The schoolboy pastime of smashing conkers together was, for a short time, set aside as 100 years ago, the government ordered that all conkers be collected for the war effort.

It’s 1917 and wartime shortages are starting to bite, so why was the government so keen to buy up conkers?

Initially, it was kept a secret.

Newspapers reported in the spring of 1917 that in the future, horse-chestnuts, also known as conkers were to be used in the production of an “article of great importance in the prosecution of the war”.

All that was confirmed is that the article in question wasn’t food, but of an industrial nature.

However, it would release more food to be consumed, as every ton of conkers collected would release half a ton of grain to feed the populace. Whatever the mystery industrial product was, someone had evidently found a way of replacing wheat grain as the ingredient with otherwise inedible conkers.

By July 1917 is was being confirmed that only the nuts were wanted, not the surrounding shell, and that when collected, they should be delivered to the local railway station, where they would be forwarded to the chemical plants.

As the summer of 1917 wore on, it seems that plans were put in place, announced at the start of the school year by the Board of Education, that school children should be organised into gangs to go around collecting the conkers.

Schoolboys used to collecting conkers for fun were now to be called upon to do the same for King and Country.

The government wasn’t unwise to the fact that mere patriotism might not provoke children to do their duty, so it offered hard cash instead. The government officially offered 7s 6d payment for each hundredweight collected, but it was up to local authorities to disperse the funds. Unsurprisingly, most did not, hoping that the fun of the chase would be enough motivation.

A target was set for the schoolchildren to collect 200,000 tons of conkers in the autumn of 1917.

As conker season approached, schools prepared, and during October, several reports of the prolific hoovering up of conkers from the countryside started to emerge.

For example, a Southampton Grammar School told of one boy who collected a thousand chestnuts. Anyone who has collected conkers will know that was a heavy load.

Not that everyone approved. A letter to the Surrey Advertiser warned that sending out armies of schoolboys armed with sticks and stones to get at their conkers would encourage damage to the private land the trees stood on. Claims were made that park keepers were attacked and walls were damaged by eager boys.

“Congratulations are showered upon the young ruffians on their return home by teachers and parents, and no questions asked as to how the booty was obtained”

The injury done to the morals of the rising generation is incalculable, the letter warned.

But what was the government doing with all these conkers?

Studies by the Royal Society had reportedly found something that could be extracted from the conkers to be used in ammunition.

At the time, what the mystery ingredient was remained a war time secret, but it may be telling that it was the Director of Propellant Supplies within the Ministry of Munitions which coordinated the conker collecting effort.

In fact, scientists had found a way of extracting Acetone from the conkers, which is a component used in cordite, a propellant used in shells and bullets.

Acetone had previously been made from calcium acetate imported from Germany, but clearly this was not an option during the war, so the UK turned to fermentation to extract it from starch based plants, initially, dry wood.

But it took 100 tons of wood to make one ton of Acetone, and the dry wood needed was now in short supply.

A scientist at Manchester University, Chaim Weizmann (later President of Israel) invented a method that could convert 100 tons of grain into 12 tons of Acetone, and the government switched to grain based production. A large plant was set up at the Nicholson Distillery in London to process grain into Acetone.

Later discovering that conkers could substitute for grain should have been a boon for the food starved nation, and a factory was built at King’s Lynn in Norfolk for processing the conkers into weapons.

As it happened, barely 3,000 tons of conkers were collected during the autumn of 1917, and there were problems with dispatching them via the railways so a large amount rotted before it could be used.

Chemists were still grappling with some of the problems of extracting the vital ingredient from the conkers by the time new chemical plants in the USA and Canada came on stream, and the supply shortage solved.

The factory at King’s Lynn finally solved its problems in April 1918, but was closed in July, after barely three months of work, when it was found that the yield from the conkers was below expectations.

But, 100 years ago, for a short while, the schoolchildren of Britain were able to do their part for the war effort, collecting conkers and not sticking a length of string through them.

Sources

Surrey AdvertiserSaturday 13 October 1917

Middlesex ChronicleSaturday 14 July 1917

Hendon & Finchley Times – Friday 14 September 1917

Hampshire AdvertiserSaturday 06 October 1917

Gloucestershire EchoTuesday 28 August 1917

Taunton Courier, and Western AdvertiserWednesday 22 August 1917

Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, 2005.

Chemical Wisdom- Horse Chestnuts and the Fermentation of Powerful Powders

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2 comments
  1. Frankie Roberto says:

    Great story! Well done on all that research.

  2. keenreader says:

    I had heard that conkers were collected in WWI but didn’t know why; thanks, Ian, for finding the time to research it and share the story with your millions of fans.

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