The earliest record of Coal being worked in Cradley was in 1640 but it is very probable that the outcrops at Netherend were exploited as early as the 14th Century. These shallow pits continued producing small quantities until the middle of the 19th century when the deeper coal began to be mined (and colliers became miners).
About this time there was considerable activity in this part of the Midlands in sinking coal pits. In Cradley alone, ten mines were sunk, some of them being separated by a distance of only two or three hundred yards. They were Oldnall, Top Park, Bottom Park, Hayes (two), Park Lane (King's), Homer Hill (Old), Homer Hill (New), Netherend, and Foxcote.
The coal varies in depth from just under the surface to about 300 yards, and occurs mainly in four seams of differing quality and thickness, being separated by layers of waste. Underneath the bottom seam is the best fireclay, there being another workable seam 60 feet above it.
Beyond the River Stour the seams unite to form one seam which is ten yards thick for a considerable area and stretches well into Staffordshire. Forty years ago much damage to property was caused by mines subsidence and it was common to see buildings held together with iron rods and wall plates. "Crowners in" occurred frequently, and some of these yawning holes appeared bottomless.
In addition to the mines already mentioned there were gin pits at Netherend which produced coal, but these [were] also mined for the fireclay found there. In 1801 this clay sold at 3/4 per ton.
Just outside our boundary to the north and west, mines were sunk in greater numbers but southwards, one at Wassell Grove was abandoned after the coal measures had been reached, because the coal had diminished in thickness to such an extent that it was unprofitable to work it.
Five of the mines were producing coal until the years between the wars when operations ceased in four of them because the pumping systems installed could not cope with the increasing amount of water seeping into the workings. Their end was hastened by the miners strike of 1921 when the accumulation of water became beyond control and each pit in its turn had to close down.
The operations of the Mines Drainage Board have been well recorded, but cover a much wider area than Cradley; be it sufficient to say that it set up central pumping stations at Hayseech and Waterfall Lane, and puddled the course of the Stour with marl for considerable distances in an attempt to prevent any water from that source reaching the mines. The Board, with its long term policy had difficulty in getting the full co-operation of the various colliery owners, because those farthest away from the water menace were naturally less willing to pay their quota. It has been said that had there been full co-operation at the time, some of the mines might have been working today.
Beech Tree Colliery, the only mine now working has had a chequered career. It was sunk by Sir Charles Holcroft in 1873-4 and was called Foxcote Pits for many years. Having bought the site and leased land from the Feoffees of Oldswinford Hospital, he spent an enormous sum of money to sink the shafts, erect buildings, and equip the project with the most modern winding gear obtainable at the time. Coal was reached at a depth of 600ft. When the plant was ready to start production, it was mysteriously abandoned and the site became derelict for many years.
It was the talk of the time that the underground manager of a neighbouring colliery (Harper & Moores) had bribed the night watchman to lower him down the shaft in a skip to the coal measures, where he estimated the output possibilities and the quality of the coal. When his employers heard that these were better than expected, particularly in one direction, they immediately bought the land where the best coal lay.
This put an end to Sir Charles’ prospects at Foxcote, [and] as he would not bargain with his rivals, he shook the dust of Cradley from his feet, leaving the site to be overgrown with brambles, toadflax, and willow herb.
Some years afterwards, Oldnall Colliery took over the mineral rights of the land not bought by Harper & Moores and paid royalties to the owners, the Feoffees of Oldswinford Hospital.
In 1919, under the name of Beech Tree Colliery, the mine was re-opened by Messrs. Mobberley & Perry Ltd., who had acquired the property. The old buildings and erections were demolished and reconstructed, except the stack which still remains and shows the initials (J.H.) of John Hill the builderin its brickwork. In 1925 the Bottom or New Mine Fireclay seam was opened up. This clay is somewhat exceptional and contains up to 80 per cent. of silica.
In 1947 the National Coal Board became its administrators, since when pit head baths and other amenities have been added. With the aid of Italians, who work cordially with local miners, production has gone up by leaps and bounds, but it is regretted that the valuable deposits of fireclay are untouched and may remain there indefinitely.
Norman Bird (October 1955)