A record of more than 6 million Victorian and early 20th-century wills has been made public for the first time, revealing the last wishes of some of the most important figures of the age, including Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin.

The documents, dating from 1861 to 1941 and now available online, show that eminent Victorians Dickens and Darwin left estates worth the equivalent of millions of pounds today. Perhaps fittingly, Karl Marx left the more modest equivalent of about £9000 (NZ$19,716).

The index also lists the wills of the Conservative politician Neville Chamberlain, and the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Chamberlain, before serving as Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, lost £50,000 of his father's money in an attempt to become a farmer in the Bahamas, but later bought a manufacturing firm with funds from other relatives. On his death in 1940 he left £84,013 - worth just over £4m in today's money.

Conan Doyle, a physician who turned to writing as his medical practice faltered, was relatively successful. He left his widow and one of his sons £63,491, or almost £3m today.

The database, released online by the genealogical website Ancestry.co.uk, is a collation of the England and Wales' National Probate Calendar - a summary of all of wills processed each year.

It shows that the popularity of D H Lawrence's writings came too late for the author to benefit fully. He left behind a relatively paltry £2438 on his death in 1930, worth around £113,000 today.

Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expeditions brought him fame but ultimately not fortune. The explorer, who led the ill-fated voyage of discovery on the ship Endurance, died leaving his widow a rather meagre bequest of about £20,000 in today's money. By contrast, Darwin left a will worth the equivalent of £13m, and Dickens left £7.1m in today's money.

Dan Jones, of Ancestry.co.uk, said the data "is a fantastic resource for family historians, but is also fascinating to anyone with an interest in social history or just in famous names".

It offers "a great insight into the social standing of people in their own time... The details can add to the legend: people would probably be fairly upset if they found out that Karl Marx was secretly squirrelling away vast sums of money."

"We've only just started digging," Mr Jones added. The wills can provide "evidence of unknown transgressions or scandals in the private lives of people who, in many cases, we thought we knew all about," he said.

- INDEPENDENT