The Lost Leather of Metta Catharina: A Tale of Rediscovery and Craftsmanship

A real highlight of London Craft Week 2024 was displaying a leather shoe trunk handcrafted by Neil MacGregor from rare ‘Russia’ leather. The remarkable story behind the case begins almost 250 years ago, in the port of St Petersburg, Russia.
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In 1786, a Danish Brigantine named ‘Die Frau Metta Catherina von Flensburg’ set sail with a crew of six, bound for the port of Genoa and carrying a hundred-ton cargo of hemp and leather.

Supple, rich and water-resistant, Russian leather was widely considered the finest in the world. The leather was even prized for its ability to repel insects, thanks to the birch oil used during the tanning process. Explorer Marco Polo had noted its use by the East Asian Tartars as early as the 13th century. 

“In its time, Russian leather was a top-of-the-line luxury, whose manufacturing secrets Western Europeans and Americans couldn't crack,'' writes Identity Leathercraft. “The St. Petersburg artisans used willow bark to tan the hides, curried them with birch oil, and embossed a crosshatched grain on them by hand.”

By December 10, the ship had made it safely across the Baltic Sea, navigating into the English Channel. Captain Hans Jensen Twedt looked out from his deck that evening into an ominous gloom; a gale was brewing, one that locals would later describe as the worst of 1786. Twedt set a course for Plymouth Sound, just four leagues away, planning to lay anchor and furl his sails for the night.

Fatefully, in the early hours of December 11, the gale’s direction veered to the South. The Metta Catharina’s previously safe mooring bore the full brunt of the onrushing swell, the crew quickly left with no choice but to abandon ship. All survived but the brigantine itself, alongside another vessel bound for Barcelona, sank without trace into the Sound.

Some 187 years later, in 1973, the wreck of the Metta Catharina was finally discovered. Many ships fell foul of this deceptively dangerous anchorage over the years, and a team of amateur underwater archaeologists based in Plymouth had begun hunting for evidence of the HMS Harwich and French privateer brig L’aimable Victoire. Their search began in June and was fruitless until late October, when Colin Hannaford and Chris Holwill discovered a ship’s bell in the deep silt of the tidal channel. To their amazement, the bronze bell lay in remarkably good condition, bearing the markings of the Metta Catharina and of its home port, Flensburg. Alongside it lay hundreds of leather hide bundles, preserved in the silt some thirty metres below the surface.

Following enquiries to both the Danes and the Germans, it was established that Prince (now King) Charles had ‘right of wreck’ for the Metta Catharina via his ownership of the Duchy of Cornwall. King Charles granted the team permission to excavate the wreck – a process that was initially planned to take five years, but ended up taking twenty. Four-metre deep banks of silt engulfing the wreck, regular sub-one metre visibility and strong tides in the coastal channel all hindered the team’s excavation progress, but thankfully, many six-hide bundles of the ‘Russia’ leather were safely brought to the surface, ready to be treated and analysed by a team of experts.

Neil MacGregor & Valerie Michael are some of the very few people to have made products from this unique 'Russia' leather. Neil’s shoe trunk, displayed at Bentleys during London Craft Week, was made entirely by hand in their Tetbury workshop, where Neil and Valerie have crafted leather goods together for the last fifty years.

He recounts: “We first came across the Russia Hides when leatherworker Robin Snelson (who worked with the divers to recondition the hides for use) came to a conference for leatherworkers we organised in Bath, in 1985. It dates back to a time when tanning leather was a true craft, done without the use of any machinery. The thickness of the hide varies a lot over any given skin because the flesh side (the back), was levelled by hand with a circular shaving knife. The dye used for colouring the leather was obtained by boiling up chips of logwood, imported from Central America, and of course the leather has a strong and distinctive smell because of its final dressing with birch bark oil. 

“Over a number of years, the leather itself has revealed to us how it should best be used. It does have ‘faults’ or imperfections, like any vegetable tanned, full-grain hide, but because of these, and its rarity, a lot of time is spent planning over each hide before any cutting begins. Once those choices have been made, the pieces made from the leather can be quite strong and robust in their use”, says Neil. 

“‘Handling’ and working the leather reveals a quality which is different from most other leathers we have used – something close to the toughness you might associate with a chrome tanned leather is the best analogy. After the introduction of chrome tanned leather and the subsequent industrialisation of tanning in Europe around the 1860’s, a lot of the specialisation and knowledge of various forms of vegetable tanning were put to one side or lost altogether”, Neil adds.

Once on the surface, Snelson kept the hides in seawater before cleaning and processing them for use. Neil describes how this included “copious amounts of washing, stretching the hides on a frame before dressing them in different ways using traditional materials like cod oil and tallow. Some of the hides are then taken to be split and shaved to level out the thickness, before grading for the different uses to which they will be put. Without Robin’s imagination and determination, the leather might have remained with the wreck.

Neil and Valerie are proud of the ways they’ve given the leather a new lease of life, playing to the strengths of each hide and minimising waste wherever possible. “Our Box Attaché Cases turned out well, where the polished brass locks and fittings complement the colour of the hide and the grain of the leather. The moulded ‘Bowls’ feature the stronger character and varying colours of the hide, and one extra large example is now in the Museum of Leathercraft collection.”

“A limited edition of three items including a large briefcase, folio and travel holdall for James Purdey demonstrated how practical and versatile the leather can be, as well as the recent Shoe Trunk displayed at Bentleys during London Craft Week of course.”

Thanks to a team of dedicated and courageous individuals working both above and below the surface, the Metta Catharina’s irreplaceable hide bundles have finally fulfilled their purpose. “They looked and handled quite differently to the leather we were used to but were always so full of character – perhaps a little ‘wild’”, as Neil puts it. With almost a millennium of history behind them, stretching from the Steppes of Asia to the forests of Central America, it’s no wonder these hides carry such character.

Bentleys stock a range of MacGregor & Michael’s leather luggage goods, including luggage tags handcrafted with leather sourced from J&FJ Baker Tannery, the last remaining oak-bark tannery in the UK. 

Visit the Modern Craft collection to shop.


Benson, S. (2022) Leather stories - the Metta catharina, identityleathercraft. Available at: (Accessed: 14 June 2024). 

Skelton, I. (2013) Shipwreck: The Loss of the Metta Catharina in 1786. Metta Catharina Trust.