Fish Leather at Beddington Corner

From the Mitcham News & Mercury, 6th January 1950, page 4.

WORKING on trawlers sailing from the sturdy little fishing port of Fleetwood, Mr. W. V. Kuncewicy was struck with an idea. But it was war time and his conviction that the seas surrounding these inlands contained great untapped wealth could bear no fruit until the end of hostilities.

When peace came Kuncewicy and his friend, S. Cyuba, equipped only with an idea and about £300 between them, began to explain to people that a flourishing industry could be built on the by-products of fish, principally the skins, most of which are thrown away, or at best, reach the fertiliser factory.

The skins of cod and catfish, declared these two former Polish naval men, could be used as a substitute for fine leather. Cleaned, treated and dyed it would make dainty shoe uppers, belts and other trimmings. The skin of the dolphin, porpoise and shark, which at present sport unmolested about our shores, were the real wealth which, if scientifically harvested, could provide enough hides to abolish the need for a large percentage of leather imports. The oil, too, was valuable.

Five years after the end of the war these two men have established a factory in Goat-road, Mitcham, where fish skins are treated for commercial use.

HOME MADE FACTORY.

Its home is a converted stable. Kuncewicy and Cyuba did most of the converting. They laid the concrete floor of the tanning room, installed the machinery, converted the loft above the stalls into an office-cum-work shop, The entrance is by an outside wooden staircase. To get in you bend double and, push open the old loft door. There is an old-fashioned air about this beamed, dimly-lit building where a new industry has been born. In the former loft skins of cod and catfish hang from lines stretched across the low ceiling. In the stable below 2,500 skins are cleaned and tanned each week.

The tanning of fish skins has been attempted with indifferent success for probably 3,000 years. Now, for the first time it is being done satisfactorily, and dainty shoes and other accessories, many of them in gold and silver finish, are being exported as well as sold in the West End.

The skin is soft and flexible, yet, stronger than leather of equal thickness. Fish skin accessories have become popular for evening wear, yet probably few women realise that they are adorning themselves with the skin of cod.

How in these days of restriction have these two penniless sailors succeeded in launching a new industry? The real answer lies in the burning enthusiasm of Kuncewicy; the imagination, initiative and drive that persuaded the authorities to allow him to study at a marine biological station on the Clyde, and later imbued enough people with sufficient enthusiasm for fish skins to lend money to set the factory going.

ON OUR DOORSTEP.

But powder compacts and evening shoes are only part of Mr. Kuncewicy’s dream. In spring millions of porpoises and dolphins come to Britain’s shores. Spring, too. brings schools of sharks to Scottish waters.

“These creatures represent potential wealth.” said Mr. Kuncewicy. “The hide of a porpoise or dolphin is the size of a cow hide, and as tough. There are several layers of skin: the outer ones can be used for heavy goods such as suitcases or heavy boots, the inner layers for lighter things.

“Fishermen on the Clyde used to poach dolphin from small boats — killing them was illegal — for the sake of the blubber and the skin. To-day the blubber would be useful as lubricating oil, and the meat is quite good, much better than whale steak.”

Shark skin was a good substitute for calf. They had had one skin from the shark station at Soay, the tiny Hebridean island that lies in the shadow of the Black Cuillins of Skye. The setting up of a station there had failed because the shark fishing had been treated rather as a gentleman’s sport than a serious business. But it had demonstrated the use to which these creatures, some of them as long as a London bus, could be put.

Mr. Kuncewicy has been asking the Board of Trade to establish three stations — on the Clyde. Cornwall and the East Coast — for the purpose of catching porpoises, dolphins and sharks. Such an experiment would provide the nucleus of a flourishing industry.

“The Government sets up elaborate groundnut schemes in Africa, but has no time for the undeveloped natural wealth of Britain,” he commented. “The launching of a scheme would cost only about £15,000. It could well grow into an important industry, providing Britain with much of the leather she now imports. The raw materials department of the Board of Trade have shown some interest, but the Treasury will not respond to appeals for funds.”

British Pathe made a newsreel in 1949, which can be seen on YouTube:

On the British Pathe website, the names are given as Witold Euncewicz and Stanislaw Czuba, as opposed to Kuncewicy and Cyuba in the newspaper article.

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