Wills and probate

Alfred Darling, the Hove-based film engineer (including Bioscope manufacturer) who left £25,871 in his will when he died in 1931 – approximately £864,608 in today’s money

Was it worth it being a film pioneer? It’s a valid question, because too often the film histories (and the memoirs) can make us think that people helped form the motion picture business for the most romantic of reasons, making their mark on film history. But of course the chief reason they got involved at all was to make money. But did they? We know about the magnates and the handful of stars who found riches, but what about everyone else? Was it really worth it, or might they have been a lot better off not being so starry-eyed about things and working in a bank instead?

We can find some answers, for Britain at least, with the release online of the latest collection of family history records published by the genealogy site Ancestry. This time it is wills – to be precise, England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1861-1941. Here we can see those members of the film business who died before 1941 and who left a will (not all did, of course), and through such records see what effects they left (and to whom) once probate had been granted.

The physical version of the National Probate Calendar is to be found in the Probate Search Room, First Avenue House, 42-49 High Holborn, London, and I can vouch for its great value as a film history research tool. It was through the 1937 will of producer Charles Urban’s second wife Ada Aline (a film executive in her own right) that I found out information about relatives which led me to a living descendant who was holding on to the manuscript of Urban’s unpublished memoirs. The registers themselves do not give such detailed information. They simply give name, address, date of death, where and to whom probate was granted, and the effects i.e. the money they left in their will. To see the full will you need to order it through the Probate Service (information on how to do so is given by Ancestry), but the registers are an excellent starting point.

The Ancestry service is not free, but I have championed the value of online family history resources for film history research before now, and I can’t stress enough how useful such resources are when it comes to researching lives. So, to give you a taster of what you could find, here are some British film pioneers and what they left behind them (in pounds, shillings and pence):

  • Avery, Jack (camera operator, producer) (d. 1927) – £254-7s-4d
  • Brown, Theodore (inventor) (d. 1938) – £311
  • Darling, Alfred (engineer) (d. 1931) – £25,871-18s-6d
  • Day, Will (dealer in film equipment, historian) (d. 1936) – £1,584
  • Haggar, William (producer) (d. 1925) – £16,690-4s-9d (resworn as £16,912-13s-5d)
  • Kearton, Cherry (wildlife filmmaker, producer) (d. 1940) – £1,178-3s-6d
  • Mottershaw, Frank (producer) (d. 1932) – £2,007-11s-7d
  • Pyke, Montague (cinema owner) (d. 1935) – £1
  • Urban, Ada Aline (executive) (d. 1937) – £7,413-18s-4d
  • Williamson, James (producer, chemist) (d. 1933) – £15,046-13s-10d

To calculate what those amounts approximate in today’s money, use The National Archives’ Currency Converter – roughly multiply the figures by between 30 and 35 to get a modern day equivalent.

On the small sample above, it looks like you were a whole lot better off having a film engineering firm than being an inventor, while being a ruined cinema magnate was worst of all. Of course some will have made (or lost) their money on other ventures. Also those who died before 1942 tend to be on the technical side of things – the actors and filmmakers of the 1910s and 20s were still alive in the 1940s.

Anyway, it’s a very welcome resource, and even if you don’t subscribe to Ancestry you can still search for names on the database – you just won’t be able to see the digitised documents. Or make a visit to First Avenue House, where of course you can find indexes and wills post-1941 as well.