Sykes Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Sykes Surname Meaning

Sykes is a Yorkshire name derived from the Middle English syke, meaning “marshy stream” or “damp gully.”

Some families therefore may have had a forebear who lived near a syke; or he may have come from one of a number of small settlements in Yorkshire named Syke or Sykes. The name started to appear in villages near Huddersfield in the 13th and 14th centuries. DNA testing suggests a single common ancestry.

But the name may also have had a Cumbrian origin as well. William Sykes of Syke Dyke near Carlisle brought his name and his family to the West Riding of Yorkshire in the 1500’s.

Sykes Surname Resources on The Internet

Sykes and Sikes Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Yorkshire)
  • to America (incl. African Americans), East Africa and Australia

England. Richard Sykes of Sykes Dyke in Cumbria was an “eminent and opulent clothier,” whose servants wore a branded bull as their badge. His wife was recorded as dying of scarlet fever in 1504.

Their son William moved across the Pennines and settled near Leeds where he became a successful cloth trader. Some of his children got caught up in the religious divide. One son, a Catholic priest, was hung, drawn and quartered at York Castle in 1588; and a later Sykes, in 1653, died a prisoner in the same castle for being a Quaker.

A branch of this family, based in Hull, expanded their business into shipping and finance, concentrating on the flourishing Baltic trade in pig iron. Their home from the 1730’s was the extensive Sledmere estate in the Yorkshire Wolds. They were very much local landed gentry. The diary of Tatton Sykes, for instance, discussed hunting, horses, and social affairs. Mark Sykes later became a noted Middle East diplomat.

A family account talks of a Sykes family working their way across the Pennine moors via Huddersfield and settling in the Saddleworth valleys. Betty Sykes, born in Diggle in 1795, was a wool weaver by trade. Her children were brought up to be wool sorters, spinners, or weavers. Another Sykes family came from Slathwaite and settled in Honley in the 1730’s. And Sykes in Drighlington parish records (near Leeds) date from the early 1600’s.

We find more Sykes in Huddersfield by the 19th century as the town expanded:

  • the splendidly named Shakespear Garrick Sikes helped kickstart the local banking industry.
  • Peace Sykes, the son of a woollen manufacturer, developed a reputation in Huddersfield as an artist. His son George became head of the local art school.
  • while others made their mark in the wool industry. Joseph Sykes set up his Acre Mills in outlying Lindley. His son James Nield commissioned the art nouveau Clock Tower which still stands.
  • Charles Sykes, who started out as a twelve year old office boy, came to own his own four-storey mill for knitting wool at Princeville in Bradford and later served as the MP for Huddersfield.

America.  Sykes came to America more as Sikes than as Sykes (although Sykes now outnumber Sikes by roughly three to one). Richard and Phebe Sikes were early immigrants into New England, around 1638, settling in Springfield, Massachusetts. One branch of this family later moved inland to Ohio.

Sykes in the South.  More Sykes came via Virginia. John Sikes arrived there in 1637 and settled in Norfolk county. Branches of this family later moved to North Carolina and Smith County in Tennessee.

Subsequent generations of Sykes spread throughout the south:

  • Needham Sikes set off with his family from North Carolina to Missouri in 1813.
  • Henry Sykes departed Bladen, North Carolina for Mississippi in the 1830’s and later settled in Duck Hill, Montgomery county.
  • while the town of Sikes in Louisiana was named after James Franklin Sikes, its first postmaster.

A well-to-do Sykes family from Virginia came via Alabama to Aberdeen in Mississippi when the town was just starting to boom. Their Old Homestead, one of Aberdeen’s grand antebellum mansions, was built in 1852 during the town’s heyday. These Sykes were of course on the Confederate side.

They remained one of Mississippi’s aristocratic families into the 20th century. Perhaps their most well-known son was Judge Eugene Sykes who managed to parlay his political connections to become head of the Federal Communications Commission in the 1930’s.

African Americans.  The Sykes name began to appear as an African American name after emancipation, in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Thomas Sykes was a member of the Tennessee state assembly during Reconstruction; but he disappeared into obscurity when Jim Crowism reared its head.

Roosevelt Sykes’ grandfather was growing up on a farm in West Helena, Arkansas at that time. Later, West Helena became a focal point for blacks from rural Arkansas and the Mississippi delta. Roosevelt grew up to be a great blues pianist. As compositions such as West Helena Blues suggest, this place was very much his spiritual home.

Africa. Sykes is an an illustrious name in Dar es Salaam. The forebear of the family was a Zulu who had arrived there as a German mercenary. His son Abdulwahid Sykes grew up a Muslim, founded the political party TANU, and led the post-war struggle against British colonialism. Kleist Sykes was mayor of Dar es Salaam and the name continues today with Dully Sykes, a hip hop artist.

Australia. Australia provides two contrasting lives of convicts, both coincidentally named William Sykes:

  • The first William Sykes was transported there in 1806. He married and, after securing his freedom, settled down as a farmer and lived onto the right old age of 86.
  • the second William Sykes might have lived his life in drifting obscurity but for the discovery in the 1930’s of a collection of letters written to him by his wife back in Yorkshire in the 1860’s. They were later collated into Graham Seal’s book, Those Few Lines: The Lost Lives of Myra and William Sykes.

Sykes Surname Miscellany

Sykes and DNA Testing.  A 2002 BBC series Surnames, Genes, and Genealogy started with the program, “There’s Only One Sykes.”  It described Bryan Sykes work with DNA tracing the Sikes/Sykes in West Yorkshire during the Middle Ages back to a common ancestor.

In order to assess the correspondence between surname and Y-chromosome haplotype, a sample of males with the surname “Sykes” was ascertained from published lists compiled from electoral rolls and other registers.

“Sykes” is typical of indigenous English surnames, in being of low overall frequency but having marked local concentrations, presumably reflecting historical origins.  From the geographic distribution of the 9,885 registered UK voters with that surname, it was clear that the highest concentration of Sykes are in the counties of West Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Cheshire.  This matches the earliest occurrences of the name during the 13th and 14th centuries in the villages of Flockton, Slathwaite, and Saddleworth, close to Huddersfield in West Yrokshire.

A randomly ascertained sample of males with the surname “Sykes” was typed with four Y-chromosome microsatellites.  Almost half the sample shared the same Y-chromosome haplotype, which has not been observed in control samples from the same geographic region or from the UK as a whole.  This points to a single surname founder for extant Sykes males, even though written sources had predicted multiple origins.

Sir Tatton Sykes.  Sir Tatton Sykes, the fourth baronet, was not a scholar.  He married in 1822 and succeeded to the Sledmere estates in 1823.   A year later he sold his brother’s library for £10,000 and his paintings and other works of art for £6,000; and bought instead bloodstock breeding horses.

He was a man of extreme puritanical habits and old-fashioned dress who behaved as a basically benevolent despot towards his tenants.  But his cruelty to his own family had far-reaching effects.  He beat his children and his behavior made his wife a cold and distant mother to them.  She escaped to London whenever she could and hid in her orangery with her flowers when she was at home.

Their eldest son grew up in an atmosphere devoid of love.  When he succeeded to his estates on his father’s death in 1863, he immediately sold his father’s racehorses and demolished his mother’s orangery.

Betty Sykes of Saddleworth.  Betty must have been a hard-working woman.  She worked all her life in wool, either as a wool weaver or as a woollen manufacturer.  Her children were brought up as wool sorters, spinners, or weavers.

Saddleworth in general and Diglee in particular still retain many marvellous-looking wool weavers’ cottages, with rows of stone-mullioned windows especially in the upper storeys.  These were designed to let in the maximum amount of light to the looms, which must have been particularly important in the dark winter days. The music of Betty’s life would have included not only the tinkling of streams and the songs of the skylark and blackbird, but also the rat-a-tat of the handloom as the shuttle flew to and fro.

Sir Mark Sykes.  His mother Jessica had led a gay but fragile and alcoholic life in London.  She published a travel journey in Africa during the Boer war, but fell further and further into debt.  Tatton Sykes refused to pay her debts after a very acrimonious court case.  She died prematurely in 1912.  Tatton himself died a year later, leaving their son Mark to succeed.

Sir Mark Sykes was the man who carved up Turkey and caught bird flu.  But his 39 year life remains a monument to how much can be achieved in a short time.  He was a senior diplomat, MP, the father of six, Boer war commander, the author of four books, and the manager of the largest estate in Yorkshire.  In between times, he created singular sculptures, commissioned the finest Turkish room in the country at his stately home of Skedmere, and maintained a pile of huge Victorian churches donated to nearby hamlets by his eccentric father.

Left to his own devices by his estranged parents, his wealth and natural enthusiasm won him influential contacts, such as Lord Kitchener, Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell, and Chaim Weizmann. He was a central figure in the future of the Ottoman empire and its Arab lands where he had often travelled.

Sykes died of Spanish influenza in 1919 at the Versailles peace conference, after negotiating the Sykes-Picot agreement.  His many descendants have included Evelyn Waugh’s biographer, Christopher Sykes, and novelist and fashion writer, Plum Sykes.  Sykes himself was buried in a lead coffin.  His body was exhumed in 2008 in the hope that the lead coffin might have preserved the influenza virus for scientists to study. 

Columbus Sykes and Confederate Sadness.  On October 26, 1864, Colonel Columbus Sykes had held his brother, Dr. William Sykes, in his arms as he was dying at his home at Decatur.

With a heavy heart a month later, he sat near a tree in Aberdeen, Mississippi and composed a letter to his niece and nephew.  “You are yet young, very young,” he wrote, “one just emerged from his mother’s arms, the other an infant whose age is numbered only by months.”

He then told his brother’s young children about “their devoted father” and “his noble brother” who had joined the Confederate army.

“Though suffering excruciating agony, he calmly surveyed his wound and pronounced it inevitably mortal.  And then with a courage that was sublime in its exhibition, he prepared for the last struggle with the great monster – death.” 

Reader Feedback – General George Sykes.  Why did you leave out General George Sykes? A graduate of West Point, he served in the Civil War.  He was born in Delaware and is buried in the cemetery at West Point.  His grave marker is the tallest in that cemetery.

Carol Sykes (

Theodore Sykes, North Carolina Dentist.  Theodore Sykes, born in Bladen county in 1825, joined the Confederate Army at the onset of the Civil War and was commissioned as Captain in Company H, 3rd Regiment.  In 1863 his father David died at his home in Carver’s Creek and Theodore acted as the executor of his estate.  However, through some legal technicality, he was deprived of the inheritance.

After the war Theodore became a doctor of dentistry.  He practiced his dentistry by traveling from one community to another. He was said to have been a very fastidious person and would require his man to carry him bodily to his carriage in order not to get his shoes dusty.

He later settled in Columbus county.  When he died in 1911 he left his entire estate to his housekeeper.  It was said that she had to sue in order to get the estate.

Ally Sykes Remembers.  Ally Sykes was born in Dar es Salaam in 1926.  This is his recollection of his grandfather.

“My grandfather came to Tanganyika as a German mercenary.  The Zulus has already acquired a reputation among the colonial powers for being very tough warriors and the Germans wanted to beef up their colonial army.  They went on a recruiting drive to South Africa and Mozambique to attract young members of the Zulu tribe into their army.

Once he had stayed in Tanganyika for some time he decided that the British colonial oppression was slightly milder than what he had suffered in South Africa under the Boers.  So he decided to stay.”

From 1933 to 1946, Ally was in the King’s African Rifles, fighting the Japanese in Burma and rising to the rank of sergeant, which was as high as African could get in those colonial days.

“The lessons of the KAR were crystal clear. There were three different diets, designed on a racial basis: European, Asian, and African.  When I came home there was still a mirror image of this, with three salary grades: European, Asian, and African.  How could a grown man put up with that nonsense?”

Ally is now 78, but has a memory and walks and talks like a man of fifty.  He is a practicing Moslem.  The day was Friday, the time for prayers was approaching, and the interview drew to a close.

Reader Feedback – Sykes in Mississippi and Tanzania.  My Sykes are from Duckhill, Mississippi.  My grandfather David was born there in 1910 and his father Benjamin Sykes, born in the 1890’s, was possibly from there as well.

In 1992 I was working as an educator in Saudi Arabia.  One of my students there was from Tanzania and, recognizing my name, said I should meet the Sykes family in Tanzania.

I flew to Dar Es Salaam. There I met Ally, his wife Zainab, and sons Ibrahim and Ayoub. He had another son named Araf who was abroad studying in England. I also have a son named Araf.  Ally had several businesses.  His brother Abas was the Ambassador to Italy.

Kim Sykes (

Sykes Names

  • Richard Sykes, a clothier in Cumbria, was the forebear of the Yorkshire Sykes of Skedmere.
  • Sir Mark Sykes was a British Middle East diplomat of the early 1900’s who helped negotiate the Sykes-Picot Middle East border lines during the Versailles conference of 1919.
  • Eric Sykes, born in Lancashire, was a very popular radio and TV comic from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.
  • Roosevelt Sykes, who grew up in rural Arkansas, was regarded by many as the father of the modern blues piano style.

Sykes Numbers Today

  • 18,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 8,000 in America (most numerous in North Carolina)
  • 7,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Sykes and Like Surnames

Many surnames have come from Yorkshire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.




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Written by Colin Shelley

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