Bruce Wilfred Sparks, 1923-1988

By R. B. G. Williams

Extracted from Journal of Conchology, Volume 33, pp. 255–258.
Bruce Wilfred Sparks, who was born in London on 19th February, 1923 and died at Papworth Hospital, Cambridge on the 5th December, 1988, was a distinguished geomorphologist and investigator of Quaternary molluscs. After war service with the Royal Navy, he graduated in 1947 with first class honours in geography from University College, London. He briefly taught at Queen Mary College before moving in 1949 to the Department of Geography at Cambridge where he taught for over thirty years before taking early retirement due to failing health. He is remembered with gratitude and affection by numerous past students for his quiet scholarship, gentle humour, and devotion to teaching. His first book, Geomorphology, published in 1960, quickly became a standard reference work for students and has now passed through three editions. It was followed in 1971 by Rocks and Relief, which examined the by then rather unfashionable geological underpinnings of geomorphology. He also wrote with R. G. West The Ice Age in Britain (1972), which provided a stimulating overview of the complex environmental changes of the Quaternary.

Elected to a Fellowship of Jesus College, Cambridge in 1962, Bruce Sparks devoted much time to College administration. He was Steward from 1964 to 1970, and Senior Tutor from 1970 to 1982: roles which he greatly enjoyed and filled with distinction. His many hobbies included photography, listening to classical music, reading detective novels, cooking wild fungi, and in later years making furniture and wooden toys.

Bruce Sparks began to take a special interest in Quaternary molluscs from quite early in his academic career. He often visited Hugh Watson, the redoubtable Cambridge recluse, to discuss problems of identification and nomenclature, and he corresponded with many British and European experts. Although primarily concerned with fossil molluscs, he sometimes went collecting in the Cambridge district to add to his stock of reference specimens and to extend his knowledge of the ecological requirements of less familiar species. A quiet, self effacing man, he seems rarely to have attended the Society’s meetings, and despite the importance of his work on fossil Mollusca, was probably little known personally by many of the present membership.

The first paper that Bruce Sparks wrote on fossil Mollusca appeared in the Geological Magazine in 1952, and described some periglacial and Post-glacial faunas in deposits at Barrington, Cambridgeshire. He had beginner’s luck and was able to add a new fossil species to the British list: Trochoidea geyeri (Soós). In the following year he supplied an appendix on the fossil Mollusca to accompany a paper by D. Walker on the interglacial deposits at Histon Road, Cambridge. Later in the fifties, he began a long and fruitful research partnership with R. G. West investigating interglacial deposits in eastern and southern England. He was always a very painstaking researcher: from one site alone he extracted and identified 36,645 shells! By the close of his research career, he had written over 35 papers and reports on Quaternary Mollusca.

Bruce Sparks did much to place the study of Quaternary molluscs on a sound, modern footing. He soon realised that the pioneer work of A. S. Kennard badly needed updating because Kennard had a very confused perception of Quaternary stratigraphy, and often determined which species of mollusc were present in sediments by simple visual inspection in the field. Sparks showed that this informal method of sampling tended to result in an over-representation of large species and that smaller species were often missed. He was, therefore, always careful to collect bulk samples of sediment, which he would wash through sieves to retrieve the fossil shells. He also pioneered the construction of histograms to chart the changing fortunes of different species through Quaternary sequences. In reconstructing past environments using Mollusca, he was much influenced by Boycott’s papers on the present ecological requirements of British species.

Bruce Sparks had the good fortune to discover Vallonia tenuilabris (Al Braun) in a loamy layer in periglacial fan deposits at Little Chesterford, Cambridgeshire. There had been a few previous British records, but he was able to show that these were either erroneous or at the very least highly suspect. He recovered only 2 shells at Little Chesterford, despite seiving the equivalent of a small lorry load of loam to try to recover more. The Vallonia has never been recorded again in any British Quaternary deposit, although it is a not uncommon fossil in the Netherlands, and suggestions have sometimes been made that Sparks suffered a lapsus crassus and unwittingly allowed specimens of Continental origin from his reference collection to contaminate his Little Chesterford samples. However the shells he found were plugged with loam from the Little Chesterford deposits, and knowing how carefully he worked, both in the field and in the laboratory, I am sure that contamination can be ruled out, and that the species will be one day refound in a British Quaternary deposit.

One classic mistake that he made early in his research career and freely acknowledged concerned some supposedly Quaternary snails that a collector sent him from a desert area of the Middle East. He duly identified the shells, which were very dirty, and put them with labels into specimen tubes stopped up with corks. A year or so later he came to look at the shells again, and found the labels missing or in one case half eaten, and on placing the shells on wet blotting paper discovered to his chagrin that the Mollusca were not as fossil as he had been led to believe!

Bruce Sparks was forced to give up his work on molluscs in the late seventies because of failing eyesight, but his research has generated much new interest in Quaternary studies and fostered an increased awareness of the importance of fossil Mollusca. He entrusted nearly all his specimens from the various Quatemary sites that he investigated to the Sedgewick Museum, Cambridge, but his reference collection, which includes many gifts from Hans Schlesch, is presently in the writer’s care at the University of Sussex. Conchology has lost an enthusiastic and very distinguished practitioner who will long be remembered for his many and varied research contributions. It was a privilege to have known him, and he will be greatly missed.

Bibliograpy of publications by Bruce Wilfred Sparks.

Extracted from Journal of Conchology, Volume 33, pp.256–258


1949. The denudation chronology of the dip-slope of the South Downs. Proc. Geol. Ass., 60: 165–207; discussion, 207–215.
1949. A note on a section of coombe rock and brickearth at Angmering-on-Sea, Sussex. Proc. Geol. Ass., 60: 288–93.
1949. Geomorphology by the seaside. Geography, 34: 216–20.
1950. Field meeting on the South Downs, Proc. Geol. Ass., 61: 163–4.
1951. Two drainage diversions in Dorset. Geography, 36: 186–93.
1952. (With A. T. GROVE) La déplacement des galets par le vent sur le glace. Rev. Géomorph. dynam., 1: 37–39.
1952. Great Britain. Rapports préliminaire pour la & Assemblée Générale et le 17e Congres Internationale, Commission de Morphologie périglaciaire, Union Géographiques Internationale, 13- 14.
1952. Notes on some Pleistocene sections at Barrington, Cambridgeshire. Geol. Mag., 89: 163–174; discussion, 382–3.
1953. Erosion-surfaces around Dieppe. Proc. Geol. Ass., 64: 105–117.
1953. Stages in the physical evolution of the Weymouth lowland. Trans. Papers Inst. Br. Geog., (1952) 18: 17–29.
1953. Effects of weather on the determination of heights by aneroid barometer in Great Britain. Geogrl J., 119: 73–80.
1953. The former occurrence of both Helicella striata (Müller) and H. geyeri (Soós) in England, J. Conch. Lond., 23: 372–378.
1953. The non-marine Mollusca. [Appendix to D. WALKER, The interglacial deposits at Histon Road, Cambridge]. Q. J. Geol. Soc. Lond., 108: 280–282.
1954. Fossil and recent species of Vallonia. Proc. malac. Soc., 30: 110–121.
1955. Notes on four Quaternary deposits in the Cambridge region. J. Conch. Lond., 24: 47–53.
1956. The non-marine Mollusca of the Hoxne Interglacial [Appendix to R. G. West, The Quaternary deposits at Hoxne, Suffolk]. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B., 239: 351–354.
1957. (With R. A. HAMILTON & C. A. BIDDLE). Surveying aneroids: their uses and limitations. Geogrl. J., 123: 481–498.
1957. (With W. V. LEWIS). Escarpment dry valleys near Pegsdon, Hertfordshire. Proc. Geol. Ass., 68: 26–36; discussion, 36–8.
1957. The evolution of the relief of the Cam valley. Geogrl. J., 123: 189–203; discussion, 203–207.
1957. The Taele gravel near Thriplow, Cambridgeshire. Geol. Mag., 94: 194–200.
1957. The non-marine Molluscs of the interglacial deposits at Bobbitshole, Ipswich. Phil. Tram. R. Soc. Lond. B., 241: 33–34.
1958. Report on non-marine Molluscs from Brigg, Lincolnshire. [Appendix to A. G. SMITH, Post-glacial deposits in South Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire. New Phytol., 57: 47–8.
1958. (With H. ELHAÏ). Une tourbiére littorale, Coleville-s.-Mer (Calvados). Bull. Geol. Soc. France, (6) 8: 295–304.
1959. Hartford non-marine Molluscs. [Appendix to H. Godwin, Plant remains from Hartford, Hunts.]. New Phytol., 58: 85–91.
1959. (With R. G. WEST). The palaeoecology of the interglacial deposits at Histon Road, Cambridge. Eiszeit Gegenw, 10: 123–43.
1960. Geomorphology (Longmans, London). 2nd edition 1972; 3rd edition 1986.
1960. (With R. G. WEST). Coastal interglacial deposits of the English Channel. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B, 243: 95–133.
1960. Land Molluscs [Appendix to J. Alexander, P. C. Ozanne and A. Ozanne, Report on the investigation of a round barrow on Arreton Down, Isle of Wight], Proc. Prehist. Soc., 26: 299–301.
1961. The ecological interpretation of Quaternary non-marine Molluscs, Proc. Linn. Soc. Lond., 172: 71–80.
1961. (With A. T. GROVE) Some Quaternary fossil non-marine Molluscs from the central Sahara. J. Linn. Soc. Lond., (2) 44: 355–64.
1961. (With N. F. LARGE). The non-marine Molluscs of the Cairncross terrace near Stroud, Gloucestershire. Geol. Mag., 98: 423–426.
1961. (With C. A. LAMBERT). The post-glacial deposits at Apethorpe, Northamptonshire, Proc. maloc. Soc., 34: 302–15.
1962. Post-glacial Molluscs from Hawes Water, Lancashire, illustrating some difficulties of interpretation, J. Conch. Lond., 25: 78–82.
1962. Relief, in Great Britain: geographical essays, J. B. MITCHELL, ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 3–16. Reprinted in Landforms and geomorphology: concepts and history C. A. M. KING, ed., Dowden, Hutchinson and Ross, Stroudsburg, Pa.; Benchmark Papers in Geology, 28: 229–35.
1962. Rates of operation of geomorphological processes. Geography, 47: 145–53.
1963. (With A. T. GROVE) Fossil non-marine Molluscs from Mongonu, north-east Nigeria. Overseas Geol. mineral Res., 9: 190–5.
1963. The non-marine Mollusca from the Cromer Forest Bed series at West Runton [Appendix to S. L. Duigan, Pollen analyses of the Cromer Forest Bed Series in East Anglia], Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B, 246: 197–9.
1963. (With C. A. LAMBERT & R. G. PEARSON). A flora and fauna from late Pleistocene deposits at Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge. Proc. Linn. Soc. Lond., 174:13–29.
1963. (With R. G. WEST) The interglacial deposits at Stutton, Suffolk. Proc. Geol. Ass., 74: 419–32.
1963. Non-marine Molluscs and archaeology in Science in archaeology D. BROTHWELL and E. HIGGS, eds., Thames and Hudson, London: 313–23; 2nd edition (1969): 395–406.
1964. The distribution of non-marine Molluscs in the last interglacial in southeast England. Proc. malac. Soc., 36: 7–25.
1964. (With R. G. WEST) The drift landforms around Holt, Norfolk. Trans. Papers Inst. Br. Geog., 35: 27—35.
1964. Non-marine Mollusca [Appendix to W. A. Watts, Interglacial deposits at Baggotstown, near Bruff, Co. Limerick]. Proc. R. irish Acad. B, 63: 180–181.
1964. A note on the Pleistocene deposit at Grantchester, Cambridgeshire. Geol. Mag., 101: 334–339.
1964. Non-marine Molluscs and Quaternary ecology. J. anim. Ecol., 33 (Suppl.), 87–98.
1964. Non-marine Molluscs collected by Dr. C. Vita-Finzi in Jordan [Appendix to C. Vita-Finzi, Observations on the late Quaternary of Jordan]. Palestine Exploration Qu., 96: 32–3.
1964. (With R. G. WEST & C. A. LAMBERT). Interglacial deposits at Ilford, Essex. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B, 247: 185–212.
1965. (With R. G. WEST). The relief and drift deposits, in The Cambridge region J. A. STEERS ed., Cambridge Local Committee, British Association for the Advancement of Science, Cambridge: 18–40.
1965. Report on non-marine Molluscs [Appendix to K. S. Sandford, Notes on the gravels of the Upper Thames floodplain between Lechslade and Dorchester]. Proc. Geol. Ass., 76: 75.
1967. (With D. M. CHURCHILL & J. R. HAYNES). Molluscs and plants (in P. SALWAY, Excavations at Hockwold-cum-Wilton, Norfolk, 1961–1962]. Proc. Camb. Antiq. Soc. 60: 70–73.
1967. (With R. G. WEST). A note on the Interglacial deposit at Bobbitshole, near Ipswich. Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc. 13: 390–392.
1968. (With R. G. WEST). Interglacial deposits at Wortwell, Norfolk. Geol. Mag., 105: 471–81.
1969. (With R. G. WEST, R. B. G. WILLIAMS & M. RANSOM). Hoxnian interglacial deposits near Hatfield, Herts. (abstract). Circ. Geol. Soc. Lond., 711: 1–2.
1969. (With R. G. WEST, R. B. G. WILLIAMS & M. RANSOM), Hoxnian interglacial deposits near Hatfield, Herts. Proc. Geol. Ass., 80: 243–267.
1970. (With R. G. WEST). Late Pleistocene deposits at Wretton, Norfolk, 1. Ipswichian interglacial deposits. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B, 258: 1–30.
1970. The role of rocks in relief. West Commem. Vol.,: 105–13.
1971. Rocks and relief, Longman, London; St Martin’s Press, New York.
1972. (With R. B. G. WILLIAMS & F. G. BELL). Presumed ground-ice depressions in East Anglia, Proc. R. Soc. A, 327: 329–343.
1972. (With R. G. WEST). The Ice Age in Britain (Methuen, London). 2nd edition, 1981.
1974. (With R. G. WEST, C. A. DICKSON, J. A. CATT & A. H. WEIR). Late Pleistocene deposits at Wretton, Norfolk, II. Devensian deposits. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B, 267: 337–420.
1980. Land and freshwater Molluscs of the West Runton Freshwater Bed. In The pre-glacial Pleistocene of the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts R. G. WEST, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 27–37, 114.