How to look for records of... Civil court cases: Chancery equity suits 1558-1875
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1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you to find and understand records of the Court of Chancery, which heard civil cases, referred to as equity suits, from 1558 until the dissolution of the court in 1875 (when it was replaced by the Chancery Division of the Supreme Court of Judicature).
These records are among the great treasures of The National Archives, their vast number, very detailed but complex nature and diverse subject matter providing a rich and invaluable resource for social and economic historians of the period.
Cases dealt with by the court are wide ranging and include disputes, among many other kinds, over:
- family inheritance and wills
- land and other property, including trusts and uses
- marriage settlements
- trade and bankruptcy
Research involving these records requires a visit to our site in Kew.
For advice on records from 1876 onwards see our guide to Chancery cases in the Supreme Court after 1875.
2. What was the Court of Chancery?
The Court of Chancery was an equity court, presided over by the Lord Chancellor and his deputies, as opposed to a common law court. The court was used by all walks of life, from labourers and bricklayers to peers of the realm. People turned to the court because it promised a merciful justice not bound by the strict rules of the common law courts (which included, for example, the Court of King’s Bench) and were therefore able to hear more complicated problems.
The procedures followed by the Court of Chancery were quite different to those of the common law courts and involved the gathering of written pleadings and evidence.
3. The nature of the records
Most Court of Chancery records are in English. Many appear, misleadingly, to be transcripts of speeches made in court – in fact these written accounts were themselves what would have been presented to the court for its consideration. Spoken activity before the court was not recorded.
The records fall into five main categories:
- Pleadings: statements made by the parties in a case, collectively known as Chancery proceedings. The initial pleadings are the records most often consulted by researchers today, but behind them, and detailed below, is a huge hinterland of investigation and documentation kept by the court. However, some cases did not proceed beyond the initial pleadings.
- Evidence: depositions (sworn testimonies given by witnesses in a case), affidavits (voluntary statements on oath) and exhibits (physical evidence, mostly documentation) brought before the court.
- Decrees and orders: instructions issued and decisions made by the court in the course of a suit.
- Chancery Masters’ records: records created by court officials carrying out the work of the court in a case.
- Final decrees and appeals against them.
4. How to search for records
This section provides you with the basic information you will need to search for Chancery records. Consult sections 5 to 10 for more detailed advice on specific record types.
The records of any single equity suit heard in Chancery were not kept together. Instead of being filed by the suit, they were filed by the record categories described in section 3 (and in more depth in sections 5 to 10) and they remain held in these separate files to this day.
You can identify document references for pleadings and some other document types by searching our catalogue. All the main pleadings are searchable in the catalogue at least by surname of the plaintiff and defendant and many by other details – forename, status, occupation and subject.
Beyond the pleadings, the ‘short title’ is sometimes the only description in our catalogue for the records of a case. A short title consists of the surnames of the first named plaintiff and one of the defendants – for example, Smith v Barker. However, the short title can vary depending on whose statements were being recorded, so that several different short titles may exist for the same case. A document entitled Smith v Corbett, for example, may refer to the same case as Smith v Barker. To track a case in the hinterland of Chancery, therefore, you must have some idea of the names of the parties involved.
To find records of the later stages of the suits usually requires the use of contemporary paper ‘indexes’ or other finding aids , only available at The National Archives building in Kew.
5. Pleadings (proceedings)
5.1 What are pleadings?
Pleadings are formal written statements made by the parties in a case. They set out the claims of the plaintiff and the defence of the defendant. Anyone wishing to start a suit in Chancery would first get a lawyer to draw up a bill of complaint to submit to the Lord Chancellor – this would be the first pleading. Pleadings, also referred to as proceedings, were made in the following sequence (though if a dispute was settled out of court, you will find nothing more than a bill of complaint):
1. Bill of complaint – often known simply as a bill, this would set out the details in dispute by the plaintiff against the defendant
2. Answer – the defendant’s responses to all the points raised in the bill of complaint
3. Replication – the plaintiff’s response to the defendant’s answer
4. Rejoinder – the defendant’s subsequent response
5.2 What kind of detail do pleadings contain?
As well as the details of the claims and defence, pleadings contain some personal details for both sides in the case.
Pleadings give the plaintiff’s and defendant’s:
- relationships and often family details (for the plaintiff this information is usually found at the beginning of the bill but for the defendant the information can be in the bill and/or the answer
- place of abode
- subject of the dispute
- lawyer’s name (usually appears written by itself in a top corner)
5.3 How to find pleadings
Post-1558 pleadings are held in series C2 to C18. You can use our online catalogue to search all of the pleadings up to 1875. Some catalogue descriptions consist of the short title and document type only, some have the forename and surname of some or all of the plaintiffs and defendants and others also include place and county with some indication of subject matter.
Many local record societies have published catalogues of Chancery proceedings for their own county. Search for “Chancery proceedings” in our catalogue, filtering the search results to local record offices by selecting the ‘Other archives’ filter. For lists of published and printed calendars, catalogues, registers and indexes held by local record societies, see E L C Mullins’ Texts and Calendars (1978) and Texts and Calendars II (1983).
6. Depositions and affidavits
6.1 What are depositions?
When the pleadings were finished, and the issues in dispute defined, the court commissioned neutral men of substance to examine an agreed list of people, known as deponents. The sworn statements made by deponents in response to the questions, or ‘interrogatories’, put to them are called depositions. These provide information about the case and often about the parties involved in the dispute, not included in the pleadings. They also give the deponent’s name, place of abode, age and occupation, at the head of his or her deposition.
6.2 What are affidavits?
Affidavits were voluntary statements made upon oath during the progress of a suit.
6.3 How to find depositions and affidavits
When using our catalogue and other indexes to find depositions and affidavits, you will need to search by the title of the suit, not by the person giving the deposition or affidavit.
The depositions fall into two groups: town depositions taken in London, and country depositions taken elsewhere.
Town depositions: taken in London
|Date Range||Catalogue reference||Search advice|
|1534-1853||C 24||Search our catalogue by short title for some town depositions from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries (C 24/2505 to C 24/2508)|
|1854- 1880 March||C 15, C 16, J 54||These town depositions are filed with the pleadings and findable on a name search – see section 5|
Country depositions: taken in the counties
|Date Range||Catalogue reference||Search advice|
|1558-1649||C 21||Search our catalogue by short title – take care as names can be reversed|
|1649-1714||C 22||Search our catalogue by short title – take care as names can be reversed|
|1715- 1880 March||C 11, C 12, C 13, C 14||Country depositions are filed with the pleadings – see section 5|
In C 23 there are Unpublished Depositions – depositions recorded but never used. These records are currently unsorted.
|Date Range||Catalogue reference||Description||Additional information|
|1611-1875||C 31, C 41||Affidavits||1611-1800: indexes are in IND 1/14545-14567. Entry marked with a cross: the original affidavit is in C 31. If no cross: try the copies in C 41, for 1615-1747 only 1801-1875: indexes are in IND 1/14575 -14684. The name listed after the plaintiff and defendant is that of the solicitor, initiating the affidavit|
|1876 onwards||J 4||Affidavits||There are indexes in IND 1: check the IND 1 list at The National Archives|
6.4 Interrogatories without depositions
You may find that a record of depositions is not accompanied by the interrogatories to which they were a response. In these instances, and when you cannot find any depositions for a case, it may be worth searching in the following series:
- C 25 (1598-1852) – annual bundles of ‘detached interrogatories’ mostly relating to town depositions
7. Entry books of decrees and orders
7.1 What did entry books of decrees and orders record?
Any orders issued by the court during the course of a case, and the final judgement, are recorded in the entry books of decrees and orders. These books also contain the dates on which the depositions and affidavits were recorded, and the dates of the hearing and the final decree. Decrees and orders before 1733 may be in Latin.
7.2 How to find entry books of decrees and orders
The Entry Books are in two sequences known as ‘A’ and ‘B’. Until Trinity term (June to July) 1629, both ‘A’ and ‘B’ books list suits (by plaintiff v defendant) from A to Z. From 1629, entries for plaintiffs A-K are in the ‘A’ books, and entries for plaintiffs L-Z are in the ‘B’ books.
The way to find an entry book is to use the contemporary annual indexes at The National Archives – these are available in our open reading rooms. There are over 600 indexes in total but none for 1544-1546. They start their year from the Michaelmas term (October to November). This means the dates on the spines are out by one year for the other three law terms. For example, the index listed as 1849 covers Michaelmas 1849 and Hilary, Easter and Trinity terms 1850. From 1860 each index covers a calendar year, not a ‘legal’ year. The reference found in the index has to be matched up to the C 33 series list: make sure the IND volume number matches as well, to ensure that you have the right year.
For cases which did not proceed beyond the bill and answer there will be no orders.
|Date Range||Catalogue reference||Search advice|
|1544-1875||C 33||Find entry books using the contemporary annual indexes at The National Archives – these are available in Map and Large Document Reading Room. There are over 600 indexes in total but none for 1544-1546.
Browse through online copies of entry books and indexes for 1544-1650 on the Anglo American Legal Tradition website.
7.3 Abbreviations found in the decrees and orders
|Abbreviations and their meanings|
|accott accountant||affdt affidavit||appot appointment|
|Bequed bequeathed||Col Counsel||Cot Court|
|Conson consideration||declon declaration||Excepons Exceptions|
|exor executor||furr further||hrinbefe hereinbefore|
|hrs heirs||incon or inion injunction||indre indenture|
|L C Lord Chancellor||M R Master of the Rolls||Mr Master|
|mre matter||Orar Orator (plaintiff)||Ors others|
|ppr paper||revr revivor||suppl supplement|
|testor testator||tree(s) trustee(s)||wo widow|
8. Chancery Masters and the associated records
8.1 Who were Chancery Masters and what did they do?
In many Chancery suits, the judge referred matters for investigation or action to one or more of the Chancery Masters in Ordinary, eight appointed officials based in London, whose number rose to 12 by the 1860s. These officers of the court, lawyers by trade, would carry out much of the work of the court, under the instructions of the judge. As well as investigating the evidence (including depositions, affidavits and exhibits), assessing costs and administering the estates that were held in the care of the court during the (often very lengthy) course of a suit, they would sometimes themselves act as the arbitrators in the case.
From 1842 ‘taxing masters’ took over the cost assessments from the masters and in 1852 the masters’ other functions were transferred to the judges. The judges then started referring many matters to their chief clerks who soon became known as masters also.
8.2 Masters’ reports and certificates and how to find them
Having done their investigation, the master or masters in a case would send a report back to the court. Draft reports were submitted to both parties who were allowed to review the reports and to submit their response in the way of ‘exceptions’. Longer reports can include detailed material taken from the pleadings and other papers examined by the master, and can provide a very useful summary or overview of a case. The master’s final report often formed the basis for the court’s final decrees.
Masters’ reports can also contain:
- Accounts of arbitrations
- Details of awards of various sorts
- (Until 1842) Accounts of dealings with infants and lunatics placed under the protection of the court (referred to as ‘wards of court’)
The masters also returned short certificates into court, authorising, for example, the delivery of money.
To find specific reports and certificates, you will need to use the contemporary ‘indexes’ in IND 1 at The National Archives. The post-1842 and post-1852 taxing masters’ and clerks’ reports were filed in the same series as the earlier masters’ reports.
|Date Range||Document||Catalogue reference||Indexes|
|1544-1605||Reports: main series||C 38||No indexes|
|1606-1759||Reports: main series||C 38||IND 1/1878-2028|
|1760-1800||Reports: main series||C 38||IND 1/10700/1|
|1801-1875||Reports: main series||C 38||IND 1/14919-14993|
|1756-1859||Oversize documents||C 39||No indexes|
|1756-1859||Exceptions to the reports: appeals by either party||C 40||IND 1/30785-30786 for 1836-1840 only|
8.3 Masters’ documents
These contain the affidavits, examinations of witnesses, estate accounts, wills and other documents on which the masters founded their reports, together with the drafts of reports. As such, they can be a treasure chest of information.
To find masters’ documents you will need to know the name of the master dealing with the suit. By consulting the decrees and orders this may have become apparent. Once you have a name you will need to go to The National Archives Map and Large Document Reading Room and follow these steps:
- Locate the binder for C 103 in the paper version of the catalogue.
- Find the ‘Alphabetical List of Chancery Masters in Ordinary’ within the binder.
- Note the C series attributed to the records for that master (there will usually be two: one for ‘exhibits’ and the other for ‘documents’). Be aware that each of these C series is named after the last master to occupy the office on its abolition in 1852.
- Use the table below to match the C series with the corresponding IND index, held elsewhere in the Map and Large Document reading room (these are contemporary indexes and it is estimated that approximately 20% of the documents referred to in the indexes are missing – it is not known where they are or even if they have survived).
|Masters’ name||Catalogue reference||Index|
|Master Blunt||C 124||IND 1/6616|
|Master Brougham||C 117*||IND 1/6625|
|Master Farrar||C 122*||IND 1/6624|
|Master Horne||C 118*||IND 1/6620-6621|
|Master Humphrey||C 123*||IND 1/6618|
|Master Kindersley||C 126||IND 1/6622|
|Master Lynch (no separate collection)||C 123*; C 124||IND 1/6618
|Master Richards||C 121||IND 1/6626-6627|
|Master Rose||C 119||IND 1/6619|
|Master Senior||C 125*||IND 1/6623|
|Master Tinney||C 120*||IND 1/6617|
*The records in these series are stored off site – please allow 3 working days’ notice to see them.
Post-1852 masters’ documents are in the following J series:
As with pre-1852 documents you will need to know the name of the master appointed to a case to determine which J series to consult. Once you have the name you can check it against the masters succession list posted up in the reading rooms at The National Archives to determine the J series.
8.3 Masters’ account books
When the ownership of an estate was in dispute in Chancery, or while the owner was a ward of the court, the master would appoint people to administer the property, often a party in the case. They were supposed to provide annual accounts to the master.
Masters’ accounts books contain the paperwork for the administration of these estates.
- c1750-c1850 – search by name of plaintiff, defendant or the ward in C 101 (includes the early records of Companies (Winding-up) Proceedings.
- 1852 onwards – see the various J series listed in section 8.2.
8.4 Masters’ exhibits
At the end of a suit, the parties normally reclaimed any physical or documentary evidence, known as exhibits, that had been brought before the court. The minority of exhibits that were not claimed form the collection of private papers known as Masters’ Exhibits.
To find exhibits search our catalogue, or, if you know the name of the master, click on the appropriate catalogue reference in the table below (see section 8.3 for advice on how to find this out), and search by the short title of the case (see section 4 for advice on short titles).
You can also search for descriptions of exhibits by keywords, including place names, but this may require some guesswork. Typical descriptions include:
- ‘deeds relating to…’ (followed by a place name)
- ‘will of…’ or ‘probate of…’ (followed by a person’s name)
- ‘inventory’/ ‘inventories’
|Catalogue reference||Masters’ name||Date range|
|C 103||Master Blunt||c1200-1859|
|C 104||Master Tinney||13th century-1856|
|C 105||Master Lynch||1481-1829|
|C 106||Master Richards||13th century-1853|
|C 107||Master Senior||c1250-1851|
|C 108||Master Farrar||c1220-1847|
|C 109||Master Humphrey||c1180-1857|
|C 110||Master Horne||1306-1853|
|C 111||Master Brougham||13th century-1857|
|C 112||Master Rose||1270-1857|
|C 113||Master Kindersley||1235-1837|
|C 114||Unknown Masters||1566-1841|
|C 115||Duchess of Norfolk Deeds||1085-1842|
|C 116||Court Rolls(extracted from the other series)||1295-1808|
|C 171||Six Clerks’ Office||c1350-c1850|
|J 90||Chancery Masters’ Exhibits
These need to be ordered 3 days in advance
9. Final decrees, appeals and arbitrations
9.1 Enrolled decrees
Decrees and orders could be enrolled in the Decree Rolls, at an extra cost.
|Date range||Catalogue reference||Description||Online access|
|1534- 1903||C 78||Decree Rolls||Browse the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website for online versions of the whole of C 78
Search our catalogue by short title for limited but accruing data
Search by place name for decrees enrolled during and between the reigns of Henry VIII and George III in IND 1/16960A
|1534-1903||C 79||Supplementary Series||IND 1/16960B (searchable by short title)
Index data on the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website
9.2 Records of appeals against enrolled decrees
Any appeal against such enrolled decrees or orders would have to be made to the House of Lords and the records are now held at the Parliamentary Archives, the only place that you can view them.
You can use our catalogue to search for document references for records of appeals held at the Parliamentary Archives as follows:
1. Go to the advanced search in our catalogue
2. Enter the short title of the suit as your search term
3. In the Held by section, select ‘Search other archives’ – a box appears
4. Type ‘Parliamentary Archives’ in the box
5. Click ‘Search’
9.3 Unenrolled decrees and records of appeals against them
Not enrolling decrees had its advantages in some cases, as appeals were made back to the Lord Chancellor, and cases could be reopened more easily.
If final decrees were not enrolled, look for them in the decree and order books (see section 7) and for appeals against unenrolled decrees and orders look among the Petitions. These also include ‘ordinary’ petitions, for example for winding up associations or for the appointment of new trustees to administer an estate.
|Date range||Catalogue reference||Description||Indexes|
|1774-1875||C 36||Ordinary and Appeal Petitions||IND 1/15029-15047|
|1876-1925||J 53||Chancery Division Petitions||IND 1/15048-15282|
9.4 Records of cases settled out of court
Many suits were ended outside the court by arbitrations, mediations, compositions and awards of various sorts, made by commissioners, often Chancery masters, appointed by Chancery.
|Date range||Catalogue reference||Description||Additional information|
|1544-1844||C 38||Reports on arbitrations by Masters||See section 6|
|1544-1694||C 33||Awards enrolled||See section 7|
|1694-1844||C 42||Awards not enrolled||No indexes|
10. Cause Books, 1842-1880
Cause books bring together all references to decrees, orders, reports and certificates made during the course of a case, together with the names of all the parties to it and their solicitors and the dates of all their appearances.
Cause Books from April 1880 onwards were destroyed on the recommendations of the Committee on Legal Records chaired by Lord Denning, leaving no primary means of access to the records after 1880.
11. Money ‘in Chancery’
The Court of Chancery has always looked after money and property awarded through the court to people who cannot be found, or are unable to look after it themselves, such as children, or to people with disabilities that mean they cannot make decisions for themselves. This money is known as funds in court, and may be referred to as ‘in Chancery’, and is today administered by the Court Funds Office. For more information see our guide to Funds in Court.
12. Further reading
- Amanda Bevan, Tracing your Ancestors in the National Archives (TNA, 2006) Ch 58
- P W Coldham, ‘Genealogical Resources in Chancery Records’, in Genealogists’ Magazine, vol XIX, pp 345-347 and vol XX, pp 257-260
- D Gerhold, Courts of Equity… A Guide to Chancery and other Legal Records (Pinhorn, 1994)
- Henry Horwitz, A Guide to Chancery Equity Records and Proceedings 1600-1800 (PRO, 1998)
- Henry Horwitz, Samples of Chancery Pleadings and Suits: 1627, 1685, 1735 and 1785 (List and Index Society, vol 257, 1995)
- W J Jones, The Elizabethan Court of Chancery (1967)
- Susan Moore, Family Feuds: An Introduction to Chancery Proceedings (Federation of Family History Societies, 2002)
- Susan Moore, Tracing your Ancestors through the Equity Courts: A Guide for Family and Local Historians (Pen & Sword Family History, 2017)
- G W Sanders, Orders of the High Court of Chancery and Statutes of the Realm (1845)
- H Sharp, How to Use the Bernau Index (Society of Genealogists, 1996)