The Game of Conkers
by Jane Struthers
In September and October, the fruits of the horse chestnut tree, known as conkers, begin to fall from the trees. Inside the prickly green casings lie the fruits – brown, shiny, and hard – still favourites to be collected by children all over Britain. They used to be collected for the game of conkers – it was a favourite playground game in Britain over generations – but this does not happen so much nowadays, because of worries about health and safety.
It hadn’t always been the case that these fruits were used for the game – the horse chestnut trees were not introduced to this country from the Balkans until towards the end of the 16th century. Prior to the use of the horse chestnut fruits, a similar game had been played using snail shells and hazelnuts and the like, as mentioned in Robert Southey’s (an English poet and writer) memoirs in 1821.
It is not clear how the game came to be called conkers – it may have come from the dialect word for ‘hard nut’ (perhaps from the French for ‘a conch’ – ‘conque’), maybe from the old game using shells and nuts (‘conquerors’), or again from the French ‘cogner’ (to hit). Other regions had their own names for the game – ‘cheggers’ in Lancaster, for example, in the 1920’s – and references in literature supply other regional names. For example, in ‘Sons and Lovers’ by D H Lawrence, the game is referred to as ‘cobblers’.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the horse chestnut fruits – the conkers – were recorded as being used for the game of conkers, on the Isle of Wight in 1848. After the 1850’s, the use of horse chestnuts to play the game was referred to in various regions of the country. From that time on, the game’s popularity grew and spread throughout Britain.
The game has 2 players, each with his/her own carefully selected conker, with a hole bored through it, on a string. It is important to have the hardest conker! A basic idea of the game is to strike the opponent’s conker and try to break it – your conker is then the victor and can count up its victories. Initially the conker is a ‘none-er’ , and it’s first win makes it a ‘one-er’ – if it wins again, it takes a score of one for itself , as it won, and also takes its opponents score to add to it’s own. For example, if a ‘six-er’ beats a ‘three-er’, it scores one for the win, and takes the three from the beaten opponent – so the victorious conker is now a ‘ten-er’. Cheating can be rife! Conkers can be baked, steeped in vinegar or painted with nail varnish – all to harden the fruit, but this is frowned upon.
Conkers are unfit for human consumption, but are eaten by cattle, deer and horses. In the past they were ground up and given to horses, to treat cough and to give them a shiny coat. This, along with the leaf scars in the shape of horseshoes (even with ‘nail holes’!) lent the tree its name: the horse chestnut. Extracts from the horse chestnut tree and its component parts have been used in medicine to treat malaria, frostbite, ringworm and varicose veins, and to prevent piles and rheumatism.
It has also been said that placing conkers in the corners of rooms, can keep spiders out of a house – though this is thought to be an old wives’ tale with no scientific evidence for the claim.
World War One even managed to interrupt this children’s game. Rather surprisingly, conkers were called upon to help with the war effort. In 1917, when autumn came, children were offered money by the Ministry of Supply to collect as many conkers as they could, encouraged through posters in their schools and by the scout movement – they were not told why, as it was intended to keep the idea secret from the Germans. The country was short of cordite, needed for the artillery, which was normally imported from America but the shipping blockade prevented this. Lloyd George asked Professor Weizman (later the first President of Israel) to find a way of making acetone, needed for the production of cordite. The Professor devised a method using starch, from maize primarily and then when that ran short, horse chestnuts, to produce the acetone required. It is thought that there were problems transporting the vast amounts of conkers collected. They were sent by train to secret factories to be processed, but in the end, mounds of conkers were left to rot. The conkers were not a good source. The plan was not a success!
Even though the game is said to be dying out, and may not be around after the next couple of decades as less and less children are playing the game nowadays, the World Conker Championships are gaining in popularity! They have been held since 1965, originally in Ashton, Northamptonshire. Having had to cancel a fishing expedition, and there being a lot of horse chestnut trees nearby, a group in the local pub decided to have a game of conkers instead, with a prize for the winner and a collection for a blind charity. This has continued as a yearly event, where the organisers still donate each year to visually impaired charities. Their increasing number of participants, classes and spectators each year has led to them relocating since 2013 to Southwick, Northamptonshire. The organisers select the conkers to be used in the championships themselves, and these have to conform to the strict criteria. This year, because of the drought, the conkers available may be smaller and shrivelled, so the organisers may have to import conkers from Germany. It has become an international event, with competitors from all over the world. The first overseas winner was a Mexican, in 1976.