Acorns and Horse Chestnuts for Holton Heath

The rapid expansion in munition factories placed a great demand on everything from construction to the need for a workforce. The Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath required, in only a year, a workforce of around 4,000 with the vast majority having no experience in the work they were being asked to carry out. The need for raw materials also began to outstrip supply. A Culture volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project describes the part that Holton Heath played in improving the availability of one important raw material.

The Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath was built in 1915 to supply Cordite MD which was used by the Royal Navy as a propellant for its guns. Cordite MD was produced by blending nitroglycerine with guncotton and petroleum jelly in acetone to give a ‘dough’. The mixture was then extruded to produce ‘cords’ of cordite. The acetone was recovered by drying the cordite in a current of warm air and then reused. Typically, up to 60% could be recovered.

The recovery process was not without its dangers as acetone is flammable. In November 1919, Jesse Orchard, of Parkstone, was killed whilst measuring the temperature of the process in the Acetone Recovery Store No 1 Cordite Section. He had worked at Holton Heath since 1915. The extent of the explosion was such that part of the plant was found nearly a quarter of a mile away.

The quantities of acetone required to manufacture cordite far exceeded the amount that could be produced by the destructive distillation of wood which was how it was normally produced. An alternative route was desperately needed.

In 1912, a Manchester University lecturer, Dr Chaim Weizmann, had developed a way of making acetone by the bacterial fermentation of grain using clostridium acetobutylicum. The process was similar to the yeast fermentation of sugar to make alcohol. Little interest had been shown in his process even when he offered it to the Government in 1914 but this changed with the increasing need for acetone. Weizmann’s work came to the attention of David Lloyd George (Minister of Munitions) and Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty). Weizmann was invited to the Admiralty in 1916 and met Churchill who reportedly asked him if he could make 30,000 tons of acetone to which Weizmann replied he had only managed to make a few hundred mls. He needed to work with brewers who had the experience of working on fermentation on a large scale. With Government support, a scale-up of the process using equipment at Nicholson’s Gin Distillery in London proved it was a viable route and, after 6-7 months, acetone was being produced on a half-ton scale.

The success of the work encouraged the Admiralty to build an acetone factory at Holton Heath in 1917 at a cost of £133,000 for the building and £50,000 to equip it. It was the largest building on site with eight (another source refers to six) concrete fermentation vessels, each 36ft in diameter, as well as a storage facility 85ft high and 130ft long for the grain. Production of acetone began with maize imported from America; another source refers to ‘damaged rice’ being used. However, the German U-boat campaign meant that food supplies were badly affected and any grain was needed to feed the population.

In response, the Ministry of Munitions asked schoolchildren to collect horse chestnuts and acorns as an alternative raw material. It was claimed that if 200,000 tons of horse chestnuts were collected this would be the equivalent of 100,000 tons of grain. A note of caution was expressed that only those that had fallen from the trees should be collected – presumably to deter enthusiastic tree climbers! It was also emphasised they were not fit for human consumption. In an advert in the Poole and East Dorset Herald of 18 October 1917 the Superintendent at Holton Heath said he was prepared to buy bushels of ‘good acorns’ at 1s 3d (6 ½p) a bushel for lots over 50 bushels. A bushel is a measure of volume and is equal to 8 gallons (equivalent to ca 36L) of grain. Sacks were provided and, when filled, the sacks could then be delivered to the nearest railway station in Dorset for transport to Holton Heath.

Schools in Poole responded to the call. It was reported in November 1917 that schoolchildren at Longfleet School had collected 3 ½ tons of acorns while pupils at Poole Secondary School had amassed 4 tons of acorns. The Mayoress of Poole, who was handing out prizes at the Secondary School’s awards ceremony, said she proposed to give an acorn-shaped item of jewellery to a pupil, Winnie Durant, because of the number of acorns she had collected. Broadstone Council School gathered 100 bushels of acorns and 20 bushels of horse chestnuts (total weight 3 tons). George Aldridge was the star pupil having collected 2 ½ cwt. Cwt = hundredweight, an old measure of weight and is equivalent to 50.8kg.

A view of Poole from Constitution Hill towards Baiter

The photograph shows a typical view from Constitution Hill towards Baiter – a scene considerably more rural than it is now.

The actual process of making acetone was not very successful because the change in raw material meant that yields were lower than expected which made it costly to produce. Even so, it is believed that 20,000 tons of acetone were manufactured using the fermentation process, although it is not known if this is just Holton Heath or includes breweries taken over by the Admiralty and a site in Canada. The end of the war and the development of Cordite SC, which was solventless and did not require acetone, made the building redundant. The storage building was demolished in August 1934. Some of the concrete fermenters were modified as air raid shelters during the Second World War.


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