1660 jurisdiction over probate matters and custody of probate records briefly became the responsibility of the Court of Civil Commission in London. During this period probate transactions were substantially reduced. The church courts were re-established with the monarchy in 1660, and probate jurisdiction and custody of the probate records returned to the bishop, in whose registrar's archive these records remained until the establishment of the Civil District Probate Registries on 11 January 1858. At this point jurisdiction and custody of the records were transferred to the registrar of the civil Durham Court of Probate at 49 North Bailey in Durham City. The Durham Probate Registry was closed in 1969 but the probate records ultimately remain in the custody of the national Principal Probate Registrar.

Physical custody of the records themselves had in fact been transferred from the Durham District Probate Registry to Durham University in 1958 so that the records could once again resume their place alongside the Durham Diocesan Records series, to which many of them are interrelated. (The Durham Diocesan Records have been deposited with the University in stages from ca 1948 onwards.) In 1958 the probate collections were deposited with the University's Department of Palaeography and Diplomatic, which in 1990 became part of the Archives and Special Collections Department of the University Library. Since 1958 the probate records have been stored at various University locations in Durham. In 1997 they were moved to their present home in the Palace Green Library.