In October 1917, the parish of Clee St Margaret asked children to collect horse chestnuts and bring them to the School. This was in response to a national appeal from the Ministry of Munitions.

The purpose of this unusual request was kept secret, but in fact the conkers were to be used to make acetone – a vital component of cordite. Up to this time it had been made from wood and was mostly imported from the US. But a domestic supply was urgently needed, especially after the shell crisis of 1915. The scientist Chaim Weizmann had developed a method of producing acetone from grain & other starchy foods, which he put at the government’s disposal. But in 1917, as food supplies were becoming limited because of U-boat activity, he started experimenting with conkers.

As the appeal from Clee St Margaret pointed out: “For every ton of horse chestnuts which are harvested, half a ton of grain can be saved for human consumption. The horse chestnut, therefore, though itself totally unfit for food, can be utilised indirectly to increase the national food supply”. For a bounty of 7s 6d per hundredweight children everywhere collected huge quantities – more than there were trains to transport them. But unfortunately the experiment was not entirely successful and this method didn’t produce the yields the government had hoped for.

A later entry in the Clee St Margaret parish magazine, for January 1918, reported that: “The children gathered 38 lbs of horse chestnuts which have been forwarded to the Director of Propellant Supplies. No doubt they would have gathered more, had not our ancestors neglected to plant many chestnut trees in the neighbourhood.  William Bowman & Neil Shurmer were the best gatherers.”

Researched by Ruth Ellis