It is not generally known that there are records made 400 years ago and still in existence which tell us that Cradley had a park in the reign of Henry VIII, and it is probable thatit existed two or three hundred years before that time.
These records, or manor court rolls, belong to Lord Cobham and are in the Birmingham Reference Library where every care is taken to preserve them and where people sufficiently interested can study them.
It was not a park in the modern sense of the word, but a tract of woodland enclosed by the Lord of the Manor for hunting purposes. The deer which roamed about in it not only provided the lord and his friends with good sport, but also supplied his table with fresh meat in winter when that commodity was scarce.
How did this park come into existence? Soon after the Norman Conquest, King William enclosed vast areas of land to preserve the "beasts of the chase" for hunting. These were called the King's Forests. Soon afterwards, and with the king's consent, his nobles enclosed smaller areas and his one was called a "chase". Not to be outdone, the minor lords, and in the case of Cradley, the Lord of the Manor, enclosed about 150 acres of Cradley for a park for hunting.
Its boundary to the south was near the Hayes, which is an old word meaning a hedge boundary. To the east and north were Two Gates, Tanhouse Lane and Park Lane, while to the west lay Pensnett Chase which, according to one account, extended some distance over this side of the River Stour.
Incidentally, Pensnett Chase was the hunting preservation of the Barons of Dudley, who were the overlords ofthis part of the Midlands. It extended as far as Pensnett and included the areas which are now called Cradley Heath, Dudley Wood, Brierley Hill and Kingswinford. Indeed, at an earlier date it was part of the Forest of Kinfare (Kinver).
The earliest known hint about a park was after the death of John de Somer, Lord of Dudley, when his daughter Joan inherited Warley and Cradley as her share of the Dudley estates, there being no male issue. In 1335 (Edward lll) she was granted charter of free warren in her demesne land in Cradley, which meant that she had sole right to all the beasts of the chase and was allowed to preserve this land for that purpose.
In 1493, when the Earl of Ormonde was Lord of Cradley Manor, the beasts of the chase were so depleted in the park that he petitioned Edward Sutton, Lord of Dudley, for the right of common on Pensnett Chase. The charter granting this request also includes John Forrest (presumably the lord's steward) and William Bere, a Cradley person of some standing, with armorial bearings and land in Rowley Regis.
In the reign of Henry VIII the park was becoming parcelled out to be used more profitably and we find that another John Forrest had the lease of a "Mansion on a moated hillock in the park and the herbage in it", with a proviso that he keep the enclosures well fenced. It was leased by the Lady of the Manor, Anne Seyntleger, the Earl of Ormonde's daughter.
It appears that the Forrest family have been connected with Cradley for over 450 years, atfirst as stewards of the manor and later as leaseholders and landlords. There may be descendants in Cradley now. A direct descendant used to live at the top of Windmill Hill in what is now the Chemist's stores. Joshua Forrest was a churchwarden here about 70 years ago. In 1538 (Henry VIII) a church at Cradley is mentioned in a charter granting land by the king to Sir John Dudley.
The Abbots of Halesowen Abbey were dispossessed of their estates and they were given to this powerful court favourite and royal henchman, whose son Robert became the famous Earl of Leicester of Queen Elizabeth's reign and Scott's Kenilworth.
This church, with a small one at Lutley, was apparently included in the Abbey estates. Just before this time the Abbots of the Abbey held land on the other side ofthe Stour. One of them diverted the course of the river in order to make a mill or pool, thus altering the boundary between Cradley and Rowley. After a legal battle he was allowed to keep his encroachment, but had to pay Cradley Manor twelve pence and a pound of wax each year.
A little later another manuscript mentions "a mansion with a chapel annexed situated near the park", but as this is the last reference to a church or chapel until the one at Netherend was built, we must assume that it suffered the same fate as Halesowen Abbey and was destroyed or allowed to decay. The place names Chapel House and Chapel Leasowe might well indicate the site of this church or chapel.
In 1564, Sir John Seyntleger, a descendant of the Earl of Ormonde, sold Cradley Manor to Sir John Lyttleton of Frankley, and the present Lord Cobham, a descendant, is still nominally its lord. In the records of this transaction the area of the park is given as 70 acres.
It is interesting to note that Park House, which was built about 100 years afterwards, has a room which has always been called the armoury, and this suggests that there was hunting in the park at the time of its erection in 1682.
In 1672 [this should read 1762] a public turnpike road was cut through the park to join Colley Gate with Lye and Stourbridge. The original records are still in existence and, as it would involve some detail, it would be better to have a separate article to deal with it.
When the road was taken over by the County Council in 1815, Scott, the Stourbridge historian, wrote of the park as "having a remarkably sequestered character, the resort of the nightingale in its season.” It lost its park-like appearance in the middle of the last century when Top Park and Park Collieries were started.
The trees which were chiefly oak, were felled and barked by men who afterwards settled here. The bark was used for tanning and it was at this time that a tannery was started in Tanhouse Lane.
It is unfortunate that the place names Park-side and Park Row at Two Gates have recently gone out of use, but we still have Park Lane and The Park, which we hope, will always be with us,if only to remind future generations that there was a time when:
"All the jolly chase was here, With hawk and horse and hunting spear."
Norman Bird (May 1952)