The “Russia Leather”

Hand cut and stitched from start to finish in Tetbury by Neil MacGregor, exclusively for Purdey, the “Russia leather” pieces have a unique story…

    In 1782 a two-masted Dutch ship was built in Flensburg fjord, Scandinavia, which at that time was in Denmark. The ship was jointly owned by Hinrick Lock and Knut Anderson. It was named the Catharina von Flensburg, Catherine being the name of the Captain’s wife. Today we would technically call this ship a brig as it was an efficient cargo vessel that had a crew of seven.

    A popular trip to do at that time for a ship based in Denmark was the run from St Petersburg, which had opened up at the start of the 18th century, down to Genoa. During a three-month winter spell the port was closed by ice but otherwise, it was a good run.

    For many centuries, Russia had been exporting furs, tar, timber, and hemp. These could be obtained elsewhere in the Baltic but Russia had one good that was special, leather. Before St Petersburg, this leather had been coming out via river from Novgorod and was therefore controlled by the Hanseatic merchants. However now Russia could export directly and trade was brisk.

    Russian leather, topped with strong smelling birch oil, was highly regarded. This was due to the fact it was extra durable, very strong, very good, somewhat waterproof, and insect repellent. It had a distinctive colour and a pattern of lines on the surface. What is more, however hard other European tanners tried, and many had, no one could match Russian Leather.

    We do not know how often the Metta Catharina, as we now call it, undertook this journey. However, we do know a lot about its final journey in the autumn of 1786. When the ship reached the English Channel the weather began to deteriorate and the decision was made to anchor in safely in Plymouth Sound and wait for the bad weather to pass. She was not alone as another ship from Rotterdam, which was bound for Barcelona with wheat and cheese, also slipped in to anchor beside her.

    Instead of subsiding the storm worsened and changed from the south-west and instead began to come directly from the south. This meant that the storm was now blowing directly into their anchorage. Neither ship could be moved at such a late stage and the Dutch ship was the first to drag its anchor and crash on the rocks.

    The Metta Catharina broke free from her anchor at around ten at night, struck Drake’s Island on the Sound and got dragged over to the Cornish coast where she sank, somewhere not far from Mount Edgcumbe.

    It was noted in the press and then quietly forgotten about. This was until whilst searching for a UK naval ship from the 17th century, divers found the ship’s bell from the Catharina. Following on from this discovery desk-based research identified the vessel and confirmed it was carrying a cargo of hemp and leather.
    Initial dives confirmed that the hemp had all been destroyed with time, it does not survive in water, but that the leather was still there in large quantities of neatly tied bundles just as you would buy it today.

    When divers located the Russian leather from the Metta Catharina it was all neatly rolled and in surprisingly good condition. Ownership belonged to Prince Charles, as the seabed where the wreck was located belonged to the Duchy of Cornwall. He decided to waive his rights in order for some of the leather to be commercially sold in order to pay for further searches.

    The leather was not treated with the typical mix, as explained above. Instead of this method a local leather craftsman, Robin Snelson, washed it in freshwater to remove the salt and rubbed it down with a lanolin dressing. The leather, which is calf and cowhide, was tanned with willow bark. This is a long slow tannage process, afterwards, the leather is curried or oiled by hand using birch bark oil. It is the birch bark which gives Russian leather its distinctive smell, loved by us but disliked by insects. The distinct lines on the skin, occasionally cross-hatched, are created by a wooden roller and would have been done when the skin was still quite damp. Some say this might have been done to help get the birch oil into the skin. Normal currying uses a smooth slicker for this.

    With the help of Heritage Lottery Funding, some of the leather is on display as part of a full exhibition about the Metta Catharina in Mount Edgcumbe House, which is located just beside the location where the brig sank.

    Many books from the 19th-century detail, what they argue to be, instruction for the process involved to create Russian Leather and some do come close. However, the actual process was lost in the Russian Revolution which began in St Petersburg, the capital of Russia at that time.

    Certainly today no such leather comes out of Russia and no one is trying to make it, as far as we know. This is a shame as the small amount sold from the Metta Catharina was snapped up for both contemporary and restoration purposes. It has been turned into shoes and other items, some of which tell the story of the leather itself.