The National Archives (formerly the PRO) staff have made great strides in a project to make Chancery records much more accessible to legal historians, other historians and genealogists.
About 30,000 cases from class C6 (Court of Chancery, Six Clerks Office: Pleadings before 1714, Collins) can be searched online via the Equity Pleadings Database.
The friendly The Search Screen means that you do not have to start with a Piece Reference, by supplying a range of other search forms – notice the four tabs offering searches via Persons, Places, Subjects and Case Details – which can be used independently or in combination one with another. Much more useful for the researcher – or those on a “fishing” trip!
The Search by Case Details option will doubtless first catch the eye of lawyers. If you do not know both parties’ names, you can just enter eg Jarndyce as either plaintiff or defendant. It is also possible to set a date limit. Narrowing a search to Jarndyce as either plaintiff or defendant is also possible on the Search by Persons screen – use the drop down menu alongside Type of Person. On the same screen, it is even possible to limit search to cases where Jarndyce was testator – see the Role option.
A surname search could also be refined by a greographical limitation. First, fill in as many boxes as you can/or think useful under the Persons tab, then, before you click search, click the Places tab, set a country first (via drop down menu), then go for county, town, parish, or even try the name of field or pub! Click Search now. To clear the search string you have to click Clear.
Search by Subjects allows use of up to 3 keywords.
The National Archives recommend Horwitz’s Chancery equity records and proceedings, 1600-1800 : a guide to documents in the Public Record Office. (PRO handbooks ; 27)(1995) for anyone not familiar with this court and its workings. I am happy to say we have a copy of this work in the Law Library at Ref Bibl Cw UK H824a
Since 2003, TNA staff have had a special project to bring order to the pleadings filed in the Court between 1801 and 1875 – hence the allusion to Bleak House in this blog’s title. (Now there is a bit of background reading (or background video-watching) that could truly be classed as good holiday entertainment! ) I hope that they receive the funding so that they can continue this essential background work – and that their labours will be recognised by a flood of new scholarhip in the history of chancery.