by Shane Badham

Old Wills, Marriage Licences, and other legal documents may be written in Court Hand. My G-G-Grandfather’s Will was so written. I tried to find a guide, but the guides I found were for Secretary Hand1 and from the period 1550 to 16502, both even earlier scripts.

I had great difficulty deciphering the characters, Having translated James’ Will, I decided to document the form of each character.

I have not managed to find all the capital letters, but the majority are shown below.

A   J   S
B   K   T
C   L   U
D   M   V
E   N   W
F   O     X
G   P   Y
H     Q     Z
I   R      

Note the differences between the letters “C”, “E”, and “G”. Often the line in the middle of the “C” is run into the following lower case letter. This can also happen with “O”, as shown, otherwise there may be a dot in the centre of the letter “O”. You can also see the continuation line following the letters “S” and “T”.

Another problem is that copies of the document may have missing strokes in the letters, making it more difficult to identify them.

A set of lower case letters is shown below.

a   j   s
b   k   t
c   l   u
d   m   v
e   n   w
f   o   x
g   p   y
h   q   z
i   r      

I have chosen the best letters I can find in text for the above table. Most of the letters are obvious, but I would draw your attention to the following ones.

The lower case letter “c’ is really like a modern lower case letter “r”. I think that this is the most confusing letter of all. The letter “e”, as shown it is not too bad, but sometimes it looks more like a letter “o”. This depends on the join with the preceding and following letters as to how it is written. This, of course, applies to all the letters. The letter “k” is a bit odd, but the other occurrences of the letter are much the same.

The letters “m”, “n” and “u” are confusing as you might expect. You will find that it is necessary to consider the word in its context to decipher it.

Do remember that the letters “o” and “e” can look the same and the letter “s” can look like an “o” as well. 

The letter “r” is similar to the Victorian script, but may be different depending on the join with adjacent letters.

The letter “t” is small and may not be crossed. The letter “z”  may sometimes have a tail.

Much depends on the quality of the copy you get from the Court of Probate. The copy will be a laser print from microfiche. My copy was decipherable after much work, but I found that many of the letter strokes were incomplete.

To give you some idea of what you might gain from a Will, I attach the first part of my G-G-Grandfather’s Will with my translation. Following this is another passage from the same Will, which gives the married names of his three surviving daughters and the names of their husbands. I will leave the translation of this to you as an exercise!

Good luck!

NOTE that there are "filler characters" (usually "x") at the ends of some of the lines in the original text. These are to prevent fraudulent insertions. I have not shown these in the  transcript above.