Thursday, 25 June 2015

They Stooped To Conkers

rncf badgeIn 1914, in the middle of Holton Heath, a few miles inland from Poole, the Navy built a massive ordnance factory, under the instruction of the First Lord of the Admiralty – Winston Churchill. The site had been chosen carefully – sparsely populated, a remote backward of Poole Harbour – but with a railway line passing close by.
A new station halt-  ‘Holton Heath’ was built to serve the factory. They produced gun cotton, acetone, cordite, and many other chemicals necessary for warfare. The workers had to wear moccasins or rubber overshoes, so that their feet didn’t create any sparks. Cordite was an important propellant used in explosive devices- but acetone was required in its production. This was distilled from fermented maize – but there was not sufficient maize in the UK during WW1 to provide enough acetone. In 1917, scientists [working at a gin distillery in Bromley] discovered that horse chestnuts could be processed in a similar way.
conkersWhen the school at nearby Corfe Mullen was closed, due to an outbreak of whooping cough, all the fitter pupils were sent out to collect conkers for the factory. Paid 1/3d per bushel, the children loved this work – even if they had no idea why they were collecting conkers for the navy!
On June 23rd, 1931, there was a massive explosion at the factory. It’s just a few miles from where I am sitting now. People in Ferndown would have heard the boom. 10 workers were killed, and people up to 2 miles away were knocked over by the blast. Over the years, a total of 20 died in explosions. Much of the time this was kept hush-hush, people did not know about the work going on. Churchill did not want the enemy to discover the location of the munitions plant.
But this week, 84 years after The Great Explosion, finally a proper memorial has been unveiled. I drove out to the site on Wednesday morning, and stood in silence reading the names. A gentleman parked his Toyota next to mine and came and stood beside me. He said his mother had worked at the factory in the War, and in the 1960s when much of the site became an industrial estate, he came and worked at the nearby Decca Record factory. “We used to go exploring in our lunch hour, and see what we could find of the old place, closed in 1957” he told me. He told me where I should go to find some of the original buildings, and the railway halt. “I anted to come and see the Memorial” he said “because of the people who lost their lives for their country” We chatted a little and I thanked him for telling me so much – then I too went exploring.
The original site covered a huge area of land – and many of the old buildings can still be glimpsed through the fences and barbed wire – some of the offices still in use, others falling into ruin. I found the railway halt at the end of the site.
royal naval cordite factory
I found myself wondering what happened to the widows and children – were they provided for? It was not wartime – so did they have any entitlements to pensions? What about treatment for the injured? there was no NHS back then. And did any of the little local boys who collected conkers in 1917 grow up to work in the factory up the road- and were they among the fatalities in the 1931 blast?  I continue to be fascinated by history – and to be appalled by war.


  1. What an interesting story and not one that will be reported where I live. I agree with your last remark.

  2. In answer to your question regarding compensation. The widows received a nominal fee which was, in all honesty, not very much at all. Indeed, it caused a great deal of anger at the time and relatives still feel embittered about the apparent scant regard to those who were lost. It is entirely feasible that some of the children who gathered conkers went on to work there since it was the areas principle employer at the time. Although there was agricultural work it paid very little compared to the good wage a cordite worker could earn esp. the men who worked 'the hill' as the nitroglycerine plant was known.

  3. Thanks for the information. How sad that those who lost so much were not properly acknowledged


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