Yapton Agricultural Engineering Works : Founded by John Sparks

John Sparks was born at Holkham, Norfolk in 1825. He started his working life employed by Clayton and Shuttleworth, traction engine makers of Biggleswade. He moved down to Yapton in 1856, founded his company and in the same year he met and married Sarah Grigg of Pagham.

The company specialised in the recently developed, portable steam engines, employing them for trashing and ploughing. Eventually machines and crews were hired out to farms all over Sussex and into Hampshire and Kent. In the 1861 Census he was recorded as living in The Lodge with his wife and 9-month-old daughter Sarah Eliza. His occupation was given as a Steam Engine Proprietor employing 12 men and 4 boys. Ten years later, in the 1871 Census, his business had grown to such an extent that he was employing 30 men and 7 boys. The Sparks family had also grown with the addition of daughters Emily Phoebe and Annie Ester. There was also a daughter born between Emily and Annie, but sadly she died at the age of 2. The family was further increased with two sons, Alexandra John and George Thomas. To complete the family picture, John employed his brother James as an engine driver who was living in Lodge Cottage with his wife Harriet, née Hotston, and his father, also John, a wheelwright. To house his growing work force, John Sparks had three rows of terraced houses built, Medway Cottages and Victoria Villas in Bilsham Road and Holkham Cottages in Burndell Road.

Victoria Villas c.1905

A plot of land was purchased which lay between Bilsham Road and Canal Road where the depot for the Engineering Works was built. The main building, the engine shed, was built to carry out servicing and repairs on the machines. Before the Co-Op supermarket extended the building, the bricked-up high arched doorway to allow access for the engines could be easily seen. At the western end of the building, a second floor was added which contained the company offices. The building was designed in such a way that it could be converted into a row of cottages should the need arise. As the company grew other buildings were added which included a Foundry, a Blacksmith's shop, a Carpenter's shop and a Paint store.

The company continued to grow. The earliest surviving records show that a pair of new Aveling & Porter ploughing engines were purchased in 1873 and another pair bought in 1875. While in 1878 a new Aveling & Porter cylinder traction engine joined the inventory list to be used for threshing and general purposes. This was followed by, in the same year, a similar engine built by Clayton & Shuttleworth. At the same time John Sparks also bought second hand machines to increase his impressive list of machinery.

Suddenly, in 1880, John Sparks died, but his company survived and continued to thrive with his widow, Sarah, at the helm. She managed the business until her death in 1914 at the age of 89. During the 34 years that she was the 'Proprietress'  she continued to increase the fleet of engines and machines, new and second hand. They included the first of a string of steam rollers in 1895 and their first Road Locomotive, Pioneer, in 1898. A second Road Locomotive was purchased, a Fowler, in 1902. It was customary to give each vehicle a name and this second Road Locomotive was given the name Pride of Yapton. One of its first contracts was building the road system for the new Goodwood Racecourse Grandstand. The steam ploughing side of the business was also expanding under Sarah's direction. An example of this was the purchase of four new pairs of Fowler ploughing engines in 1900.

Sparks threshing team

The Sparks empire grew steadily in other areas as well. Their property portfolio was also increasing with houses being built or bought, as well as farms and land, all over Yapton and even as far away as Shripney. To help provide materials for the building work they created their own brickfields and yards. One such yard situated at Church Farm had the capacity to produce 800,000 bricks a year. Another brickfield was situated where Downview estate is now and the brickworks and kilns stood where Woodlands Park Homes now stands.

Following Sarah's death, the 'John Sparks Trust' was set up to administer all the family's interests, with the son George and daughter Eliza employed as executives. Sarah's other two surviving children Esther and Emily, were non-executives and received an income from the business. From the outset George and Eliza could not see eye-to-eye and eventually the feud between them resulted in a High Court case where the court ordered the John Sparks Trust be sold by Public Auction, which duly took place in 1924.

Reminders of the Sparks era can still be found in Yapton. Apart from the terraced houses already mentioned, the junction of Bilsham, Main and Burndell Roads is known as Sparks Corner and the housing estate situated behind what was the Engineering site is called the Foundry Estate.

Allen Misselbrook
October 2018

(Originally published in Sussex Local Magazine, Arundel, December 2018)

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