Sykes Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Sykes 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
suggests a single common ancestry.
But the name may also have had
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

Sykes Resources on

Sykes Ancestry

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
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,
instance, discussed hunting, horses, and social
affairs. Mark
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
, 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.

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
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.
  • another North Carolina
    Sykes family went to Duckhill in Mississippi.
  • while the town of Sikes
    in Louisiana was named after James Franklin Sikes, its first

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

They remained one of
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.

. 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
  • 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

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.


Select Sykes 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

“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

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

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

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.” 

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

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.


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.

Select 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)


Select Sykes and Like Surnames

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




Click here for return to front page

Leave a Reply