Devon (England) Wills Project and Reasonable Exhaustive Research

I was unsure which forum to post this in, but I have decided here is a good start.

My post is mainly about Reasonable Exhaustive Research and local Family History Societies.

I am not a professional genealogist, but I do try to follow Genealogy Standards so that the history of my ancestors and those of my husband, can be presented in an honest way and accompanied by full reference notes that will hopefully be understood, by future generations. I prefer to find and learn information from primary sources, many of which are not published but where images can be purchased through various archives.

I generally follow the examples of Elizabeth Shown Mills, my citation guru, and the author of EE, who runs this website. 

One of my husband's ancestors, Francis Cowlen (aka Cowling/Cowlin/Cowlan amongst others), died at Sampford Peverell in Devon (England) in 1758. I had found out from the Devons Wills Project records that he did have a will, but unfortunately, it was one of those wills that did not survive the air-raid on Exeter in 1942.

Like the Dublin Four Courts issue in Ireland in 1922 where many (a lot) of the records were destroyed, the air raid on Exeter (Devon) in 1942 was a similar occurrence. But it was just another of those tragedies that genealogists sometimes have to accept were unfortunate episodes in the past, that happened, and need to try and move forward and investigate what other records survived.

In this instance, I have been doing a lot more research on what local Family History Societies exist in the area, that may be able to offer assistance. I have also been researching Devon tax records @ FamilySearch.

BUT, the main reason for this post is a good story and spruiks the reason to look at and support local Family History Societies in your area/location of interest. Many are non-profits and rely on subscription memberships.

Although the Devon (England) Wills Project, shows that there is no surviving will for Francis Cowlen, I now know that there is one, somewhere, because there is a copy of it that someone transcribed and put up on the Sampford Peverell Society website. It is not cited :-(  But a good thing is, the legatees in the will, reconfirms my research of this Francis and his children.

Lastly, there appears to be no record of this will on the Devon Heritage Centre (Archives) catalogue. But it must be there, uncatalogued amongst the many family estate records that they hold. I will be seeking a copy of the original.

Always live in hope.


Submitted byEEon Thu, 02/10/2022 - 08:24

Robyn, what a message of hope you offer to many.  You are also wise to pursue this in the resources held by the Devon Heritage Centre, given the number of instances in which well-meaning and/or determined people have created records to fill voids, weaving together what "they know" must have been. It would also be interesting to compare the language of this online "transcript" with other surviving wills of that era, region, and class.

All this is another reason why the very first criteria of the Genealogical Proof Standard is "reasonably exhaustive research."  It enables us to find what we might have thought did not exist; and it enables us to test the validity of what we do find that we'd like to believe is Gospel Truth.

And, oh yeah, thanks for the nice words!


Submitted byRobynRon Thu, 02/10/2022 - 14:03

I emailed the society yesterday, to see if they had a source for the will.

I am so excited because they replied and said:

"I then forwarded it to [name redacted] in our society.  Anyway thank you very much for your words of thanks.  Yes we found the will at the DHC. [name redacted] has a lot more information on the Cowlings.  He is still working on them because he lives in an old house in the village which was once an inn (the White Hart) and was converted by a Cowling in the 18th century into a house." 

I had already started to research this inn, the White Hart. And to think it still survives and someone lives in it, is amazing. And I now know the will is in existence, at the Devon Archives.