We genealogists love wills, especially ones that spell out family relationships. Wills written close to the date of death can be more accurate in describing then-living relatives, though sometimes the absence of someone who should be mentioned but isn’t will tell us a lot as well. But the will is a single document and it’s not infallible. It usually doesn’t describe the circumstances around the inheritance(s) laid out in the will, though of course it can.
Elizabeth Deeks Webb Flanders died at Witcham House in Witcham, Cambridgeshire, England, on 20 April 1921. Her husband William Flanders died fourteen years before, leaving her a widow with five adult children, two of whom had moved to New York City in the 1880’s. William had been a wealthy farmer and horse breeder and his estate in 1907 was valued at £3,815 which would have the same buying power as $509,596 today.
Elizabeth’s will was dated 2 August 1911 and remained unchanged until it was probated 22 September 1921. But a lot happened between those two dates, the biggest of which was the First World War; their home was used as an army hospital and lands were sold off. There were family changes, too: one of William and Elizabeth’s sons died in 1912 and another son separated from his wife in a nasty split. “Times here are wretched,” said oldest son Harry.
How do I know this? Because Harry wrote a letter to his brother William (my great-grandfather) sending a handwritten copy of Elizabeth’s will and explaining why “Willie” had gotten so very little. It was full of details about the family situation and why “mother” had made the decisions she did – and then how Harry was trying to honor those provisions in light of the changed circumstances.
The will is wonderful to have and it does indeed detail family relationships. But in this case, the letter that came with it is even better.