Skip to main content

'Conkering' the Enemy!

During World War I, an urgent call went out to scouts and school children to collect acorns and conkers. This request came from the Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath. Young collectors were told this was valuable war work. The reason was not explained but an assurance was given to the gatherers that they would be paid for their collections. The factory had been built after the Admiralty had decided it needed its own cordite manufacturing facility. Holton Heath site had been chosen because it was away from centres of population yet still had good road, rail and sea links. The factory had its own site railway built and a jetty in Poole Harbour from where the cordite was shipped to Priddy’s Hard at Gosport.

Cordite was a propellant used in gun and artillery ammunition. During World War I, vast quantities were required and the chemical acetone was one of its constituents. At first acetone was distilled from wheat much of which washed imported from the USA. However by mid 1917, wheat was in short supply due to German submarines sinking shipping in the Atlantic Ocean. It was decided to use acorns and horse chestnuts, or conkers, as an alternative source of starch. The Government was loath to explain the reason for their use for fear the enemy might copy. One of the reasons given was to produce medicines to be sent to Russia for horses.

East Dorset Herald of 25th October 1917 reported:

‘The Superintendent of the RN Cordite Factory, Holton Heath, near Wareham is prepared to pay at the rate of one shilling & three pence (6p) per bushel for good acorns in lots of 50 bushels and over delivered at the nearest railway station in the County of Dorset. A limited number of sacks are available and can be lent on application being made to the Superintendent, RN Cordite Factory who must be informed immediately the collection is completed in order that forwarding instructions can be given.’

Vast quantities of acorns and conkers were collected far more than there were trains to transport. So high piles just stood and rotted in the station yards. Poole Secondary School claimed at its Speech Day that its pupils had collected four tons of acorns. Even the Queen had joined in the gathering of acorns and conkers at Sandringham.

Sadly, the use of acorns and conkers for the production of acetone was never to produce the yields that were originally hoped.

(Illustration: Royal Naval Cordite Factory, Holton Heath.)


Popular posts from this blog

Chimney Sweep Tragedy

Crown Hotel, Blandford is reckoned to be one of Dorset’s oldest hostelries. Yet its most tragic day, during a long history, must surely be when a young chimney sweep lost his life. The chimney sweep, who was just a child, suffocated and was burnt to death in a Crown Hotel chimney which had been alight a little while before. ‘His cries were dreadful and no-one could give assistance. Part of the chimney was taken down before he was got out.’ (Salisbury & Winchester Gazette 27th March 1780) The lad had gone up one chimney and attempting to go down another had become stuck. At the time children were used to climb up chimneys to clean out soot deposits. With hands and knees, they would shimmy up narrow dark flue spaces packed thick with soot and debris. After the 1731 Great Fire of Blandford it was realised that it was important to sweep chimneys regularly while many rebuilt houses had narrower ones. Smaller chimneys and complicated flues were a potential death trap for children. The sw

Bravest Village Controversy

A Dorset village was once recognised as the bravest in England. That village was Shillingstone in North Dorset. After the outbreak of World War I, the newspaper the Weekly Dispatch inaugurated a competition for the village that sent, in the first six months of the war, the highest percentage of its population into the British Services. According to local newspaper, the Western Gazette Shillingstone sent 90 men out of a total population of 565. (Western Gazette Friday 26 th September 1919) Across the country,  365 other villages sent in their returns. However, the competition would not prove to be short of controversy. The award was made to Knowlton in Kent which with 39 inhabitants and six houses had sent 11 men. However, the Rector of Shillingstone, Dr Cooke protested that Knowlton was too small to be a village and in fact was a hamlet. The matter was referred to the Attorney General, Sir Frederick Smith who held that the original decision should stand as no minimum population ha

Tarrant Rushton's Nuclear Secret

Tarrant Rushton was a large RAF base used for glider operations during World War II. It was then taken over by Flight Refuelling for the conversion of aircraft for the development of aircraft in-flight refuelling. However, between 1958 & 1965, the Tarrant Rushton airfield had a much more secretive and less publicised role. This was in support of the nation’s nuclear bomber deterrent, as Tarrant Rushton airfield became a QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) dispersal unit.   During 1958, contractors Costain reinforced the main runway and carried out other work to ensure the giant bomber aircraft could be accommodated. At times just a few miles from Blandford, there would have been up to four RAF Vickers Valiant bombers at Tarrant Rushton ready to become airborne in minutes charged with nuclear weapons. The bombers were from 148 Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk. As there was no suitable accommodation at the airfield, an old US Air Force Hospital building at Martin was used. At the time, the