Sparrow hawk
The Origin of the Name Sparks
by: Dr. Russell E. Bidlack

The following article is taken from the Sparks Quarterly
The Official Publication of the Sparks Family Association, Vol. 1, June 1953 No 2.

We all know that surnames, or family names, did not exist in Bible times, but it comes as something of a surprise to most of us when we learn that for a thousand years after the birth of Christ, surnames were still almost unheard-of. When William the Conqueror established himself in England, even the nobles did not have surnames -- in fact, family names were not common among the nobility until the thirteenth century, and were not generally adopted by the lower classes until the sixteenth century.

The first to use surnames in England were the great land-owners, the noblemen, who took as their surnames the names of their estates. Thus a man named Richard might own an estate called Cotgrove, and in order to distinguish him from a neighbor also named Richard, his friends referred to him as "Richard de Cotgrove" ("de" being French for "of"). Sons usually inherited the estate, and in a sense he also inherited his father's family name. Eventually the preposition was dropped, and a true family name developed, which, unlike an estate, could be inherited by all the children. These are called "place names".

Only a small number of the inhabitants of England, however, owned land, and as it became desirable, for one reason or another to have a surname. Some source other than the name of property was necessary for the great majority of Englishmen. For many, a name was supplied by asking, "What does he do"? This is the origin of the thousands of so called "occupational names", such as Smith, Farmer, Cartwright, Arrowsmith, Shoemaker and Sherman (one who shears woolen cloth).

Another question which might be asked was, "Who is his father"? If the answer were Richard, he would be called Richard's son which is the origin of the name Richardson. In other cases the "son" would not become part of the name, but the possessive "s" would remain, and the result was Richard's or Richards.

A fourth source of surnames was the answer to the question, "What does he look like?", or "What is his most prominent peculiarity"? Thus originated such names as Short, Long, Big and Small, in assigning nicknames such as Shorty, Tiny, Red and Gabby. Nicknames are derived, however, from many sources other than physical characteristics, and writers on the origin of surnames are careful to point out that in dealing with a surname which has derived from a nickname, we can never know for sure just why the nickname was applied in the first place. Such is the problem we face when we attempt to account for the name SPARKS, because the surname Sparks did begin as a nickname.

Authorities are agreed that the name Sparks has derived from the name Sparrowhawk, a nickname which was used in England long before the coming of William the Conqueror. It is not believed, however, that the name Sparrowhawk became a family name until the 13th century. The earliest person on record who was called Sparrowhawk was an Anglo-Saxon monk of St. Edmundsbury who became Abbot in Abingdon in the year 1048. The story of how Spearhafoc (as the name was spelled in Anglo-Saxon) was given the bishopric of London by Edward the Confessor in 1050 but was never consecrated because of the opposition of the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

In the Doomsday Book (the record of a great survey of the lands of England made between 1085 and 1086 by order of William the Conqueror) the names Sparhauoc and Sperhavoc (both intended for Sparrowhawk) appear among the landowners who had possessed land at the time of Edward the Confessor.

The sparrow hawk has been a common bird in England for many centuries. Probably dozens of other persons were also nicknamed Sparrowhawk, of whom no record has survived. The sparrow hawk is really a small falcon, eleven to twelve inches long, and was used extensively in the ancient sport of falconry, where hawks were trained to attack other birds and carry them back to their masters. It is described in the Encyclopedia Americana as a very bold and active bird, and not infrequently may be seen to attack other and larger birds of prey, its courage extending even to recklessness, while it is also shy and wary.

In 1538, Henry the VIII, King of England, decreed that each head of a family acquire a surname for himself and his family (providing that he did not already have one -- and the vast majority of the populace were without a family name), and that all births, marriages and deaths be recorded in the parish register. Thus it happened that, some four hundred years ago, an Englishman nicknamed Sparrowhawk, handed his name down to his sons, and our family name became firmly established. Due to the popularity of the sparrow hawk, there no doubt were several men in England in the 16th Century with the name, or nickname, of Sparrowhawk who assumed it as their family name. Therefore, persons today with the name Sparrowhawk, or Sparks, do not all descend from one particular ancestor of the name, but from several, who were widely scattered over England, and unrelated.

It would be extremely interesting if we could know exactly who our own remote ancestor was who established the name as our family name. We should like to know why his neighbors called him Sparrowhawk--was he bold and active like the bird, or was he just the opposite, and people called him Sparrowhawk to make fun of him? Or did some comic suggest that he actually resembled a sparrow hawk because of a hooked nose or protruding eyes? Or was he fond of the sport of falconry possessing a large number of sparrow hawks for that purpose? Or did he operate an inn which had a picture of a sparrow hawk on its sign, and was known as Sparrow-hawk's Inn? These questions must remain forever unanswered.

Knowing that the remote originator of the name Sparks was named Sparrowhawk, the question naturally arises, "How and why did the name change"? Elsdon C. Smith in "The Story of Our Names" states: "Ever since surnames first became part of man's full name, they have been changed, corrupted and multiplied almost beyond number by bringing to bear up on them many diverse influences". One of the chief causes of the corruption of surnames, according to Smith, is lingual abbreviations and the example which he uses is Spark for Sparrowhawk. In other words, there is a tendency to shorten a name to make it easier and quicker to pronounce. In shortening Sparrowhawk, the first tendency was to eliminate the second syllable, and
change the name to Sparhawk. In fact, this lingual abbreviation probably took place in some cases while the name was still just a nickname. In order to shorten the name still further, the tendency was to eliminate the "haw" sound, and the result was Spark. Both of these changes came very early in the evolution of the name, for in the Hundred Rolls of 1273 there was a Thomas Sperheuk in Lincolnshire and a Nicholas Sparke in Norfolk. It is also important to note that everyone named Sparrowhawk did not end up with Spark. A few families retained the full, original spelling, and the name Sparhawk is common enough to be found in nearly any large city directory today.

During the 14th century the name Spark became more and more common as a surname. The records for this period are so meager, of course, that it is virtually impossible to trace the relationships which probably existed between many of these families. A John Spark, of Berwick-on-Tweed, appears to have been rather prominent during the reign of Edward I. In the Patent Rolls there is a record dated July 6, 1292 which names this John Spark as "going beyond seas on the King's affairs" and on August 13, 1302 he was appointed one of the "collectors and receivers in the port of Berwick-on-Tweed of the new custom of 2 sea tun....on all wines brought within the realm". The earliest reference to a Spark in the Patent Rolls is dated August 17, 1279 on which date pardon was issued at Geddington by Edward I "to Humphrey de Cheselade, in Evelcestre gaal for the death of Adam Spark".

The last change which took place in the name was the addition of the letter "s". This change, according to most authorities, came about as the result of adding the possessive, that is Spark's, when a son was identified by using his father's name. When a baptismal record was made it was customary to enter the father's name as well as that of the child, and it might read, "John, son of Richard Spark's".

The same boy might be identified in the community as "Spark's son". In some names the word "son" became a part of the name, as in the case of Wilcockson, while in others only the possessive "s" was tacked on, as happened in the case of Sparks. The question immediately arises as to why all surnames do not end in "s". One reason is that, though the genitive case ending of "s" came into official use in English in the 13th century, many years passed before it became common in colloquial speech. Why one name acquired it and another did not, can seldom be determined. Perhaps in some cases it simply sounded better and was easier to pronounce. In any case, many of the families named Spark gradually changed to Sparks. This final change seems to have occurred largely during the 16th Century, and by 1600 there were about as many persons named Sparks in England as were named Spark.

From the earliest settlement in America, we find persons bearing this name which had derived from Sparrowhawk. It is interesting, however, that in nearly all instances, the form of the name found in this country has been Sparks, so that today for everyone named Spark there are about one hundred named Sparks. In England, however, one form is nearly as common as the other. Guppy in his "The Homes of Family Names in Great Britain", published 1890, (pg 552), states that in Sussex there were 14 persons named Spark(e)s per 10,000 population); 7 in Devonshire; and 9 in Somersetshire. According to the 1790 Census of the United States, the ratio here was approximately 2 Sparks per 10,000 population. If the same ratio exists today, there are at the present time over 30,000 men, women and children in the United States with the surname of Sparks.

[End of Article from The Sparks Quarterly]

The Sparks Surname and the Sparks "Crest" or "Coat of Arms"

The Sparks name was originally Sparrowhawk. The story goes that when people began taking surnames from their occupations, there was a man who was the chief falconer for Richard the LionHearted. Richard's favorite falcon was the Sparrowhawk being the swiftest and most true. This man's name became Sparrowhawk. As time passed, some of his descendants shortened it to Sparks.

The family motto is "Celer et Verus" (Swift and True).

The Leopard Rampant is believed to have come from a Scottish Knight who was an ally of Richard's and saved the King's life twice during the Crusades. It was originally a sleeping leopard, but was raised to rampant because of the knight's efforts. The crest also contains a ducal coronet under the leopard and the leopard has fire spewing from his mouth and ears.

The Field - Chequy or et vert (gold and green checks) with band-ermine. (Those little things in the diagonal white stripe are ermine tails signifying royalty). The green checks are for the Scottish highlands.

This original article and image can be found at: