Playing conkers in the playground as a child is as much a part of our autumn nostalgia as making leaf prints or carving pumpkins. Nowadays conker battles have fallen out of fashion, helped in no small part by some schools enforcing safety goggles and the myth that the Health & Safety Executive banned conker fights in the early 2000s.
The conker is the fruit of the horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum). The tree is very attractive, with sticky red buds opening into large palmate leaves and pretty, pink-flushed white flowers in late spring. Over the summer a spikey fruit develops and, once ripe, splits to release the polished brown nut we know as a conker.
The name most likely arises from the nuts being used as horse fodder. If you’ve ever eaten roast chestnuts, they will be from the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) which, despite the name, is not related. Horse chestnuts are inedible as they are mildly toxic and they were used in WWI as a source of cordite, which is used in ammunition. There is even an old-wives’-tale that conkers repel spiders, though absolutely no proof of the claim.
But back to the game of conkers: how did that come about? Similar games were reported earlier during the 19th Century, however, it was the Victorians who saw the rise of the ‘conkers’. The name is of nebulous origin, possibly a derivative of the French conche, meaning shell, or conquer (early games were played using shells and that game was called conquerors).
And the key to a good conker battle? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but it was always bakers vs. vinegar-dippers in my playground. I, of course, was too busy planting them to know, or care, who won.