THE STORY OF HOW DORSET AND ITS CHILDREN WERE INVOLVED IN THE NATIONAL CONKERS CAMPAIGN
DURING WORLD WAR I.
CONKERS IN THE PLAYGROUNDS OF ENGLAND
Kindley sent to me from Ray Will's Aka The Gypsypoet.
At least one tradition survives among the boys. Conkers were very much a British school boy activity. Virtually every British schoolboy once participated in this annual Fall ritual, concor fights with his mates. I'm not sure just when this tradition bgan, but the term conker describing the game is first noted about 1840-50. Many traditions have built up about how to prepare and harden your conker. A hole is drilled in it and a string attached. Then the conker fights can begin. With the modern popularity of computer games, however, conkers appears to have declined in popularity. It has not, however, disappered. An English commentator writes, "Conkers too were banned in the playground, but boys would bring them in in their pockets ready - strung and play after school. I never bothered much as I could never make a hole in them without splitting them but my brother did have a "champion" conker - a "68-er" he claimed. He used to get it drilled by a dad of a friend of his in the Cubs and used to soak them in vinegar for days to harden them and then put them in the oven - which I thought was cheating. He always had a supply soaking in a bowl on our bedroom window sill and I still hate the smell of vinegar." We are unsure about the origins of the term "conker". One possibility is that it is derived from the word "conquer". The verb "conk" (to strike on the head) is noted in written usage about 1805-15, before the term is used to described the child's game.
THE CAMPAIGN FOR CONKER COLLECTIONS IN WORLD WAR I
British scientists were working on possible substitutes for maize that were available domestically. One alternative proved to be the conker (horse chestnut). The Ministry of Munitions decided to use the Synthetic Products Company's King's Lynn which at the time was using potatos to produce butyl-alcohol and acetone. The Ministry of Munitions set out to set up the collection and transport process for the Fall 1917 harvest. The Ministry placed an ad in The Times (July 26, 1917): "chestnut seeds, not the green husks, are required by the Government for the Ministry of Munitions. The nuts will replace cereals which have been necessary for the production of an article of great importance in the prosecution of the War". The Ministry was a bit ambiguous, because they did not want the Germans to know about the shortages or the potential importance of conkers. [Anonamous]
School Children Mobilized
The collection process was to use school children who for years in Britain had collected conkers for the annual conker fighting season. The school children were set to work. Children all over Britain scoured their communities for conkers. Some schools even called off classes for a day and set the children to work picking up conkers. Some also picked up acorns for local pig farmers. A commentator recalls, "I recall my gran telling me about this episode during World War I. She recalls collecting the conkers on the ground. The boys apparently were fearless. She remembers that boys would often climb the trees to get at the conkers." [Fergusson] Apparently in the process, children fell out of the trees they were climbing and quite a number were hurt. Some were even killed. I don't know if anyone compiled statistics on this.
Transport and Production Problems
While large numbers of conkers were dutifully collected by the children, transport complications meant that only small quantities were ever actually delivered. The school kids, however, had done their bit and there were huge piles of conkers piled up at train stations all over Britain which began to rot. . While acetone could be produced from conkers, the yield was relatively low compared to what could be achieved from corn. The conker collection campaign was not repeated in the Fall 1918. The Allies had largely defeated the U-boats in the North Atlantic through the use of convoys and corn was flowuing into Britain in large quantities. In addition by the time that school started again and the conker season arrived, the tide of battle on the Western Front had changed and an end to the War was in sight.
AT HOLTON HEATH Nr WAREHAM DORSET
Local school children were asked by the Ministry of Munitions to collect Horse Chestnuts; and six huge storage Storage silos were built to store the Horse Chestnuts. A larger bacterial fermentation plant was also set up in Canada as they had more Maize than the United Kingdom. After the end of World War I the bacterial fermentation plant was demolished but the silos were kept. In World War II the basements of RNCF silos were converted to Air-raid shelters; the silos being filled with earth to provide protection. They survived beyond the closure of the Holton Heath site.
POSTERS ON DISPLAY IN ALL SCHOOLS
The following is the content of a notice that would have appeared on the Collecting groups are being organised in your district. Groups of scholars and boy scouts are being organised to collect conkers. Receiving depots are being opened in most districts. All schools, WVS centres1, WIs2, are involved. Boy Scout leaders will advise you of the nearest depot where 7/6 per cwt3 is being paid for immediate delivery of the chestnuts (without the outer green husks). This collection is invaluable war work and is very urgent. Please encourage it.
THE BACKGOUND TO THE SITUATION
Now, at the beginning of the war there was also a shortage of grain, and so Britain had to rely on imports of maize and even potatoes for starch. When supplies of maize ran short, clearly, another source of starch had to be found that would not interfere with the already restricted food supplies; and so by May 1917, Weizmann had adapted the process to produce the solvent from horse chestnuts - conkers. Thus, in a last desperate measure, children throughout Britain were asked to collect conkers. However, according to the Imperial War Museum, in 1917, only 3,000 tins (sic; presumably they mean tons) of conkers were actually processed).