History of probate
Before 1858 the Established Church (the Church of Ireland), through the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of Armagh and the consistorial courts in each diocese, was responsible for granting probate and letters of administration. This was swept away in 1857 by the Court of Probate and Letters of Administration Act (Ireland) when probate matters were transferred from the ecclesiastical courts to the civil courts. The Prerogative Court and the consistorial courts were replaced by the Principal Registry in Dublin and a number of District Registries of the Probate Court (before 1877) and of the High Court (after 1877). You could apply for a grant of probate or letters of administration at the Principal Probate Registry in all cases but application could also be made at a District Registry within whose area the deceased had a fixed place of residence.
The District Registries covering what is now Northern Ireland were those for Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry. From 1858 to 1921 (when it was abolished) the Armagh Registry covered testators living in Cos Armagh, Fermanagh, Louth, Monaghan and Tyrone except for the baronies of Strabane and Omagh in Co. Tyrone. Belfast District Registry from 1858-1921 covered Cos Antrim and Down while the Londonderry District Registry covered for the same period covered Cos Donegal, Londonderry and the baronies of Strabane and Omagh in Co Tyrone.
Unfortunately the original wills of the Principal Registry up to 1904 and of the District Registries up to 1899 were lost in 1922 when the Public Record Office of Ireland in Dublin was destroyed. However, the copies of wills that were made by the District Registries survived as they had not been transferred to the Public Record Office in Dublin. These copies of wills were written into large volumes – those for the District Registries of Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry are held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. They are currently being digitised.
Page from the Londonderry copy will book - will of Thomas Handcock, Lower Craig, Co Londonderry, gentleman, who died on 23 March 1857, and whose will was proved in Londonderry District Probate Registry. From this will we know that Thomas had 2 brothers -John and Samuel, 3 nephews -William Handcock of Craig, Daniel Handcock who was a merchant Londonderry City, and Thomas Gamble, and 6 nieces – Sarah Routledge otherwise Gamble, Sarah Handcock, Jane Ann Handcock, Sally Handcock, Mary Gamble otherwise Handcock, and Ann Gamble. Therefore the Handcocks were connected to the Routledge and Gamble families.
From 1858 when wills began to be proved in the High Court of Justice summaries of every grant of probate and letters of administration were kept in printed volumes known as will calendars.
An alphabetical list of names of the deceased were produced for each year recording their address and occupation, often the place of death, the date of death and the date of the grant of probate or letters of administration, the District Registry where the will was proved, the value of the estate, and the names of the person or persons to whom probate or administration was granted and very often the relation of the latter to the deceased.