200 Year Old Russian Reindeer Leather

I am one of a few craftspeople selected by the Duchy of Cornwall to work in this amazing 200 year old Russian Reindeer Leather

I remember the first time I saw the hides of reindeer leather from the wreck, it was absolutely beautiful.  I was nervous about handling it.  Every square inch of it is different and no one hide is the same

The remarkable Russian Reindeer leather is richly aromatic and grained with a cross hatched finish; and remained undiscovered in a shipwreck at the bottom of the sea for 200 years. Each item, worked in this, the Stradivarius of leathers, is stamped 1786 with our maker’s mark and accompanied by a certificate giving the story of its amazing discovery and salvage from the wreck in Plymouth Sound.

On the 10th December 1786, a strong gale blowing from the southwest forced two ships to seek shelter in Plymouth Sound.  They were the “Christian Hendrick” from Rotterdam with a cargo of wheat and cheese for Barcelona, and the Dutch Brigantine “Die Fraumetta Catharina von Flensburg” bound for the independent republic of Genoa with a cargo of hemp and leather from the port of St. Petersburg in the Gulf of Finland.  The “Catharina” had already travelled some two thousand miles through the Baltic, the North Sea and the English Channel when she was forced by worsening weather to make for Plymouth Sound to ride out the storm.

During the day the winds strengthened and swung around from southwest to due south, turning the previously safe anchorage into a maelstrom of waves and spray.  Throughout the evening both ships strained at their anchor ropes as the weather steadily worsened.  By 10 o’clock a full gale was screaming up Plymouth Sound.  The “Christian Hendrick” was the first to founder.  She broke free from her anchor and was swept into Deadman’s Bay where the crew managed to scramble ashore.  Then the fifty-three ton “Catharina” struck Drake’s Island and was blown toward Mount Edgecumbe before sinking in the darkness somewhere under Raven’s cliffs on the Cornish side of Plymouth Sound.  All the crew were able to get ashore, but the ship and its cargo were lost for almost two hundred years.

In 1973 divers from the Plymouth Sound branch of the British Sub Aqua Club were searching for the wreck of H.M.S. Harwich which had foundered in 1691.  The search concentrated on the slopes of a sunken, prehistoric river valley below Battery Buoy which forms the deep-water channel between Drake’s Island and Cornwall.  In shallow water, about 500 yards from the shore at a depth of 30 metres, they found an encrusted ship’s bell.  It was lifted out and cleaned, enabling the wreck to be provisionally identified as the “Catharina von Flensburg”.  However, extensive research would be needed before the ship’s identity could be proved beyond doubt.

Flensburg City Museum confirmed that the vessel had been built in Flensburg fjord (then in Denmark) in 1782 and owned by Hinrick Lorck and Knut Andersen from then until 1786.  This short period of ownership suggests that the boat may have been wrecked in 1786.  Local archives from that year were searched and the full story of the last voyage of the brigantine was discovered in an article from the “Sherborne Mercury” of that year.

Further underwater investigation revealed part of the rigging and then the cargo – bundles of hides littering the seabed, remarkably preserved after two hundred years immersion in black mud.  More may still be buried in the mud, their state of preservation improving in direct relation to the depth at which they are buried.  The hides vary in size, some as large as cattle, complete with head and tail and marked with the tanner’s initials.  Subsequent research has confirmed that the leather is almost certainly reindeer and has been treated by the traditional Russian method of tanning, soaking in pits with willow bark and currying with birch oil.

The leather is marvellously supple and its durability has been enhanced by its two centuries of inundation in black mud.  The colour varies from a rich claret to a lighter sienna and most of the hides have a crossed hatched grain embossed by hand.  The same diced grain can be seen on the upholstery and bookbindings of the period, the famous “Russia” leather being renowned for its ability to resist water and repel insects.

As salvors in possession the divers were duty bound to trace the owners.  When it was determined that the wreck lay on the sea bed owned by the Duchy of Cornwall it became clear that the owner was the President of the British Sub Aqua Club, Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall.  He waived his rights to the leather and, with the approval of an eminent archaeologist, it was decided to sell a limited number of the hides to a few selected traditional craftsmen to help fund the further excavation of the wreck.