University College London, UK
Anti-aircraft shells exploding at high altitudes scattered shards of red-hot
steel across the towns and cities of Britain during the Second World War.
For many schoolchildren, collecting and trading this shrapnel became a
popular social activity, often recalled today in oral history interviews.
Drawing on testimonies collected as part of the People’s War project, this
article examines these curious and neglected processes of accumulation,
exchange and disposal, looking at the aesthetic qualities that gave shrapnel
fragments their value and attractiveness. In doing so, it attempts to locate
children’s shrapnel collections within their social worlds, as well as within
broader discussions of material culture and modern conﬂict. It highlights
the signiﬁcant differences from other more typical forms of collecting, and
some of the more subversive uses that children found for their shrapnel.
The article also raises the possibility that collecting these violent objects
may have been a way for children to cope with the upheaval and brutality
of total war.
Key Words ◆ childhood ◆ collecting ◆ home front ◆ memory ◆ warfare
One of the deﬁning characteristics of modern industrialized warfare or
‘war of matériel’ is the creation and transformation of material culture
on a vast scale, including the devastation of landscapes and cityscapes,
the mass production of armaments and the violent disﬁgurement of the
human body (Saunders, 2004; Schoﬁeld et al., 2002). In these ‘total wars’,
in which civilian populations are targeted by bombers and rockets, it is
inevitable that children will encounter the material culture of warfare;
some will be killed or injured by it.
The ways in which children encounter, interact with and integrate
this material into their social and conceptual worlds is a topic of great
contemporary importance in our understanding of violence and child-
hood trauma (Werner, 2000). It is remarkable that in the era of the child
soldier, in which tens of millions of children have been killed or injured
in conﬂicts, the association of children with the material culture of war-
fare and violence still has the power to shock and surprise:
Connections which we hold with concepts of ‘child’ (innocent, passive, pro-
tected, happy and young) and ‘weapon’ (worldly, aggressive, violent, suffer-
ing and adult) are mutually exclusive oppositions. The juxtaposition of a
child with a lethal weapon creates incongruity. (Sofaer Derevenski, 2000: 3)
In this article I consider one particular encounter of this kind: the
practice amongst British children during the Second World War of collect-
ing and exchanging fragments of anti-aircraft shell shrapnel. I examine
the patterns of gathering, possessing and trading shrapnel, its aesthetics
and its dangers. Through these analyses I have tried to understand the
collecting of artefacts of war within the social lives of children in conﬂict.
In the course of broader research into the archaeology and memory of the
Second World War, I have conducted a series of oral history interviews
examining the relationship between individual memories and the material
remains of conﬂict (Moshenska, 2006, 2007). More than 90 per cent of
my interviewees had been school-age children at the start of the Second
World War in 1939, so my questions focused on their memories of life
on the home front including rationing, evacuation, war work and experi-
ences of bombing. In discussions of socializing, play and everyday life
in wartime a large number of the interviewees talked about collecting
shrapnel from the streets after air-raids and trading the pieces for other
fragments or for other toys or collectables:
When the sirens used to go we went into the shelters, and when it was all
clear we used to come out looking for shrapnel come down in the streets
still hot. You picked it up in your hands and it was still hot, where it was
come from the guns . . . you used to have the ack-ack guns driving round in
the streets . . . they couldn’t do much, I suppose it was more for morale. You
see they were shooting at the planes, and when those shells explode the
shrapnel’s got to come down hasn’t it . . . take it home, swap it around with
the kids, ‘give you my bit you give me that bit’ . . . I wish I’d a kept it, all
the stuff, but you don’t, do you? (Interview with HA)
When the ack-ack . . . where they were trying to shoot the bombers down,
and the shells would explode, high up and shatter into smithereens, and that
was called shrapnel, because it was all weird and wonderful shapes, and you
could hear it come down on the roof, and you would hear a sort of tinkling
sound in the evening when you were listening to the radio . . . the next
morning you go out in the garden, search for shrapnel, put it in a shoebox,
and bring your best pieces to school and compare, yes it was like jewellery,
you’d all be comparing your shrapnel. (Interview with TS)
These narratives correspond to ﬁctional depictions of children in war-
time, for example in Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners (1977), as well
as previously published oral histories of the Blitz: ‘As kids, we tried to
ﬁnd shrapnel. We’d ﬁnd nose cones from shells and take them into
school next morning like they were prizes. Even the teachers got excited
– “where did you ﬁnd that?” It was an adventure’ (Levine, 2006: 409).
My interest in the subject of shrapnel collecting emerged from a
number of factors in these interviews: the roughly even numbers of men
and women who remembered collecting shrapnel, the apparent near-
universality of the practice, and the vividness with which interviewees
could remember individual items in their collections. Shrapnel collecting
was evidently an important part of a wartime childhood, and a form of
interaction with the material culture of warfare that appeared to have
been driven entirely by the children themselves. This preliminary work
indicated that shrapnel collecting was qualitatively different from other
forms of collecting that children of this period routinely engaged in, and
that shrapnel collecting might have been above all a coping mechanism,
a means for children to control or domesticate the material culture of
violence by integrating it into their social practices and thereby negating
its violent and alien qualities. It could also be argued that collecting
shrapnel was a way for children to feel involved and actively in the world
at war on a par with the adults around them.
To examine these ideas I have used a far larger dataset than my own:
the collection of Second World War testimonies collected by the BBC in
its People’s War project from 2003 to 2006, archived online at www.bbc.
co.uk/ww2peopleswar/ (BBC, 2003–6). My analysis of this dataset focuses
on a number of different areas including the values of different pieces
and types of shrapnel, the dangers associated with collecting it, gender
patterns in shrapnel collection, and the retention and disposal of collec-
tions. First it is necessary to examine both the historical origins and
nature of these lumps of hot steel falling from the sky, and to consider
some of the models of childhood collecting in the research literature.
PRODUCING AND CONSUMING SHRAPNEL
The vast majority of the shrapnel that fell on British towns during the
Second World War came not from bombs or damaged aircraft, but from
the anti-aircraft (AA) shells that were ﬁred at the over-ﬂying bombers. A
typical gun such as the British 3.7 inch could ﬁre its 28-pound shells to
36,000 feet at a rate of 20 a minute (Routledge, 1994: 87). Exploding at
a predetermined height or ﬂight-time these high-explosive shells were
transformed into clouds of shrapnel; hundreds of steel shards effective
at a radius of about 20 metres (Wells, 1995: 43). These razor-sharp red-
hot chunks of metal were capable of ripping through the fragile aluminium
skins of aircraft into engines, cables, pipes, fuel tanks and crew members
to destroy, damage or disable the aircraft.
British AA Command was mobilized in the run-up to war, and emer-
gency production of AA artillery began. However, by June 1940 the total
of 1204 heavy guns and 581 light guns for the whole country was pitiful,
and fell far short of the planned 2232 and 1860 respectively (Overy, 2000:
46). During the Battle of Britain, AA command estimated a hit-rate of
one aircraft destroyed for every 2444 shells ﬁred; this was later revised
to one in 1798, a slight improvement (Harrisson, 1988: 100). The vast
majority of shell fragments that missed their targets fell to earth, landing
on roofs, gardens and streets. On the unfortunate occasions that shells
failed to explode at altitude, they were as deadly on their return as a
falling bomb, or as problematic as any unexploded ordnance in an urban
area. Bombing maps of the period show the frequency of these occur-
rences: along with the 1493 bombs that fell on the borough of West Ham
in London during the Second World War, some 201 AA shells landed,
with more than half of them exploding on impact (Demarne, 1980: 52–3).
In comparison to other mass-produced commodities, the life of a
shrapnel fragment followed an unusual trajectory. The high explosive
shell is more usually associated with the First World War, in which
hundreds of millions were ﬁred on all sides. Saunders’ study of the
cultural biographies of these artillery shells explores the relationships
between people, the things they make and use, and the worlds they
Rich in symbolism and irony, shells were the mediators between men and
women, soldiers and civilians, individuals and industrialised society, the
nations which fought the war, and, perhaps most of all, between the living
and the dead. (Saunders, 2002: 22)
AA shells in the Second World War were considerably less iconic, except
perhaps to those who remembered the First: shrapnel falling nightly from
the sky may have had an adverse impact on the mental health of shell-
shocked Great War veterans.
In the manner of their use, their general ineffectuality and their
physical remnants, the cultural lives of AA shells mirrored those of the
shells of 1914–18. First World War shells transformed industry and the
social status of women in their production, and shattered landscapes and
men’s bodies in their use; their fragmented steel remains mingled with
the churned mud of the battleﬁeld (Saunders, 2002: 53–5). In contrast,
AA shells were produced on a relatively modest scale, as armament
production focused on aircraft manufacture, and in their intended use
caused few casualties. Only in their shattered, spent form did they
achieve social signiﬁcance, mediating in the relationships of children to
adults, to their peers, and to the world around them.
As a commodity, shrapnel is also unique in its explosive means of
production and distribution, being created very suddenly at high temp-
eratures and altitudes and spreading itself across wide areas in an
admirably democratic way. As a tradable man-made commodity it was
remarkable in being free, abundant, endlessly diverse and continually in
production: in the world of collecting these are characteristics more
usually associated with natural history specimens such as seashells.
CHILDREN, COLLECTING AND CONTROLLING
The practice of collecting, the nature of collections and the character of
collectors have been extensively studied by anthropologists and sociolo-
gists, and more recently as an aspect of museum studies (e.g. Baudrillard,
2005; Belk, 1995, 2006; Martin, 1999; Pearce, 1994, 1995). Collections
have been interpreted in relation to consumption, display and the
creation of identities as well as a range of psychological models; one of
the values of this research lies in the fact that it offers a clearly identiﬁ-
able starting-point for studying how human beings interact with material
culture (Belk, 2006). However, considering the rich and complex culture
of the playground, along with the ever-increasing importance of children
as consumers in society, there is surprisingly little contemporary research
focused speciﬁcally on children as collectors (but see Baker and Gentry,
1996; Cook, 2001).
A recent study of collectors that included both adults and children
in its survey noted the paucity of research on child collectors after a brief
boom in the 1920s and 1930s (Danet and Katriel, 1994a: 221). This earlier
work, based on surveys carried out in the USA, is a valuable resource in
the present context particularly as it is relatively close in date to the
Second World War (e.g. Whitley, 1929; Witty and Lehman, 1931). These
studies examined patterns including the peak ages for collecting, gender
variations in types and numbers of collections, different forms of acqui-
sition and stated reasons for collecting (Whitley, 1929: 260). Whitley’s
study includes ‘pieces of metal’ as a category of collection, and shows
this to be an overwhelmingly male interest (1929: 256), while Witty and
Lehman’s survey shows interest in ‘objects associated with war’ to be
a popular and almost completely male phenomenon (1930: 224). Both
of these categories are to some extent useful analogues for shrapnel
collecting. Belk contrasts early 20th-century children’s collections with
the results of more recent studies to highlight a move away from found
objects such as seashells, buttons and stamps, popular in the 1920s and
1930s, towards manufactured collections such as dolls, stickers and trading
cards (1995: 54).
Children tend to take a more hands-on approach to their collections
than adults; carrying them around, handling them and allowing others
to sort through them as a form of display (Gabriel, 1974: 264–5). This
introduces an inevitable element of entropy as cards become dog-eared,
trinkets get scratched and worn out and light-ﬁngered acquaintances
make off with prized items. The most important corollary of this is that,
for children, collections are overwhelmingly social things – a means of
communicating and interacting with others in their social spheres.
Walter Benjamin recognized that children’s collecting habits are subtly
different with a tendency to touch, name and modify the objects in their
collections more readily than adults (Benjamin, 1999: 63). As Classen
observed, the once common practice of touching and handling museum
collections has virtually died out: ‘the one kind of museum that consist-
ently caters to the sense of touch in modernity is the children’s museum’
(Classen, 2005: 284).
The theory that collecting can be a coping mechanism for children
in traumatic environments is based on an understanding of collecting
both as a social practice and as a process of ordering and controlling
chaotic material culture. Baudrillard states that ‘For children, collecting
is a rudimentary way of mastering the outside world, of arranging, clas-
sifying and manipulating’ (2005: 93). Belk agrees that ‘By providing
physical control of the objects in a collection, the “illusion of control”
. . . of broader physical domains, people, and knowledge may occur’
(1995: 70). In more general terms, Danet and Katriel argue that
Collecting is imbued with the theme of control, articulated both as striving
towards controlling and as the fear of being controlled. A collector gains
control over the objects that comprise his or her collection through the power
of ownership, which is actualized in the right to handle, rearrange, and even
sell items in the collection. (1994b: 32)
Pearce has suggested that collecting can help people get through difﬁ-
cult processes of transition: she highlights the prevalence of children’s
collecting and trading during adolescence and in the recovery from
bereavement or illness, as well as its role in creating social frameworks
(1995: 237). This is to some extent a development of Winnicott’s theory
of the transitional object in the cognitive development of very young
children, as well as the common childhood practice of assigning power
and signiﬁcance to objects whose presence has a positive effect on the
owner’s emotional state (Muensterberger, 1994: 9; Winnicott, 1953).
Muensterberger argued that collections are often substitutes for people:
distant or absent parents, or general loneliness; a view echoed by Pearce,
who also recognizes the active role of the collection and the objects that
constitute it in accumulating experiences and memories, and in negoti-
ating the collector’s encounters with the world around them (Muenster-
berger, 1994: 25; Pearce, 1995: 237).
Exposure to warfare has a traumatizing effect on children, varying
in severity according to a number of factors including age, gender, and
family and social support. Exposure to bombing has been shown to be
particularly traumatic, exacerbated by expressions of fear by parents and
other adults (Freud and Burlingham, 1943).
Five years after the end of World War II, some 1200 British school children
who had been exposed to air raids were examined. Some 18 per cent still
showed disturbances caused or aggravated by the war experiences. They had
war-related fears and nightmares, sleep disturbances, and exaggerated
psychophysiological reactivity to sirens, loud noises, and explosions. That
percentage is similar to the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD) diagnosed in combat veterans of World War II and the Vietnam War.
(Werner, 2000: 212–13)
For children, war is often experienced in terms of a heightened sense
of powerlessness and, perversely, a degree of freedom, amidst the chaos
and change in their social and material worlds. In this context, ‘the
calming effects of the collection have to do with control: one retreats
from a situation in which one has lost control to one in which the collec-
tor dominates – if possible, totally’ (Danet and Katriel, 1994b: 41). In
interviews and studies of collectors, both adults and children, many have
traced the origin of their collection and their drive to collect back to
traumatic events in their childhood including bereavement, loss and war
(Muensterberger, 1994: 10).
NARRATIVES OF SHRAPNEL COLLECTING
The fear and upheaval of a wartime childhood emerges most clearly in
diaries and oral testimonies including the Mass Observation Archive
(Harrisson, 1988) and more recently the People’s War project which
collected over 47,000 narratives of individuals’ wartime experiences
(BBC, 2003–6). From this extraordinary online archive resource I have
selected a sample of stories that discuss shrapnel. This involved a series
of key word searches, discarding stories relating to artillery shrapnel in
combat, or to HMS Shrapnel, a Southampton hotel requisitioned by the
Navy for the duration of the war. Analysis of the resulting sample has
identiﬁed a number of key themes discussed later, which examine the
properties of shrapnel, the processes of trade and exchange and patterns
WHAT WAS SHRAPNEL?
In the morning of course we would go round picking up the shrapnel and
they were quite treasures: I don’t really know what I thought they were, I
just knew it was shrapnel. (A4111363)1
Shrapnel is quite clearly deﬁned in the jargon of ordnance and gunnery:
a shrapnel shell is a hollow shell ﬁlled with metal shrapnel balls,
designed to explode in ﬂight spraying pieces of shot across a wide area.
It was principally an anti-personnel weapon, developed in the 19th
century by the British Army. However, during the First World War trench
warfare rendered shrapnel shells obsolete and production shifted to
high-explosive shells; gradually the word ‘shrapnel’ came to be used to
describe shell fragments (Blakely, 1952).
It came mostly not from bombs dropped on us by the Nazis during the Blitz,
but from the exploded anti-aircraft shells that our boys were sending up to
greet them. (A1144964)
Picking up shrapnel (bits of bomb casing), and bullet and shell cases on the
way to school after the air raids was fun, many cannon shell cases were
polished up and used as brass ornaments on the ﬁreplace. (A2216963)
This display of children’s souvenirs of the Second World War would have
echoed, perhaps consciously, their adult relatives’ souvenirs of the First.
It could be argued that this juxtaposition was an attempt by the children
to equate their experiences of aerial bombardment with the narratives
of adult warfare that they would have been most familiar with.
Amongst the children of the Blitz there is some disagreement about
what constituted shrapnel. For most it was speciﬁcally the fragments of
exploded anti-aircraft shells, while for others it was a broader category
incorporating bomb fragments, pieces of crashed aircraft or V1 ﬂying
bombs, bullets and even complete incendiary bombs. While all of these
objects formed parts of many children’s collections, shrapnel from AA
shells would have been the most common ﬁnds, and perhaps this became
a simplifying general term.
THE COLLECTING PROCESS
Every morning, after a night of bombs and explosions, we would emerge
blinking from our underground shelter in the garden to search for bits of
Several of the narratives of shrapnel collecting mention getting up early
in the morning, either for school or a paper round, or speciﬁcally to
gather shrapnel before friends and neighbours awoke and nabbed the
best pieces. The competitiveness of this accumulation becomes clear in
these stories, which include hair-raising descriptions of watching from
the shelter entrance to see where shrapnel landed, by the sparks it gave
off as it hit the ground at great speed (A4196469; A7570460). Some
children went to extraordinary lengths to expand their collections:
One day we found Jackie Cockerill riding his small tricycle about with a large
magnet tied on a string behind, vainly hoping thus to collect any shrapnel
which might escape his observation. (A4532627)
Early-morning shrapnel gathering was not without its risks: the shrapnel
was often still too hot to handle, and if taken into school there was a
risk of conﬁscation for the ‘war effort’, discussed later. Some children
developed strategies to overcome these setbacks:
Walking home from school was always exciting because it was then that I
would collect the bits of shrapnel that I had found in the street on the way
to school that morning and which I had hidden in the front garden hedges
of certain houses en-route. I never used the gardens of elderly gardeners
as they would be sure to ﬁnd my treasures as they clipped their privets.
As discussed earlier, the collections of bullets, other souvenirs of war
and scraps of metal in 1930s America was an overwhelmingly male
activity. It is interesting to note the contrast with shrapnel collecting and
some of the contradictions in the evidence. Some of the narratives
describe shrapnel collections as speciﬁcally male: ‘All small boys had
shrapnel collections . . .’ (A2055881), reinforced by an account from a
woman who agreed that ‘obviously the boys were more for doing that
than we girls. Obviously if we did ﬁnd a bit then the boys would try to
nab it off us . . . you know . . . it was their trophies, not ours’ (A4507346).
Despite this, women make up a sizable proportion of my sample of inter-
views; approximately 35 per cent of the accounts of personal collections
in which the gender of the interviewee can be discerned. In several of
these women’s narratives the practice of shrapnel collecting is clearly non-
gender speciﬁc: ‘us kids would go around collecting shrapnel’ (A4455885);
‘It was something that all the children in my area did’ (A5885832).
The dangers of shrapnel collecting were considerable. Several stories
mention being burnt or cut by the freshly minted fragments, red-hot
from the explosion and torn into ragged shapes (A7639761; A5472100).
Children were warned in school about the dangers of handling mysteri-
ous objects such as butterﬂy bombs, the ﬁrst ever cluster bomb, and other
forms of unexploded ordnance:
We were all told never to pick up anything – shrapnel is extremely sharp,
some strange objects could be ‘live’. A policeman stands in front of the infant’s
class and holds up a brightly coloured small bomb which looked like a light
bulb at the end of a stick topped with folding arms and he demonstrates
how it unfolds and spins. He instructs us if we see one on the street, ‘never
ever to touch it, just run quickly and tell the ﬁrst adult you see’. (A2286867)
Saunders highlights similar warnings given to children living near First
World War battleﬁelds in the inter-war period for whom collecting scrap
metal from munitions was more of an economic activity than a form of
play, but one that led to a number of fatalities (2003: 147). In parts of the
world affected by landmines and other potentially lethal forms of
ordnance there is an ongoing need to educate young people about these
risks. In wartime Britain these warnings generally went unheeded as
children sought to add ever more impressive items to their collections:
My friends and I would go round the streets looking for shrapnel and shell
nose caps but alas like the old saying ‘curiosity killed the cat’ became true
to life when my friend Graham picked up a ﬁre bomb and was badly injured
including losing a hand. (A2119475)
Tales of injuries and near misses from falling shrapnel are remark-
ably common in the sample, including head wounds where shrapnel hit
or pierced steel helmets (A2216963; A4040164). In Britain during the
First World War the number of deaths caused by falling AA shrapnel
almost equalled those caused by German bombing (Haldane, 1938: 17).
With friends, neighbours, parents and teachers being killed and injured
by falling shrapnel there is no doubt that many children were well aware
of its very real dangers. The fact that they carried on feverishly collect-
ing suggests that the obvious dangers may have made both the shrapnel
and the collecting process a more thrilling, subversive activity.
While bombing destroyed houses and infrastructure, shrapnel may
have seemed a much more individual threat. The 9-inch long, pointed
fragment that punctured a door and landed in a baby’s pram, the heavy
nose-cone that landed with a ﬂash and narrowly missed another boy’s
mother, or the rain of hot shrapnel that fell suddenly around a woman
walking home one evening must have seemed like thunderbolts from the
sky, aimed at these people personally (A6179628; A4136663; A4389861).
AESTHETICS AND VALUE
From the narratives of collecting and trading there emerges a system of
valuing different types of shrapnel based on a number of qualities. The
two most important properties that emerge in the interviews are the
rarity of different types of shrapnel fragment, and the aesthetics of indi-
vidual pieces. The latter is of particular interest, as it offers insights into
some of the original reasons for collecting. The rarity of shrapnel types
is more closely related to the form of the AA shell itself:
My prize exhibit was a nose cone with three fuse band rings still attached.
Yes, that’s right, THREE! There were a few about in the various collections
with two, but THREE! I had it because it came down in our back garden,
narrowly missing my father, and I was the envy of many of my friends.
While the body of the shell was low-quality steel the nose-cone contain-
ing the fuse was brass, which did not corrode as quickly: ‘a brass fragment
was a special treasure’ (A4532627). The nose-cone was also the most
recognizable fragment of the exploded shell; to the inexperienced eye
most shrapnel looks like any other scrap-iron. ‘I spotted a piece of
shrapnel which turned out to be the nose cap of the shell. This I have
kept ever since, highly polished, and have recently put it on a hardwood
plinth’ (A1138862). This type of curation, mounting and display is more
commonly associated with First World War ‘found objects’ and trench-art
(Saunders, 2003: 49–50). Interestingly many of these Great War souvenirs,
which may have inspired some of the children of the Blitz in their
shrapnel hunts, have their origins in a not dissimilar activity: an early
account of artillery shell shrapnel collecting in the First World War
compared the large numbers of soldiers digging in no-mans-land for the
nose cones of shells to children building sandcastles on a beach (Saunders,
2003: 131). Like nose cones, fragments marked with letters or numbers
were of considerably higher value, due principally to their rarity:
In our street, one brass piece could be swapped for four or ﬁve silver bits.
If there were markings of any kind on your shrapnel, you could have your
own auction to secure the best price in other pieces to add to your collec-
Inevitably, larger pieces were worth more than smaller ones: ‘It was very
prestigious to have the biggest and best bits of shrapnel and bomb’
(A4260179); some gangs would decamp to the corner shop and weigh
their collections of fragments to see which was biggest: a large piece
could be traded for two or more smaller ones (A3939681; A2021059).
One man recalls: ‘I found a piece about 18 inches long and everyone in
school was jealous’ (A4374344).
‘My brothers used to go out hunting the streets for shrapnel which
was still warm. I remember I used to ask them for it and the feeling of
warmth from it in my hand’ (A2796870). A remarkable aspect of collect-
ing that emerges in a large proportion of these narratives is the height-
ened value of shrapnel that was still hot from the explosion: ‘it was best
and most valuable if the shrapnel was hot’ (A2238167). The ﬂeeting
nature of this property is notable, as it cannot have been a factor in the
protracted exchange processes that several of the interviews refer to.
This aspect of value transcends the generally tactile nature of children’s
collections noted by Benjamin, moving towards a more embodied
approach to objects that corresponds with Howes’ idea of ‘skin knowl-
edge . . . the knowledge of the world one acquires through one’s skin’
(Howes, 2005: 27). Howes observed that in the modern western city
children have considerably more physical contact with their environment
than adults do (Howes, 2005: 29). In this context the sensorial approach
to shrapnel takes on greater signiﬁcance as a distinctly childish way of
knowing the world.
This sensoriality in children’s encounters with shrapnel emerges
repeatedly as a powerful factor in these stories; it could be argued that
the clear and detailed memories associated with shrapnel are connected
to this aesthetic bombardment. The sound, smell, temperature and colour
of shrapnel are described in some detail, as well as its tactile qualities.
The tinkling sound on the roof as well as the crashing of shrapnel falling
around someone caught in the open are mentioned a number of times,
as is the whistling noise it made as it fell (A6179628). The description of
shrapnel still smelling of cordite (A2021059) is questionable, as cordite
would have been the propellant rather than the explosive within the
shell, but whatever the smell it was powerful enough to evoke memories
decades later. The lustrous appearance of the fresh fragments was also
an important factor: ‘The high temperatures experienced during the
explosions sometimes produced beautiful rainbow colours on the metal,
contrasting with the horrible twisted shapes and the evil intent of the
TRADE AND EXCHANGE
I remember there was a rumour that shrapnel collectors like me were being
arrested. It turned out that it was actually just someone trying to scare off
the competition so they could have all the best shrapnel for themselves!
As we have seen, several of the interviews refer to trading fragments of
shrapnel amongst friends; small pieces for larger ones, brass pieces for
steel ones. Some of the descriptions suggest that these exchanges were
an opportunity to ﬂaunt the sizable fragments or large quantity of shrapnel
accumulated around one’s home that day: ‘we would swap pieces and
admire each others’ collections’ (A1144964; A4374344).
The other items that could be traded give a more rounded view of
the value of shrapnel in children’s economic spheres. These included
other material remains of the war: ‘This [shrapnel] could always be traded
at school for cordite, old incendiary bombs or anything else that the Home
Guard might have left lying around after their exercises’ (A3889236).
This corresponds to some of the more hair-raising accounts collected by
Westall (1985) of children in wartime stealing grenades, guns and mortar
shells for their own private war-games, amateur pyrotechnics and general
amusement. Alongside the world of matériel were numerous precious
commodities including rationed sweets and the wondrous world of
American popular culture that gradually arrived from 1942 onwards:
The rest of the boys of my age who were in the same class as me who had
not been evacuated were full of war souvenirs such as pieces of shrapnel
and badges from soldier’s uniforms where they could get them. Billetted
next door to us were two soldiers, one a Scottish chap called Jock, who was
in the commandos and the other was an American who used to give us
American comics which were like gold dust. If you had an American comic
to swap you could get the largest piece of shrapnel going. (A4086047)
An interesting trend in these narratives is the common comparison
of shrapnel collecting with other types of collecting, as elderly ‘Children
of the Blitz’ try to contextualize their childhood activities in more fami-
liar terms: ‘We used to collect shrapnel and there was a whole trading
network going on, a bit like trading cards today’ (A5472100). Others
compared shrapnel collecting and the practice of ‘swaps’ with stamp
collecting (A2216963) or conker collecting (A7570460): the latter in
particular resonates with the concept of shrapnel as a seemingly natural
phenomenon, falling from the sky and quickly losing its original lustre.
DISPOSING OF SHRAPNEL COLLECTIONS
In my initial interviews not one of my informants had kept their shrapnel
collection; many could not remember what happened to them and
several recalled throwing away the increasingly rusty lumps of metal in
the years after the war. However, in the People’s War sample a number
of different possibilities emerge. Most interestingly it appears that
shrapnel was actively sought out by the authorities for recycling, and
children were encouraged to donate their collections. In some cases this
operated through the school, either collected by the teachers or placed
in a special box by the school gates (A2754984). Others recall that
shrapnel ‘was handed in to the A.R.P. warden and it was put back to help
the war effort’ (A4126691). Elsewhere the police station was a collection
point: ‘The nose cone of a bomb was secured to the wall there. We were
told that the shrapnel was sent to Woolwich Arsenal to make new shells’
(A2680986). Only one woman remembers getting anything in return for
her precious collection: ‘Mother gave us a special bag to collect it in and
we’d take it to the town hall. We’d get stars depending on how much
we’d taken in’ (A4455885). Like many wartime collection drives it is
questionable how much use this material really was: the aim may have
been to raise morale and a sense of participation, an important consider-
ation in these initiatives (Calder, 1992). However, one account suggests
that in some places, in this case a playing ﬁeld, the removal of shrapnel
may have been an important health and safety concern:
To ﬁnd this shrapnel, we would line up across the playing ﬁeld on our hands
and knees and proceed along the ﬁeld picking it up for subsequent removal
and re-use in the war effort. If you missed any, your knees would be cut to
ribbons – I still have the scars to prove it, even after all these years! (A2721458)
In some cases shrapnel collections or particular pieces seem to have
been retained for a long time after the war (A2019070). The baby whose
pram was hit by shrapnel recalled that ‘it made a good door-stop for a while
– and a topic of conversation!’ (A4136663). Several accounts of shrapnel
that was retained discuss polishing and/or mounting the fragments, or
turning them into trinkets of various kinds (A4131028; A3267263).
Two stories stand out for their sheer cunning and nastiness, as well
as giving an interesting and unusual glimpse into children’s understand-
ing and exploitation of the destruction wrought by war.
The thing to do was collect it after an air raid, then if your street had what
today would be called a miserable old git the sort that wouldn’t give you
your ball back, then when the next air raid was on and you knew he would
be in his shelter you would lob a piece of shrapnel through his window, the
next day it was all around the shops how old so-and-so was nearly killed by
a piece of shrapnel, not very nice but boys will be boys. (A1950347)
The second is described more subtly:
As children we collected pieces of shrapnel and one lady was excitedly
showing her neighbours a piece of shrapnel that had broken her window.
She was a terrible misery to all us children, she was always harassing us!
When someone pointed out that the shrapnel was a bit rusty she immedi-
ately blamed my mate Sid and I but luckily I was in bed sick. (A3421469)
Following this, one wonders what to make of the numerous accounts
by those whose windows were broken by shrapnel – was this really the
effect of shellﬁre or the instrumentalization of shrapnel in settling
MODELS OF SHRAPNEL COLLECTING
The overwhelming impression gained from these many varied narratives
of wartime childhoods and shrapnel collecting is of children conﬁdently
integrating this violent material culture into their dynamic social worlds
of trade, status, mischief and play. Shrapnel took its place alongside
marbles, comics and trading cards in the cut-throat economy of the play-
ground with remarkable speed and spontaneity. The apparent univer-
sality of this practice across the country is notable; there are also
indications that German children at the time collected shrapnel with the
Young and old lived in two worlds at the same time, in the bunker and in
the everyday. Gerd and his friends played in the craters after the bombing
raids and collected bomb fragments, sorted them based on how unusually
mis-shapen they were, and swapped them like marbles. (Lorenz, 2005: 118;
trans R. Salkie)
What makes shrapnel collecting different? One of the most signiﬁ-
cant properties of shrapnel was that it cost nothing: any child could
accumulate a collection through a little hard work and canny trading,
and children in poorer areas near factories or docks were likely to have
a slight advantage due to the increased AA protection in these strategic
areas. With airborne radar in its infancy AA guns were the only effec-
tive weapon to strike back against the German night-bombers of 1940.
The hard pieces of steel twisted, broken, discoloured and still hot from
their high-altitude detonation reiﬁed this deﬁant energy and enabled one
to possess it, like a coin ﬂattened by a train.
This possible association of shrapnel with power and resilience
might explain another of its unusual properties: the speed with which it
diminished in value from the fresher, hotter piece to the older rustier
ones only good for breaking windows. The rate at which pieces lost their
lustre would have been a factor in exchange and accumulation: shrapnel
was in one sense a perishable commodity in the same way a new car
rapidly diminishes in value. It seems that collectors valued shrapnel by
its size, weight, freshness, rarity, colour and smell. As this compares most
closely with activities like ﬂower pressing or conker collecting it appears
that shrapnel was indeed quite unlike most other collectable man-made
commodities where the patina of use or age often adds commercial and
Might shrapnel collecting have had a mnemonic function as well as
a social one? According to Stewart,
While the point of the souvenir may be remembering, or at least the inven-
tion of memory, the point of the collection is forgetting . . . This difference
in purpose is the reason why the scrapbook and the memory quilt must
properly be seen as souvenirs rather than as collections. (Stewart, 1993: 152)
While the ﬂuid processes of accumulating, trading and disposing of
shrapnel point towards Stewart’s ‘inﬁnite reverie’ of forgetting (1993:
152), the rapt attention given to individual objects, including detailed
accounts of their provenance, hints at a memory function, undermining
Stewart’s somewhat simplistic dichotomy.
From the evidence presented it is difﬁcult to argue deﬁnitively that
shrapnel collecting was, as I have suggested, a mechanism that children
found for engaging with or participating in the war as sub-adults, and
for coping with the terrors of bombing and the hot, sharp steel rain it
brought with it. However, the clear associations of collecting with
controlling and ordering, the ‘profane to sacred’ transformation high-
lighted by Belk et al. (1988), suggest that these practices had something
to do with gaining power over the material culture that was killing and
injuring so many people. This need for control went beyond shrapnel:
‘We took to collecting . . . anything!’ (A2029024). The inherent ability of
children to adapt and cope in traumatic situations is remarkable, and it
is important not to underestimate the element of straightforward fun in
the shrapnel business: ‘we all had such a good time swapping and trading
and collecting those simple little pieces of metal’ (A5472100).
Studies in the material culture of modern conﬂict are growing in number,
range and sophistication, highlighting the impact of warfare on indi-
viduals and societies, landscapes, art, architecture, the media, technology,
the body, and the relationships between these disparate processes
(Saunders, 2004; Schoﬁeld, 2004, 2005; Schoﬁeld et al., 2002). As these
studies show, virtually no aspect of society is untouched by war, and yet
so far there has been very little consideration of the ways in which
children have encountered and interacted with the material culture of
modern conﬂicts. As this study has shown, examining the things that
children collect and curate can reveal unexpected details of their sensory
perceptions of the world around them, their experiences and memories
embodied in and represented by objects.
The scope for such work and its importance is enormous: in the last
century the proportion of non-combatant deaths in war has grown from
a tiny minority to an overwhelming majority. Children are often the ﬁrst
victims of wars and conﬂicts, either directly through violence or indi-
rectly through displacement, starvation and other privations. Narratives
of children collecting shrapnel and other munitions, often at great risk
to themselves, range in date from the First and Second World Wars to
1980s Lebanon and contemporary Israel (McGirk, 2006; Sarraﬁan Ward,
2003; Saunders, 2003). As long as children around the world are con-
fronted daily with the horrors of modern warfare then their encounters
with its material culture will be of considerably more than academic
This unusual ﬁeld of study grew out of archaeological, historical and oral histori-
cal research at various sites in London: my thanks to everyone who helped with
this work, to all my interviewees for sharing their memories of wartime child-
hood, and to UCL Institute of Archaeology and the AHRC for ﬁnancial support.
Thanks also to the BBC for permission to quote from material held by the WWII
People’s War archive. Tim Schadla-Hall and Hilary Orange kindly read and
commented on an early draft of this article; Raf Salkie and Nick Saunders
provided invaluable support and advice on sources as well as extensive comments
on the text. Finally thanks to Chana Moshenska for introducing me to the works
of Robert Westall at an early age, and sparking my interest in wartime childhood.
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