Beginning at the end

William Macintosh’s will

William Macintosh’s will. The National Archives, PROB 11/1579.

The one certainty in historical, biographical research is that the subject of one’s attention was born and subsequently died. Actually pinning down those dates can, however, be tricky, especially when your quarry—in my case a Scottish merchant, author, and political agitator, William Macintosh—has largely escaped scholarly attention. Macintosh’s dates of birth and death are, to borrow from Rumsfeld, my current known unknowns.

The purpose of this blog is to describe, and reflect on, archival practice and historical research in geography—to describe my circuitous journey on the archival trail of Macintosh. It will show, I’m sure, my meanderings down various dead-ends, but also those rare moments of discovery whilst, over the next few years, I piece (intellectually speaking) Macintosh back together.

I was delighted recently to track down Macintosh’s last will and testament at the National Archives (PROB 11/1579). It was written in 1807 whilst Macintosh’s was resident in the German city of Eisenach. Quite why Macintosh was in Eisenach is currently unclear (it’s already on my to-find-out list), but it’s evident that he had fallen on hard times. He was, as his will records, then “in a very advanced age and infirm of body” and virtually penniless. Macintosh’s repeated requests to the British government for a pension were ignored and he  subsisted largely on notes of credit. His will is significant because it names his beneficiaries and is useful in my efforts to map his family structure and his friendship network.

Written originally in 1807, Macintosh’s will seems to have had a codicil added to it in 1816. Macintosh’s will was proved (on 16 April 1816) in London at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC). The PCC operated under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury and assumed a role in the probate of wills that had a value of more than £5. The only existing biography of Macintosh (written by his great nephew) suggests he died in 1809, something which the date of the codicil seems to contradict. Clearly it’ll require a bit more digging before I can confidently state Macintosh’s date of death. Then, perhaps, I can turn to his date of birth!