King’s Lynn historian reflects on First World War conker campaign

Education news from the Lynn News,, @lynnnewscitizen on Twitter
Education news from the Lynn News,, @lynnnewscitizen on Twitter
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Historian Paul Richards has revealed the secret army that helped Britain to victory in the First World War – schoolboys collecting conkers.

The Allied Forces faced a munitions crisis in 1915 with a shortage of the chemical acetone leaving factories struggling to produce enough explosive cordite to meet demand.

Factories were unable to get the chemical from potatoes and rice because of food shortages.

In the emergency the Ministry of Supply turned to conkers – with schoolchildren and scout groups enlisted to collect them as part of the war effort.

The youngsters were given half-day holidays to collect the conkers which were secretly shipped to two main acetone factories in Lynn and Poole in Dorset.

Mr Richards said: “The war was getting very critical and they needed this propellant urgently to fire the guns.

“So they used scouts, school children, anyone. The schools were given half day holidays to collect conkers.

“In King’s Lynn for example, about 3,000 tonnes of conkers were collected and taken to the docks. It was all very secret as the government didn’t want the Germans to know how we could make this stuff from conkers and potatoes.

“It meant the children who helped at the time were not recognised. Nobody could say anything because it had to be kept secret. Even today I don’t think people know how important these factories were.”

Cordite – a smokeless powder used as propellant in small arms and artillery – was imported from the US at the beginning of the war. But the supply was disrupted by shipping blockades and Britain needed to produce its own cordite.

One of the key ingredients is acetone, a volatile liquid compound used as a solvent and made from starch. At first the government relied on imported maize and even potatoes to produce the chemical.

But as food shortages grew, Prime Minister David Lloyd George demanded an alternative method be found - and so they turned to conkers.

The factories at Lynn and Poole produced as much as 90,000 gallons of acetone a year but so many conkers were collected there were transport problems and piles of rotting conkers were left at railway stations.

Trues Yard museum in Lynn has an exhibition on local children’s contribution to the war.