Sparks Family


The Sparks family of Yapton ran a classic agricultural engineering works in the village between 1856 and 1924.  It started with high hopes and ended up in Chancery, with much hard work, good profits and no little drama along the way.  Adge Roberts tells the story.

John Sparks

John Sparks was born at Holkham, Norfolk, in 1825. He came to Yapton and founded his 'plant hire' business there in 1856. It proved a great success and a large collection of steam-driven machinery was built up. The depot was at what came to be called 'Sparks Corner', the junction between the Bilsham and Burndell Roads. The main engine shed for repairs and servicing was a large brick-built structure designed so that it could be turned into a row of cottages if the business failed. When it finally did close down it was used instead as the Village Hall and it is now a supermarket. At the eastern end you can still see the outline of the large doorway through which the engines chugged; at the other end an upstairs floor was constructed and here were the firm's offices. As time went on, various workshops and stores were constructed nearby - a foundry, a blacksmith's forge, a paint store, a sail-makers shop (presumably for the canvas awnings). Rows of cottages were put up for the workforce: Victoria Villas, Holkham Cottages, Medway Cottages. By 1861 John sparks already employed 12 men and 4 apprentices; by 1871 it was 30 men and 7 apprentices.

So the firm grew. There were several steam rollers, with names like 'Renown' and 'Monarch', which worked on contract for councils in Sussex and neighbouring counties. They were away for weeks at a time and when they set off they towed a sleeping cabin for the crew of three, and a large water barrel on wheels. There were ploughing engines which set off in pairs, with names like 'Lion' and 'Lioness', and 'Prince' and 'Princess'. One would be towing a sleeping cabin for eight men and they too travelled astonishing distances. They carried 600 yards of steel cable. The engines would be placed at opposite ends of the field and a set of ploughshares was drawn from one end to the other making five or six furrows. The engines then moved along a few yards, the shares were reversed and drawn back again. They also had threshing machines for hire, steam wagons and steam traction engines.

But in 1880 tragedy struck. John Sparks died aged only 55 and his widow was left with a teen-aged family and a complex business to run. However, Sarah Sparks was a remarkable lady. Under her direction the firm grew and grew, and she styled herself the 'Proprietress' of the business. In 1904 a grandstand was built at Goodwood Racecourse and the John Sparks firm had the contract for digging and hauling stones for the roads, and for the hire of four steam-rollers. The bills of £635 and £93 12s respectively were made paid to 'Mrs John Sparks, Proprietress'. She was then aged 79.

The Brickfields

At some time it was discovered that Yapton was sitting on a layer of clay suitable for brick-making. The Sparks family took advantage of this and began acquiring houses and land. They came to own Church Farm and the big houses in Church Road. The fields all around Sparks Corner were bought – except for a piece of glebe land known as The Vicar's Field, where the Belmont Estate now stands. Hobbs Farm, the south of the village was also acquired.

Production eventually reached 800,000 bricks a year. A light railway was used in the brickfields, with trolleys pushed by hand. This railway even extended into the kitchen garden in Church Farm. The bricks were dried and then fired in clamps, in the area now occupied by Warmere Court and Downview Road. Later, the quicker and more efficient kiln method was used too – the kilns were in the Canal Road area.

The Sparks fly up

Sarah sparks died in 1914, aged 89, and is buried in the north-east corner of Yapton Churchyard, next to her husband. The grave was marked by ornamental iron posts and a chain. They are now in store – one of the few artefacts that can be definitely attributed to the Sparks foundry and blacksmith's shop.

Her children Eliza and George inherited but Mrs Sparks must have known of the personality clash between. The John Sparks Trust was set up to run the business, with George and Eliza playing executive roles. Absolutely everything belonged to the Trust, even the houses they lived in.  And, over the course of the next ten years, the quarrels between the two of them became increasingly bitter. They each wanted to be in sole charge, to be responsible for at least part of the business, and trade separately, using the name of 'John Sparks' but that name, too, belonged to the Trust.

So they did what was in their eyes the next best thing: they divided the assets between them unofficially. Employees were regarded as working for one or the other, not both, and the ownership of the houses the workers lived in were regarded in the same way. People can remember that George Sparks kept some of the steam engines in the meadow next to his house, 'Sunnyside'. The business must have suffered from this dispute but the farmers kept hiring the machinery and the Councils kept hiring the steam-rollers.

Eventually, brother and sister went to law and ran up enormous legal bills. At last, in 1924, the case of Sparks v Sparks reached the High Court, Chancery Division. In a judgment worthy of Solomon, Mr Justice Romer directed that all the assets of the John Sparks Trust be sold by auction, all bills paid and anything left to be divided among the family.

The Sparks go out

Monday 6 October 1924 was viewing day. Prospective buyers – and the villagers – were shown that all the machinery was in working order. It is a pity that no one thought of filming it – just imagine 13 steam-rollers, including 'Conquerer' and 'Defiance' all puffing along. Then there were five pairs of ploughing engines, including  'Hero' and 'Heroine', with a full head of steam. Add to that a mass of threshing machines, steam wagons, tractors and other equipment. There, too, was the company car – a 10 hp Humber four-seater tourer, and a 1920 Ford van.

On Tuesday the ploughing equipment and steam wagons were sold; on Wednsday the steam-rollers and all the allied equipment. Then on Thursday, the auctioneer moved around the various workshops and stores. What a field day the DIY man would have had: ladders, tools, lengths of wood pots of paint; everything had to go, right down to the last bag of nails.

But for the really soft hearted there was one item of special interest. That was 'Lot No. 110: - Six old men for straw carriers'.

Adge Roberts
with acknowledgements to Dave Ruffle of Yapton

Originally published by the Ferring History Group
in Newsletter of the Ferring History Group.   Issue 7: May 2004