The main propellant used in the First World War was cordite, and one of its essential ingredients is acetone, which was traditionally produced from the destructive distillation of wood.
Much of the wood came from Europe and America, but following the outbreak of war this supply became disrupted.
The process used at the time for extracting acetone from wood was very wasteful with 100lbs of wood producing only 1lb of acetone. It would have taken the deforestation of the entire British countryside to meet the wartime need, and so by 1915 the generals were becoming seriously alarmed at the possibility of running out of firepower.
The recently appointed Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George, had recently met Jewish chemist newly Chaim Weizmann, who had developed a method using bacteria to ferment starch, a process which gave rise to a mixture of ethanol, acetone and butyl alcohol.
The government sought a place to carry out the distillation process. Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, remarked that while he would be worried about any disruption to the flow of whisky, a shortage of gin was a different matter.
So we come to a London connection, in 1916 the Ministry of Munitions signed a contract with gin-makers J. & W. Nicholson for the distillation of acetone from starch, with Weizmann appointed to act as the company’s chief scientific adviser.
J. & W. Nicholson on St John’s Street, Clerkenwell, the frontage of which still stands today
Nicholson’s was a family company originating, as did so many gin companies, in Clerkenwell, along the valley of the River Fleet. In the course of its history, the company had lent Marylebone Cricket Club enough money to buy Lord’s cricket ground and was rewarded when the MCC changed its official colours to those of the company; the red and yellow that it has retained to this day.
Nicholson’s had a second site for the distillation of their ‘Lamplighter’ Gin at Three Mills in Poplar. It was here that the vital distillation of acetone was to happen.
When the new process was implemented it was based initially on extracting starch from grain. But grain, too, was soon in short supply and required primarily for the feeding of a hungry populace.
It was then that Weizmann turned to the horse chestnut. Not only could conkers provide the necessary supplies of starch but they could do so cheaply, and much more efficiently than wood. In the autumn of 1917, the national collection of conkers began. It was largely the work of children; of school groups, or scouts and guide troops, which were sent out to do the gathering and to deliver the results to local collection centres for onward transport to a supposedly secret destination.
Here in Poplar, on the factory’s doorstep, the secret seems to have been less well guarded. Families would supplement their meagre income by sending their children out to collect the conkers and deliver them to Nicholson’s.
Towards the end of the war, there was a discussion as to what reward Weizmann might himself receive in recognition of his efforts. He is said to have replied to Lloyd George, who was by now Prime Minister, that he wanted no personal honour and spoke instead of his ‘aspirations as to the repatriation of the Jews to the sacred land they had made famous’.
Lloyd George’s openness to this idea might have come from his nonconformist upbringing and the belief that the re-establishment of the Jews in their homeland would herald the ‘second coming’. Whether this was an influence or not, he introduced Weizmann to his Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour.
In November 1917, the Balfour Declaration committed Britain to the ‘establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’.
The conker had helped kick- start a process that would lead, in 1948, to the foundation of the modern state of Israel, and its first president was the chemist, Chaim Weizmann.
Taken from Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish by Bob Gilbert.