"The Pit that Cried itself to Death" by Christine Cartwright
On September 14th 1958 the Sunday Mercury Midlands regional newspaper carried an article about the imminent closure of Beech Tree Colliery in Foxcote Lane, Cradley. This is the text of that article. The same event had been announced in the previous day's edition of the County Express.
The shafts had been sunk between 1873 and 1874 but shortly afterwards mining ceased for over forty years, starting again in about 1919 under new ownership. It was now a modern mine, using electricity to drive pumps, air compressors and provide lighting. It was nationalised in 1947 and became part of the West Midlands Division, No. 3 District. It was extensively modernised by the National Coal Board from 1955 but operations continued for less than four more years.
The Beech Tree closed in 1958, the last pit in Cradley.
Transcribed by Jill Guest
Beech Tree Colliery
Behind the board a pit is dying. The tears are underground trickling in a disastrous seepage from the clay strata, washing roads and galleries out of existence.
Last May the pit was mechanised. Now the struggle is on to salvage as much machinery as possible while gallery walls disintegrate and collapse as the water penetrates. "It's enough to break your heart," said manager George Jeavons. "All the cutting machinery on the face has gone."
There's No Guarantee
The water seepage couldn't have been forseen. It probably came down a fault. And because of the position of the pit, surrounded by clay, it drained through. The flow could be kept down by pumps. But nothing can guarantee the life of the roads now the water is in the clay.
Closure of the pit has been ordered by the National Coal Board. Within a week salvage operations will be complete; 118 men will have been transferred to other collieries in the area; 27 ponies removed from their stables - and an estimated half a million tons of coal will lie under the deserted winding towers.
The last pit in the area will have become another ghost mine. Another way of life for the people of Lye, Cradley and Wollescote will be dead, and when the buildings eventually come down the view of Clent Hills will be uninterrupted.
The shaft at Beech Tree was sunk before the turn of the century by a man called James Holcroft. His name is still on the stack.
As soon as coal was proved, rival companies bought up all the mineral rights on one side. So the pit developed outwards towards the sandstone ridge. Coal was first bought up in 1921. It was poor quality and the seams were thin. "This is the place where the rich North Staffordshire seams start to peter out," said Mr Jeavons. But it was suitable for factories and it was sold.
"In those days," Mr Jeavons went on, "there was a pool in this area through which you sold your coal. They controlled the amount you cut."
In 1921 and 1926 strikes came to the mining industry, men were on short-time, working half shifts three days a week, or stint work- bringing so many tubs a day to the surface then going home. Conditions were bad, narrow seams, poor lighting, lack of machinery and no pithead baths, added to the unpleasantness."
Memories of those days are so instilled into the mind of my son," said Hartley Skidmore, a 57 year-old surface worker from Lye "that when I asked him if he was considering going into the pit he said he'd never follow me. He didn't like the state I used to come home in or the clouts I got." Mr Skidmore has had 42 years in the mines. He started in a gin pit where a horse walking round and round wound up the cage.
Thirty-two years ago he arrived at Beech Tree. He's seen the days when he's gone home with less than £1 a week in his pocket to keep a wife and family.
"Holidays used to be merely a walk over Clent Hills," he said. "Now I can afford a fortnight at Blackpool. I thought I should finish my time here. Now I shall have to tear up my roots and go somewhere else."
Pulling up those roots means leaving one of the few accident free pits in the country. Because of its position so near the clay, Beech Tree has no gas.
"In fact the only smell you can complain about," grinned Mr Jeavons, "is that of onions. The whole place reeks of them."
Nor is the mine hot. The 70 face workers rarely need to strip off any clothes. And the coal being worked when the water first came through two weeks ago was the best quality to come out of the pit. The shaft goes down 180 yards, and the seams run for roughly one mile. Horses are still used to pull the tubs.
"They are still the cheapest and most flexible form of transport for a small place like this," said Mr Jeavons. All but three have gone. David Parsons another old miner who started at 14, is in charge of them. "A pit pony," he said, "is one of the most trustworthy animals there is. And they develop the most wonderful instinct. If a shot firer is about to fire a charge, the pony will move away from the spot. And if your light goes out, all you have to do is catch hold of the pony's tail and he'll guide you back to his stable."
One legendary pony in the district is Robin. Now more than 30 years old heis retired and lives a life of pampered ease on the surface. In his time he has met civic dignitaries, mayors, and colliery officials. He was friends with them all.... providing they came armed with a few lumps of sugar. But even Robin got a bit flummoxed during the war when a batch of 30 Poles, Latvians and Czechs arrived to start work with no knowledge of English.
Orders in about five tongues flew thick and fast, but after flicking his ears, Robin just carried on normally. And everyone was happy.
After the war, when the industry was nationalised, a canteen, baths, and proper office buildings replaced the tin shacks. In 1947, a boom year for coal, the pit produced 87,000 tons. Last year 81,706 tons were brought to the surface.
Each man has his own pet theory as to how the pit might have been saved. Charles Foxall, a 61-year-old who started "when the boss was a pikeman", thinks a brooch seam should have been developed some time ago. This would have meant work could have been transferred when the present seam flooded.
"But," Mr Jeavons pointed out, "the brooch seam is only 2ft. 2ins. deep. It's not worth the cost of opening it up. And you can't get the lads to work on their bellies these days like they did in my young days. Imagine having to crawl along a tunnel a couple of feet high, and working in the same cramped space. Anyway the quality deteriorates away from the shaft. The N.C.B. has gone into the whole question of whether or not its possible to carry on running economically. They've decided on a shut-down. The men will be found jobs elsewhere. Some of them are going to find conditions rather difficult in the larger pits - Jubilee and Baggeridge for instance. And we are what's known as an 'aged pit' - the average age of our men is greater than in most places."
Even the canaries are moving on. And the pit cat will be brought to the surface... when he's caught. It's a big wrench for the men. And an even bigger change for the district whose coal built the industries of nail-making at Lye, chain making in Old Hill, Netherton and Cradley Heath, with their 101 sidelines and subsidaries. In six months time it will have become history, part of the pattern of the Black Country's past. The story of the pit that drowned.
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