As part of the Museum’s World War 1 project, a group of volunteers have been visiting the Durham County Records Office and researching a range of documents concerning the impact of the war on the Barnard Castle and Teesdale area.
My first item to research was less a document, more a weighty leather bound tome containing minutes of the Barnard Castle Urban Council meetings (ref. UD/BC/12). Whilst many entries were connected with the daily administration of the area and made no references to the war, there were records that linked to the impact of the war on the lives of Barnard Castle people.
And an entry from 25th July 1918 caught my eye. It was noted that a circular had been read to the Council from the Local Government Board, requesting the collection of fruit stones and nut shells for urgent war purposes.
And that was all the entry said. But I was intrigued to know more, so I set to work to discover why fruit stones and nut shells were so urgently required.
The use of toxic gases during WW1 brought suffering to many thousands of people, causing asphyxiation, convulsions, blindness, panic and a slow death. Soldiers were taught in training that just four breaths of toxic gas could be enough to kill them.
Gas masks with charcoal filters were distributed to combat the effects of the gas. And towards the very end of the war, it was realised that a more effective filter could be made from the charcoal that came from burning fruit stones and nutshells. Of great value for the charcoal they produced were stones from peaches, apricots, cherries, plums and dates, alongside shells from Brazil nuts and walnuts.
The first port of call for help in collecting was jam factories, followed by hotels, restaurants and canteens. And then a national campaign was initiated to encourage the population to collect fruit stones and nut shells to help the war effort.
People were asked to dry out the stones in a warm oven, or in the sun, and it was even suggested that Stone and Shell Collection Clubs could be formed. Boy Scout groups were drafted in to help with the collections, and even visited Buckingham Palace as part of the collecting drive.
Interestingly, similar campaigns were introduced across the world. America encouraged schools to take part in fruit stone and nut shell collection competitions. During the autumn of 1918, The Red Cross and the Boy Scout Movement in America helped in a campaign which saw the collection of over 100 railroad cars full of stones and shells, enough to produce charcoal for 500,000 gas masks.
Even in Germany, the requirement for gas masks for troops sparked a collection campaign amongst German school children. Posters urged parents to “Save fruit pits and either send them to school with your children or bring them to the next collection place”.
So, whether allies or enemies, countries around the world were collecting fruit stones and nut shells at a furious pace. Ironically, peace followed on very quickly from these collection campaigns and it is likely that very few of the gas masks with improved filters made it to the battlefields before the Armistice was signed.
But it still showed a determination from the populations of various countries to be involved in the war effort, and to play their part.
By Jane Wilson, volunteer