A trip to PROV

A couple of months ago I made a visit to PROV, the Public Record Office of Victoria.  I had already used their online services to view wills and probate records of my ancestors, however records created after 1926 are not yet digitised and need to be viewed in their reading room.  I had quite a long list of wills and probates I wanted to view, so decided it was time to make the effort and visit in person.  The reading room in North Melbourne is open Monday to Friday, but also the second and last Saturday of every month.  It just so happened the coming Saturday was the last Saturday of September and they would be open.

It’s important to plan ahead before visiting PROV to get the most out of your visit.  Records need to be requested in advance, and the process for ordering records can be a little confusing the first time.  The steps for actually requesting a record online are quite straightforward:

  1. Register as a public user on the PROV website
  2. Search for the record you wish to view (in my case, using the Wills and Probate index)
  3. Add the item to your order

However, there were 22 records I wanted to view and this is where the ordering process became a little complicated.  On the plan your visit page of the PROV website it describes two delivery times for retrieving records and specifies the cut off time for placing an order for each of these delivery times.  However, only 8 records can be retrieved at each delivery time.  What this means is if you want to view more than 8 records, you will need to place your order early enough to allow enough delivery windows for all records to be delivered.  I placed my order on Thursday night, so the 22 records were delivered in 3 groups – 8 records Friday morning, 8 records Friday afternoon and the remaining 6 on Saturday morning just in time for my visit.  This might be a little clearer described in the table below.

Timing of my record orders

When placing the order I was surprised to find no way to specify the actual time I planned to visit. Instead, the records are retrieved at the next delivery time then held in the reading room for 10 days.  After 10 days they are returned to the archives, so make sure you place your order less than 10 days prior to your visit.

The facilities in the reading room are great. Unsure what to expect, I went armed with my phone, tablet and digital camera intending to take digital photos of the records but unsure which device would work the best. I also had a USB stick.  In the end USB stick was all I needed as there are several scanners and digital cameras available for use, free of charge, in the reading room.  I used a document scanner, pictured in the photo below, which was very fast to scan pages and captured a clear and consistent image.  I saved each scan as a separate JPG file then combined multipage documents into a single PDF once I was back home.

The scanner was easy to use and capture clear images
The scanner was easy to use and captured clear images

Unfortunately the staff are only allowed to release a single document at a time, so I could only retrieve one will or probate and scan it before returning to retrieve the next.  I understand they need to do this to ensure records aren’t mixed up, but it did make the process a little more time consuming than if I could retrieve all records at once, particularly given the scanner was on the opposite corner of the reading room to the collections counter.  By the end of the day the lady behind the counter was no doubt sick of me!

Working through all 22 records took me several hours, partially because I couldn’t help reading through each will as I opened it.  In future I’d probably limit myself to half as many documents in a single visit, but the up side is I now have all the wills and probate records for all my direct ancestors who passed away since 1900!

It was very interesting to see the different styles and formats of the wills. There were prewritten templates which had been completed by my ancestors, wills typed by a solicitor then signed by an ancestor, and others which had been hand written on lined note paper.  Carefully unfolding and reading these documents was a very special experience, knowing my ancestor had held that particular piece of paper at some point in their life to pen their final will.

The signature of an ancestor
The signature of Laura Muntz, my great-great-grandmother who passed away in 1938

I managed to source a lot of useful information from the documents, including names of family members, places of residence and, in one case, evidence of a son who had been written out of his father’s will.  He had lost contact with the family and did not provide support when his mother was unwell and bedridden in the months prior to her death.  Wills are very valuable documents and provide interesting and personal insights into ancestors which can’t be found in the standard birth, death and marriage records.  It was well worth my visit to scan these precious documents.

Have you visited the Public Record Office of Victoria?  Do you have any tips for a successful visit? Or perhaps you’ve found some interesting facts in wills and probate records of your own ancestors? It’d be great to hear from you in the comments form below!

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