Chestnut Tree & Conkers

During World War One, collecting conkers (horse chestnuts) was not child’s play. It was war work. Cordite, a small ammunitions propellant, had, as one of its ingredients, a liquid compound called acetone that was made from starch. At the beginning of the war, Great Britain was able to use the starch obtained from maize and potatoes imported from North America, but U-Boat attacks eventually cut off this supply, and a new source had to be found. A Manchester University professor, Chaim Weizman (later the first president of Israel), came up with the idea of extracting it from locally grown maize and – conkers, which, in autumn, were in abundant supply. (This year’s ‘crop’ from my own back yard is pictured above.)
Schoolchildren were already industriously collecting paper and scrap metal, and responded to the call for conkers with such enthusiasm that the government was hard pressed to transport their hauls to factories. Patriotism had something to do with this, but the seven shillings and sixpence they got per hundred weight was no doubt an added incentive.
In the end, conkers proved to be a poor source of the starch required for acetone, but something is better than nothing, and they were collected in World War Two as well. And conkers have had other uses, with extracts being used in the treatment of such ailments as malaria, frostbite, and ringworm.
You just can’t eat the things. Unless you’re a deer. Or a cow. Or, of course, a horse!

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