A two masted Dutch ship was built in 1782 in Flensburg fiord in Scandinavia, which at that time was in Denmark, and 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 and it was an efficient cargo vessel that had a crew of seven.
One of the good trips to do at that time for a ship based out of Denmark was the run from Russia down to St Petersburg, which had opened up at the start of the 18th century with the building of St. Petersburg. Over a three month winter spell the port would be closed by ice but otherwise it was a good run.
For a few centuries Russia had been exporting furs, tar, timber and hemp. These could be obtained elsewhere in the Baltic but the one thing that Russia had that was special was leather. Before St Petersburg, this leather had been coming out via river from Novgorod and controlled by the Hanseatic merchants, but now Russia could export directly and the trade was brisk.
Russian leather, topped with strong smelling birch oil, was highly regarded as it was extra durable, very strong, very good, somewhat waterproof and insect repellent. It had a very 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 did this journey, but we know a lot about its final one which was in the autumn of 1786. When it got into the English Channel it found the weather deteriorating and it went into Plymouth Sound to anchor in safety 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 south west to coming directly from the south, which meant it was blowing directly into their anchorage. Neither ship could be moved at that 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 around ten at night, struck Drake’s Island on the Sound and got dragged over to the Cornish side where she sank somewhere not far from Mount Edgcumbe.
It was noted in the press and then quietly forgotten about until while searching for a UK naval ship from the 17th century, divers found the ship’s bell from the Catharina; desk research identified the vessel and that 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 there in large quantities of neatly tied bundles juts as you would buy it today.
Normally with leather that has been underwater and other organic objects like wood you need to handle them with cloth gloves and dehydrate them in special conditions. The leather gets treated with a cruel mix of solvents, acids and tanning material so that you still retain the shape but are just left with a black solid.
For tanners reading this, think of:
- Wash with 1% Lissapol (NDB) nonionic detergent
- Put in 10% solution of Detarex for 60 minutes
- Immerse in 2% solution of Hydorchloric acid for 1 hour
- Rinse and dry
- Immerse in 3 successive baths of acetone – 30 minutes each
- Air dry to lighten colour and remove acetone
- Brush 2-3 times with a mix of 1.1.1 trichloroethane, Dowicide 1, lanolin and Bavon ASAK ABF with the leather flexed during application
- Slow air dry
When divers located the Russian leather from the Metta Catharina it was all neatly rolled and tied and in surprisingly good condition. Ownership was with Prince Charles, as the seabed where the wreck was located was in the Duchy of Cornwall, and he waived his rights to allow some of the leather to be commercialised to pay for further search.
Instead of being tortured with the typical mix explained above, a local leather craftsman, Robin Snelson, washed it in freshwater to remove the salt and rubbed it down with a lanolin dressing. The leather is reindeer, was tanned with willow bark, which is a long slow tannage and then 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 put there by a wooden roller and must 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 just a smooth slicker for this.
With the help of Heritage Lottery Funding some of the leather is on show as part of a full display on the Metta Catharina in Mount Edgcumbe House, just beside the location where the brig sank.
Many books from the 19th century give what they say are recipes for making Russian Leather and some come close, but 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.