There are two competing stories of the origins of the Sykes family. James Legard claims that the Sykes family had land in the parish of Thornhill near Leeds in the thirteenth century. However, the story with official currency is that the family may originally have been from Saxony and were settled in Sykes Dyke near Carlisle in Cumberland during the middle ages. William Sykes (c.1500-1577), a younger son of Richard Sykes of Sykes Dyke, migrated to the West Riding of Yorkshire and settled near Leeds. Here the family built up its wealth in the cloth trade (Foster, Pedigrees; Legard, The Legards, p.191; Syme, 'Sledmere Hall', p.41; Ward, East Yorkshire landed estates, p.13).
William Sykes had at least five sons, one of whom was a Catholic priest who was hanged drawn and quartered at York Castle in 1588. A younger son, Richard Sykes (c.1530-1576) helped his father build up the business in the cloth trade and his son, another Richard Sykes, was a wealthy alderman and joint lord of the manor of Leeds after purchase in 1625. He is said to have built the workhouse in Leeds and he left a vast personal fortune which included £10,000 to each of his daughters. In 1593 he married Elizabeth Mawson and they had six sons and four daughters. Two sons died in infancy and another as a young man. The older surviving sons stayed in and around Leeds. The fifth son, William Sykes (b.1605), established himself in Knottingley and married Grace Jenkinson. William Sykes died a prisoner in York Castle in 1652 leaving his wife with five sons and three daughters all under the age of twenty. In 1684 Grace, who was a quaker, followed her husband to York Castle and she died in the following year (Foster, Pedigrees; English, The great landowners; p.28; Hobson, 'Sledmere and the Sykes family').
William and Grace Sykes' fourth son, Daniel (b.1632), was the first of this merchant family to begin trading in Hull. He married Deborah Oates, daughter of the mayor of Pontefract where both he and his wife were later buried. He was twice mayor of Hull and amassed a fortune from shipping and finance, thus moving away from the family tradition of trading in cloth. They had two sons, Joseph and Richard, the former of whom drowned in May 1697. William Sykes died just a few months later in August 1697. The younger son, Richard (b.1678), diversified the family trading interests further concentrating on the flourishing Baltic trade and the wealth of the family was built on this in the first half of the eighteenth century. By the 1750s the Sykes family shared 60% of Hull's pig iron trade with Hull's other leading eighteenth-century merchant family, the Maisters. Richard Sykes consolidated his position by marrying Mary Kirkby, co-heiress to the estates of the third largest merchant in Hull, Mark Kirkby. They had three sons and three daughters. Two daughters died in infancy. The youngest son, Daniel, was born in January 1714 and buried in April, having died within a few days of his mother who was buried with him. Richard Sykes married, secondly, Martha Donkin, and had by her two sons, one of whom died in infancy. Richard Sykes and his second wife died within days of one another, in 1726. Their surviving son, Joseph Sykes (1723-1805), went on to manage the family's business with his older half brother, Richard Sykes (b.1706). Joseph and Richard Sykes ultimately split their business interests and Joseph Sykes bought estates around West Ella and Kirk Ella just outside Hull. Estate and family papers for Joseph Sykes are at DDKE which has a separate entry (Foster, Pedigrees; Hobson, 'Sledmere and the Sykes family'; Jackson, Hull in the eighteenth century, p.96).
Richard Sykes the younger, came into the Sledmere estates in 1748. These were his mother's inheritance from her brother Mark Kirkby who had lived in the Tudor mansion house there since the death of their father in 1718 and had, in the final five years of his life, spent £4000 increasing his Sledmere landholdings. Richard Sykes took this programme of expansion further. He demolished the house and built a new one in 1751. He rebuilt Sledmere church, bought more land and, sensibly, planted 20,000 trees on the previously-treeless wolds. Richard Sykes became high sheriff of Yorkshire in 1752. He married twice but died childless in 1761 (Foster, Pedigrees; John Cornforth, Sledmere House, p.3; Hobson, 'Sledmere and the Sykes family').
Richard Sykes was succeeded at Sledmere by his brother, Mark Sykes (b.1711), second son of the older Richard Sykes and Mary Kirkby. Mark Sykes took B.A. and then M.A. in Cambridge and was a fellow of Peterhouse. He was awarded his Doctorate in Divinity in the same year he inherited Sledmere, 1761. He had a living at Roos and was resident there when his brother died. He was married to Decima Woodham by whom he had five sons and a daughter. Two sons died in infancy and another two died as young adults leaving no children of their own. Their daughter married but also died without issue. When Mark Sykes died in 1783, therefore, he was succeeded at Sledmere by his one surviving child, Christopher Sykes, who also inherited his father's baronetcy awarded in the last months of his father's life (Foster, Pedigrees; Hobson, 'Sledmere and the Sykes family').
Christopher Sykes was born in 1749. He was MP for Beverley 1784-90 and though he supported Pitt during the regency crisis and voted for parliamentary reform he is not known to have spoken in the house. In 1770 he made a very fortuitous marriage with Elizabeth Egerton of Tatton whose inheritance of £17,000 from her father was hugely augmented by her inheriting her brother's Cheshire estates and another £60,000 from her aunt in 1780. Christopher Sykes sold off shipping interests and government stock and he and his wife built up the Sledmere estate. They frantically bought land and enclosed huge areas for cultivation with artificial fertilizers. In the 1780s Elizabeth's third inheritance was ploughed into building two new wings to the house and Christopher Sykes not only worked closely with the plasterer, Joseph Rose, on the interior decoration, but was largely responsible for the exterior design after seeking plans from both John Carr and Samuel Wyatt. The grounds were landscaped along the lines of plans by Capability Brown and 1000 acres of trees were planted. The entire village of Sledmere was relocated. Christopher Sykes clearly visualised himself as a man who had left commerce and joined the landed classes. A famous picture of him and his wife, painted by George Romney in the 1780s, depicts the couple surveying their parkland estates stretching away to the horizon; Christopher Sykes holds in his hands spectacles and an estate plan. He had an engraving done of the vast library he built and sent copies of it to friends (Foster, Pedigrees; Namier & Brooke, The house of commons, iii, p.514; Hobson, 'Sledmere and the Sykes family'; English, The great landowners, pp.28-9, 62-6; Cornforth, Sledmere House, p.4; Syme, 'Sledmere Hall', pp. 43-6; Pevsner & Neave, York and the East Riding, p.693; Popham, 'Sir Christopher Sykes at Sledmere' I & II).
Christopher Sykes was a gambler 'playing the futures market in land'. He indulged in 'breathless selling and buying', but he did so at a time when continental war was forcing up agricultural prices. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century rentals in Sledmere increased sevenfold and Christopher Sykes used this money, plus money from a bank started in the 1790s, to buy and sell and buy and sell even more. By the time he died he was indebted to the tune of nearly £90,000 but he left behind him a vast estate of nearly 30,000 acres and a large mansion set in its own 200 acre parkland (English, The great landowners, pp.62-6; Ward, East Yorkshire landed estates, pp.13-15).
Christopher and Elizabeth Sykes lived until 1801 and 1803 respectively. They left behind three sons and two daughters. Their youngest daughter, Elizabeth, married back into the Egerton family of Tatton Park. Their second son, Tatton, and eldest daughter married offspring of Sir William Foulis of Ingleby manor. Their eldest son, Mark Masterman Sykes (b.1771), married Henrietta Masterman in 1795. Henrietta was the heiress of Henry Masterman of Settrington Hall and Mark Sykes therefore assumed the name of Masterman. He married, secondly, in 1814, a member of the Egerton family. He went to Brasenose college, Oxford and was high sheriff of Yorkshire in 1795 and MP for York from 1807 to 1820. He was a sportsman and gambler, but was also a knowledgeable collector of books and fine arts with one of the finest private libraries in England filling the library his father had built. He collected especially first printed editions of the classics, the jewel in his collection being a late fifteenth-century edition of Livy which sold for 400 guineas in 1824. He also owned one of the 18 known copies of the Gutenberg Bible. Mark Masterman Sykes died childless in 1823 and the estate and his collections were inherited by his younger brother Tatton Sykes (Foster, Pedigrees; Dictionary of National Biography; Ross, Celebrities of the Yorkshire wolds, p.154; Hobson, 'Sledmere and the Sykes family'; Fairfax-Blakeborough, Sykes of Sledmere, p.47).
Sir Tatton Sykes (b.1772), 4th baronet, 'was not a great scholar'. As a young man he was made articled clerk to a London law firm, but quickly developed an interest in racing rather than the law. He returned to Yorkshire, worked for a while for a Hull bank, but developed more of an interest in agricultural techniques, especially the use of bone manures. 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 £6000 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 with his tenants (they helped erect a vast 120 foot monument to his memory at Garton on the Wolds when he died), but whose cruelty to his own family had far-reaching effects. He beat his children and his behaviour made his wife a cold and distant mother to them who escaped to London whenever she could and who hid in her orangery with her flowers when she was at home. Their eldest son 'grew up in an atmosphere devoid of love' and when he succeeded to the estates on his father's death in 1863 he immediately sold his father's race horses and demolished his mother's orangery (Foster, Pedigrees; information about the Sledmere stud is contained in Fairfax-Blakeborough, Sykes of Sledmere; Noakes, 'Memories of Sir Tatton Sykes'; Denton Robinson, 'A Yorkshire landmark'; Sykes, The visitors' book, pp.19-20, 28-32; Kay, Great men of Yorkshire, pp.108-115; Dictionary of National Biography; Ross, Celebrities of the Yorkshire wolds, pp.155-7; English, The great landowners, pp. 218, 220; Hobson, 'Sledmere and the Sykes family').
Tatton Sykes, 5th baronet, was born in 1826. His harsh childhood turned him into a rather withdrawn man who was an uncomfortable landlord. He disliked the sight of women and children lingering out the front of houses and made the tenants bolt up their front doors and only use back entrances. He banned the cultivation of flowers in Sledmere village. However, he was also efficient. The sale of his father's stud for £30,000 enabled him to concentrate on only buying a number of winning horses and by 1892 he owned 34,000 acres of land and was able to keep this vast estate running at a profit most years despite a decade of severe economic depression. He was also charitable in very particular ways. He was involved in the restoration of 17 churches at a cost of £10,000 each most of which came out of his private purse rather than estate accounts (Sykes, The visitors' book, pp.31-2; Hobson, 'Sledmere and the Sykes family'; English, The great landowners, p.226; Ward, East Yorkshire landed estates, p.15; English, 'On the eve of the great depression', p.40).
Tatton Sykes was cornered into marriage in 1874 by the very determined mother of (Christina Anne) Jessica Cavendish-Bentinck who was thirty years his junior. Their marriage was a disaster and the coldness of their relations caused a rift that deepened with the passing years. She bore him a child, Mark Sykes, in 1879 and three years later she and the child became Catholics. By the 1890s Jessica Sykes was leading a gay but fragile (and alcoholic) life in London and sometimes overseas. She published a novel, a travel journal in Africa during the Boer war and a political commentary on France, but fell further and further into debt and disgrace culminating in Tatton Sykes refusing to pay her debts followed by a very spectacular court case. She died prematurely in 1912. Tatton Sykes died a year later, leaving their son to succeed (Sykes, The visitors' book, pp.36ff; Hobson, 'Sledmere and the Sykes family').
Mark Sykes seems to have been more the product of his mother than his father, a restless man with a talent for writing. His first book came out in 1900 and was a political travel journal, 'Through Five Turkish Provinces'. In 1903 he married the sister of his mother's lover, Edith Gorst, and their honeymoon took them to Paris, Rome, Constantinople and Jerusalem. This kind of frantic travelling was to characterise their life together. Mark Sykes' next literary venture, a military parody and satire called 'Tactics' and military training (published semi-pseudonomously by Major-General George D'Ordel), was a huge success and brought him to the attention of George Wyndham, chief secretary of Ireland, who offered him the post of private secretary which he took. However, bored with the job he produced two more books, 'Dar-ul-Islam' and 'D'Ordel's Pantechnicon' (Sykes, The visitors' book, pp.156-87; Hobson, 'Sledmere and the Sykes family'; Adelson, Mark Sykes, passim).
In 1904 Mark and Edith Sykes had their first child, Freya, and she was followed by Richard (b.1905), Christopher and Petsy (twins born in 1907), Angela (b.1911) and Daniel (b.1916). The second child, Richard, was born while Mark Sykes was serving as honorary attache in Constantinople before he and his wife travelled back to England in 1906, largely on horseback. His final major work, 'The Caliph's Last Heritage' was an acount of this journey and it appeared, edited by his wife, in 1915. On his return Mark Sykes threw himself into national and local politics and was elected MP for Central Hull in 1911. Just before the outbreak of the war he inherited the shell of Sledmere house, which had been devastated by fire in 1911, and he spent the next half dozen years rebuilding with the help of Walter Brierley (details in English, 'The Rebuilding of Sledmere House'). From 1915 the family lived in the house and it served as a troop hospital during the war. Mark Sykes occupied himself for the early part of the war developing the Waggoner's Special Reserve with 1000 men trained as technical reservists. From about May 1915 he became more directly involved after being called to the War Office by Lord Kitchener. He was employed in intelligence and diplomatic work, being regarded as an expert on the Middle East. The collection is filled with his letters and reports from his time in this role and are especially rich in material about the pan-Arab movement, and Zionism to which he was an early convert.. He is largely remembered for the part he played in forging an Inter-Allied agreement about the Middle East in 1916 (called the Sykes-Picot agreement). In late 1916 he was made political secretary to the war cabinet and again journeyed to the Middle East. A year later he was moved to the Foreign Office where he advised on Arab and Palestinian affairs. In 1918 he was reporting on Armenian refugees and problems of Middle East resettlement. He was re-elected to parliament while away with a huge majority. While in Paris during the peace conference Mark Sykes contracted influenza and died at the age of only 39. He was a crucial figure in Middle East policy decision-making during the first world war and his papers are a very rich source of material on war policy (Adelson, Mark Sykes, chpts.10-15; Dictionary of National Biography; Hobson, 'Sledmere and the Sykes family').
When Mark Sykes died, Edith was left with a family who ranged in age from three years to thirteen years. His younger son, Christopher, went on to write (in his own name and pseudonomously), romances, murders, travel stories, pseudo-philosophical war commentaries and biographies, so following in the footsteps of his father and grandmother. Richard Sykes, who became 7th baronet, married Virginia Gilliat, and they had six children between 1943 and 1957. He inherited an estate reduced by a third by his father to pay death duties and the debts of Jessica Sykes. However the Sledmere estate is still one of the largest landed estates in Yorkshire and its impact on the wolds is very visible. It is now run by the oldest son of Richard Sykes, Tatton Sykes, the 8th baronet, who succeeded when his father died in 1978 (Cornforth, 'Sledmere house', p.32; obit. in The Georgian Society for East Yorkshire).