Four brothers from Devon


The Sparks family came to Walsden from High Bickington in Devon. Four brothers, James, Thomas, Edward and Charles decided to try and make a living away from their home in Devon in the late 1860's. What prompted them to come to Walsden, nobody will know, but arrive they did and started a new life for themselves. They were young and had nothing to lose by trying to earn their living in a different part of England, where employment was more plentiful and easier to come by for those who were willing to work. They all settled in the Butcher Hill area of Walsden and stayed a close knit community of ex-Devonians, who all but one, at some time or another, kept a lodging house.


The brothers were from a large family of nine children. Not large by the standard of the day, when every child was looked upon as a worker, but it must have been a hard life when they were all young and there was only one bread earner in the family. Their father John, born in 1811, married Elizabeth Richards in the village church at High Bickington in 1832. John worked as a farm labourer and later on as a railway worker, whilst Elizabeth was a glover, a common trade in those parts. Two daughters, Mary, their firstborn, and Thirza born four years later in 1837, followed in their mother's trade as glovers. They had a sister Selva born in 1856 and as well as the four brothers who sought their fortune in Todmorden, they had brothers Samuel born 1843 and George born in 1852.


James Sparks

born 1846

It is possible that the brothers came at different times to Walsden and maybe James was the first to arrive. He was born in 1846 and had married Elizabeth Guard in 1867 at Torrington in Devon, but when daughter Elizabeth Ann was born in 1868, they were already in the Walsden area. They settled there and went on to have another six children. Selina was born in 1869 but she sadly died aged 3 weeks and was buried in St. Peter's, their local church. James came along next and was baptised in 1871 and the family were living in Butcher Hill at the time. Mary was born in 1872, followed by John Guard in 1874, William in 1876 and Emily in 1879.

James died before 1881, leaving his widow, Elizabeth, with a family of six young children at Cow Head St., Knowlwood. Elizabeth worked as a cotton drawer and three of the children were of working age, all finding employment in the cotton factory, leaving just 3 at school, so at least there was money coming into the house from wages, which would ease the situation a little. However, the stress and pressure took its toll on her as can be seen from the following report from the Todmorden Advertiser of 6th. August 1886:

Alleged Defamation and Threats

Elizabeth Sparks was summoned for aggravated defamation and threats by Nancy Woodhead. Both parties are married and live at Loom Shop, Knowlwood; Mr. J. W. Shackleton, solicitor, appeared for the defendant. The complainant said on Saturday night last, between 9 and 10 o'clock, whilst sat in her own house, she heard the defendant cursing and swearing and using her (Woodhead's) name. She went and opened the door, and found P.C. Leach was stood outside listening as well. She heard the defendant call her several offensive names and accuse her of thieving. The language used was of the most disgusting character. The defendant also said if she could get hold of her (Woodhead) she would "rive her bl.... guts out." In cross-examination by Mr. Shackleton, the complainant admitted that the defendant never came ouside her own house, but uttered the defamation and threats inside her own house, loud enough to be heard outside. The defendant's daughter tried to get her to cease using violent and obscene language. P.C. Leach said he was drawn to the place by hearing a disturbance. The noise proceeded from the defendant's house, but the door was shut, and he could not tell to whom the language referred. Cross-examined by Mr. Shackleton, the officer said he did not hear any words used directly against the complainant. Re-examined by the complainant: I asked who it was that was making use of the language, and you (Woodhead) said it was Mrs. Sparks, otherwise known as Devonshire Lizz. I did not say I would have locked her up if she had been outside. James Gibson, who lodges with the complainant, gave some corroboration, after which the Bench dismissed the case without hearing Mr. Shackleton for the defence, the chairman remarking that there was no case.

Elizabeth died at the early age of 43 just 4 years later in 1890 and was buried in the graveyard at Christ Church.


In Loving Memory of Elizabeth Sparks of Knowlwood who died October 8th 1890 aged 43.

Also of Emily her daughter

who died August 14th 1895 aged 17 years.

Also of William her son

who died December 7th 1896 aged 21 years.


After the death of their mother, the children went separate ways, but all stayed in the Knowlwood area, still close to each other. William went to live with his uncle Edward at 26, Loom Shop, Knowlwood, next door to his sister Elizabeth Anne who kept a lodging house and was still unmarried. She had two sons, Henry aged 7 and Herbert Smith aged 1, who died a year later at the age of only 2. William died in 1896 at 129, Knowlwood Road and was buried with his mother at Christ Church. Emily had gone to live at 6, Cross Street and died there in 1895 aged 17. She was also buried at Christ Church with her mother and brother William.


Thomas Richard Sparks


The next son of John and Elizabeth and brother of James, was Thomas Richard, who was born in 1848. His wife Emma came from Crediton in Devon and they may have been married before they came north. Their first child, however, was born in Todmorden in 1872. He was named James Thomas and he was followed two years later by John. Charles Henry came along three years after that in 1877 and then John William in 1883 and Henrietta Florence in 1885.

Thomas ran a successful lodging house at Butcher Hill for many years and in 1881 there were 11 lodgers. By 1891 Thomas was running three houses in Butcher Hill and had a total of 61 lodgers. The lodging houses had been built by John Lord, a butcher and farmer from Middle Swineshead. The lodgers were mainly from Lancashire and Yorkshire with the usual Irish quota, and others from Scotland, Sussex and Lincolnshire.

One of the long term lodgers was Richard Walton, commonly called "Clumsy Dick" and he was well known in Todmorden as an eccentric man, but was a great authority on sport. In August of 1898 he was found drowned in the canal behind Derdale Mill, near Sandholme Bridge.

Sandholme Bridge


Another lodger who met an unfortunate end in 1899 was Frederick Johnson, a tailor, who at the age of 44 fell down the kitchen steps at the lodging house owned by Sparks and died from injuries to his head.

James Thomas, their eldest son, became a talented musician and pianist. In June of 1895 he married Annie Agnes Booth of Bank Street at the Parish Church. His father was highly delighted with this and promptly threw a celebratory free supper for over one hundred of his lodgers the following evening.

By 1896 James was advertising as a teacher of piano, organ and theory. What became of him isn't known. Maybe he left Todmorden and became a member of an orchestra and went on tour with his family.

On the 1901 census, Thomas and Emma's children had all left home and they were living on their own, with Thomas running a ship's lodging house. Their son Charles Henry had married by 1899 to a girl called Esther from Brighouse. Their daughter Florence was born in Eastwood in 1899 and in 1900 they were living in Rochdale where daughter Emma was born. The family had moved to Burnley by 1901 and Charles was a telephone wireman.


Henrietta Florence, their daughter, died in 1893 when she was only 8 and was buried at Christ Church. Her mother Emma died in 1904 and her father Thomas Richard lived to be 70, dying in 1917 and both are buried with Henrietta at Christ Church.


In loving memory of Henrietta Florence the beloved daughter of Thomas Richard and Emma Sparks

of Knowlwood, Todmorden

who died June 2 nd 1893 aged 8 years.

"Gone to Rest"

Also of the above named Emma Sparks

who died January 22 nd 1904 aged 54 years.

"Rest after Weariness Sweet Rest at Last"

Also of the above named Thomas Richard Sparks

who died August 16 th 1917 aged 70

Also Thomas Newton Sparks

who died July 11 th 1920 aged 3 months.


Edward Sparks

born 1850


Edward was born in 1850 in High Bickington but by 1873 he was living in Todmorden as he married Susan Coles there in that year. She also came from his home town of High Bickington. The newly married couple settled in the Butcher Hill area, near his brothers and Edward worked as a road labourer, taking in lodgers to earn a little more money for his growing family. In 1881 he had only three lodgers who were all railway workers from other parts of the country.

Edward and Susan's first son, William, born in 1875, lived for only a year and died in 1876, the same year his sister Alice was born. William was buried in St. Peter's, Walsden. Daughter Ada came along in 1880 and then brothers William Henry in 1882 and Ernest in 1889. By 1891, he was still in the Knowlwood area, living at 26, Loom Shop, next to the Spinners Rest Inn.

The Spinners Rest on Butcher Hill

The only lodger in 1891 was his nephew, William. Edward's wife Susan died at 153, Knowlwood Road in 1898 aged 42 and was buried in Christ Church graveyard.


In loving Memory of Susan wife of Edward Sparks

of Knowlwood Road, Walsden

who died June 24th 1898 aged 42 years.

Also William Henry their son

who died August 18th 1901 aged 20 years.


Charles Sparks

born 1858

Charles was the youngest of the Sparks brothers to come to Todmorden and the only one with a trade. Born in 1858, he became a wheelwright and soon found work in plenty in his adopted town.

He met Sarah Jane Hill, who also came from High Bickington, and within six weeks of meeting, they married. The wedding took place at St. Peter's, Walsden in 1877 and it wasn't long before they started a family. Son William Henry was born in 1878, but sadly died at the age of 7 months and was buried in St. Peter's. Alice came next in 1879 and must have made up somewhat for the loss of their baby son.

Tragedy struck again with the death of Willie at just 7 months in August 1881. Another sad trip to St. Peter's graveyard. By this time, Charles was well established in his trade as a wheelwright and was living near to the rest of his brothers at Butcher Hill.

John James, a much longed for son, arrived in 1882 followed by George in 1884. Heartache was to strike again when John James died in the January of 1886 and another sad journey was taken to St. Peter's in the bitter cold of a January day. Sam arrived in 1887 and things began to take a turn for the better, although more cruel blows were in store for Charles and Mary Jane.

Daughter Annie was the next to bring sorrow. Born in 1888 she died at 8 months old and again a burial had to be arranged at St. Peter's. Things ran along normally for the next few years with children being born at various intervals. A daughter Eva was born in 1889 and another son, Arthur, arrived in 1891 followed by Eli in 1894, Herbert in 1898 and finally two more daughters, Nellie in 1899 and in 1901, Selva arrived.

Selva was a name which had been handed down from the family in Devon and repeated in the generations, so Charles and Mary Jane continued this family tradition by giving the name to their new born daughter. Unfortunately, another cruel blow struck and Selva wasn't destined to carry the name into the twentieth century for long, as she died aged 2 in 1903. She was buried on the 12th. December 1903 at Cross Stone.

So out of 13 children, only 8 made it through childhood, probably the average for the time as child mortality was very high.


Whilst the family was increasing, Charles moved away from Butcher Hill, to set up a business at Lob Mill Arches as a wheelwright where he prospered for a while.

Charles' shop is on the extreme right and also shown in the photo is Harry Stell's firewood shop with the ladies and baby outside, whilst next door to the right of Harry Stell's is Abraham Marshall's (Puck Ab's) pie and pea tripe shop. Photograph by kind permission of Roger Birch.


Charles was too kind for his own good and more often than not he would take payment for work in kind. A few vegetables or bit of meat. This was all well and good, but it didn't feed his growing family. His wife Mary Jane ran a shop and had to sell it to pay off Charles' debts. No doubt "words" would have been exchanged, but in the end Charles was able to carry on with his trade.

Charles died at 42, Wellington Road in 1929 at the age of 71 and was buried at Cross Stone on 24th July 1929. After Charles died Mary Jane had a stroke and left Todmorden for Bury, to be looked after by her married daughter Nellie. She later returned to Todmorden to live with a son. In 1936 Mary Jane died and was buried with her husband in Cross Stone on the 24th of October 1936.

Nellie had married Sam Jackson in the twenties and they lived in Tottington Road, Bury. They had a daughter Sylvia and later Nellie married Leslie Lindop and went to live at Heap Bridge, Bury where their daughter June was born. June continues to live in Bury and it was she who kindly gave permission for this story and supplied information for it.

Descendents of these four brothers continue to live in Todmorden, and carried on being lodging house keepers at Knowlwood well into the twentieth century. A far cry from their ancestral county of Devon, but for them it is home.