Conkers at dawn…

Let me see now…

Dads Old Holborn tobacco tin (empty) – Check

Then fill that with the following…
Gimlet nicked from dad’s toolbox – Check
Two bits of string, decent length – Check
Three seasoned conkers, soaked in vinegar, baked in an oven – Check

Right. What you had right there, was no longer any old Old Holborn tin. No. That was now a top of the range conker kit for the playground battles about to begin in Oliver Goldsmith school circa 1972. If you are nodding at that description and the set up, I reckon you, like me, took the conker season in the early 70s, very seriously indeed.

But it appears to be a much different story today. Now, all I see as I walk around my local park (I wrote this in late September 2022) are great big beautiful conkers just lying on the pathways, ignored by one and all. Well, apart from my dog trying to eat them…

I mean, we used to risk life and limb by climbing trees to get at the biggest green prickly shells, before they fell to the ground. Failing that we spent hours lobbing sticks up at those same trees, trying to knock the blighters to the ground. Alas, it seems the kids of today have turned their back on the glorious sporting occasion of ‘my four’er taking on your three’er’  and are instead up in a bedroom somewhere ‘killing’ some zombie or ten on a computer game.

Anyway, seeing those lovely brown conkers go to waste got me thinking on just how did the whole conker ‘thing’ begin?  Well, there was a similar game mentioned in 1821 by Robert Southey in his memoirs, but that was played with hazelnuts or the shells of a snail and it appears that the first recognised match using the conker as we know today was held on the Isle of Wight in 1848.

In 1894, folklorist Alice Bertha Gomme, later Lady Gomme,  wrote a book called ‘The Traditional Games  of England, Scotland and Ireland ‘ in which she described the game of ‘cogger’ thus…

‘This game is played with horse chestnuts threaded on a string. Two boys sit face to face astride of a form or a log of timber. If a piece of turf can be procured so much the better. One boy lays his chestnut upon the turf, and the other strikes at it with his chestnut ; and they go on striking alternately till one chestnut splits the other. The chestnut which remains unhurt is then “conqueror of one.” A new chestnut is substituted for the broken one, and the game goes on. Which- ever chestnut now proves victorious becomes “conqueror of two,” and so on, the victorious chestnut adding to its score all the previous winnings. The chestnuts are often artificially hardened by placing them up the chimney or carrying them in a warm pocket ; and a chestnut which has become conqueror of a considerable number acquires a value in schoolboys’ eyes ; and I have frequently known them to be sold or exchanged for other toys (Holland’s Cheshire Glossary). The game is more usually played by one boy striking his opponent’s nut with his own, both boys standing and holding the string in their hands. It is considered bad play to strike the opponent’s string. The nut only should be touched. Three tries are usually allowed.’ 

I personally hadn’t thought of putting my conker up a chimney but will certainly bear that in mind if I take this up again. 

As for the conker itself, the Horse Chestnut tree they fall from was introduced to the shores of the UK from the Balkans in the 16th century and then two hundred years after that, its fruits began to be used. The actual name of conker, appears to have come from the French word ‘conque’ meaning conch, and let’s not forget the sought after ‘cheese’ers,’ which had a flat side.

I recall episodes of ‘Blue Peter’ which featured John Noakes (probably) up at the World Conker Championship, which started in Northampton in 1965. Always fancied my chances at that….

Still going, each year, it raises money for the Royal Institute for the Blind and it regularly attracts a big crowd with the British contingent normally coming out on top,  though in both the women’s and men competitions, there have been winners  from Mexico, Germany, Austria and France in the recent past.

One reason given for the decline in kids playing conkers today, is of course the health and safety concerns of today. In the 70s, we could have played the game with live hand grenades on a bit of string instead of a conker and no one would have stopped us, but in recent years, the conker itself has been called an ‘offensive weapon’ and real concerns over nut allergies have been raised, and then rumours emerged that the game could only be played ‘if protective googles were worn.’  

In fact, it is now said that there is no danger of them causing any allergic effect and The Health and Safety Executive have since released the following statement…

‘A well-meaning head teacher decided children should wear safety goggles to play conkers. Subsequently some schools appear to have banned conkers on ‘health & safety’ grounds or made children wear goggles, or even padded gloves! Realistically, the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and just not worth bothering about. If kids deliberately hit each other over the head with conkers, that’s a discipline issue, not health and safety.’

Added to that the Anaphylaxis Campaign says it has not heard of any severe reactions to conkers, and certainly no deaths. Before I leave you , here are a couple of other facts I discovered during my extensive, in-depth, research.

They are called ‘Kingers’ in the United States. It is thought the phrase ‘Hard nut’ emerged from the game and finally,
carrying a conker in your pocket, can prevent piles.

Thank me when you next see me.


The Mumper of SE5

Photography: Tony Briggs



THE SPEAKEASY Volume Two by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)

Illustrations by Lewis Wharton

Foreword by Rhoda Dakar

Available to ORDER here



Further styles added to the SALE



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