Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
Conkers - collected for use in two world wars
"Recently I was a loaned a publication which discussed the collection of conkers during wartime for the Ministry of Supply. It said:
'Collecting groups are being organised in your district. Groups of scholars & boy scouts are being organised to collect conkers. Receiving depots are being opened in most districts. All schools, W.V.S. centres, W.I.s, are involved. Boy Scout leaders will advise you of the nearest depot where 7/6 per cwt 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.'
I am very curious about this urgent need for conkers. Can you throw some light on it?"
At the beginning of the First World War, cordite - the smokeless powder used as a propellant in small arms ammunition and artillery - was imported mainly from North America, but when blockades made shipping difficult Britain needed to produce its own cordite. One of the ingredients required for making cordite is acetone, a volatile liquid compound used as a solvent. Acetone is made from starch and Britain needed to look for sources of starch. At the beginning of the war we relied on imported maize and even potatoes for starch. But when supply routes were cut, Lloyd George, as Minister of Munitions, required that starch should come from closer to home. He asked Professor Chaim Weizman of Manchester University to come up with an alternative way for making acetone. Weizmann, the leading Zionist and later the first president of Israel, devised a process to extract the solvent not only from maize but also from horse chestnuts - conkers. There were factories at Poole in Dorset and by the dockside at King's Lynn in Norfolk, producing as much as 90,000 gallons of acetone a year. When supplies of maize ran short, it was supplemented with horse chestnuts collected by schoolchildren. The factory locations were top secret and schools that collected conkers sent them to London to be passed on to the factories. Because the process was being kept secret, there were local suspicions that private profit was being made from voluntary efforts.
It is said that because so many conkers were collected around the country there were transport problems and piles of rotting conkers were left at railway stations. The King's Lynn factory began production in April 1918 and closed a few months later - conkers were found to be a poor source, though they were collected again in World War Two for the same reason.
Lloyd George's gratitude to Weizman was such that it led directly to the controversial 1917 Balfour Declaration which set out British approval for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people - the state of Israel.
John Vickery of the Natural History Museum
Dr Paul Richards, King's Lynn historian
Paul Richards, King's Lynn (Phillimore & Co, 1990)
Norman Rose, Chaim Weizmann - A Biography (Viking Press, 1986)
War nuts www.newscientist.com/lastword/article.jsp?id=lw682
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Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
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