Here’s a fascinating story about conkers. Before I get to them, I need to give you a short preamble.
At an evening lecture this week of the Surrey Industrial History Group, I listened to a talk by Martin Adams, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology at the University of Surrey, entitled Conkers, Cordite and the Birth of Modern Biotechnology.
Martin Adams only got round to talking about conkers at the end of his talk. He preceded by describing the discovery, history, and making of acetone.
Acetone is a colourless flammable liquid that was required for the making of Cordite, an explosive propellant used in military shells and rifle cartridges in World War 1.
Prior to WW1, Britain imported acetone, mostly from America. Wartime made imports difficult, and so Britain needed to manufacture it herself. Secret factories were established to make acetone from a distillation process using maize starch. Should you want to know more about this process, then HERE is a useful, and not too technical, start.
Maize starch, again, much imported from America, was needed both to make acetone and for food production. Therefore, in 1917 other sources of raw material for the acetone distillation process were needed. It was discovered that horse chestnuts – conkers – could be a good source.
In 1917 a circular from the Board of Education was sent to schools to mobilise children to collect conkers and deliver them to railway stations for onward shipment to a secret factory in Kings Lynn. Here’s a photo of the letter, taken from Martin Adams talk. Click on image to expand.
The collection of conkers was hugely successful. The means of transferring them to the secret factory was far less successful, such that much of the collected conkers were left to rot at railway stations through complications with transport arrangements.
It was also discovered shortly after the Kings Lynn factory began distilling the conkers for acetone that it was too troublesome a process and resulted in a lot less acetone that was expected, and also that the quality of the conkers were too variable. The factory ceased using conkers after three months. The need for acetone to make cordite reduced dramatically at the end of WW1, so there the story ends
Here are some sources for this story you might like to read.