Spotlight On … Powder Flasks

Written by Philip Warner.

Philip Warner is the Curator of the National Leather Collection.

We are trying to raise £5,000 on JustGiving to open our museum to the public. To read more about our fundraising campaign, please visit our page here.

“WILL SOMEONE PLEASE WRITE A BLOG?!” was the heartfelt cry that reverberated around the office.

Vikki Green has been delighting us with treasures and tales from the National Leather Collection for a few months now. Today, as we ramp up for our first open day, the pressure is on. Amidst the fumes wafting from freshly painted walls and laminated labels; as we prepare for Heritage Open Day on Saturday 9th September;  Vikki’s imperative was a call to arms for the rest of us. 

“Pick me! Pick me!” I replied, bouncing up and down on my chair like the eager Donkey from Shrek.

She was not amused.

“Pick a number between 1 and 3000,” I replied.

“1844,” came the immediate riposte (muffled in a mouthful of sweet & sour noodles).

So here goes. Object number 1844, the one thousand eight hundred and forty fourth object acquired for the collection in 1971.

Cue a quick check of the collection management system, and a dash to the stores.

And the winner is …

A powder flask of stitched hide on wood with iron funnel.

Decorated with incised designs including (possibly) a face. Date and provenance unknown. Acquired for £10.

Great! Thanks Vikki! inspired choice … no date, provenance or notes …  

But the challenge had been accepted.

There is something simply wonderful about curating this undiscovered collection. The average day is a melting pot of discussions, of DIY and design. There is so much to do, often the pressure to achieve can seem overwhelming. But then, when spending time with an object, I am reminded that it is the journey which is the fun part. There will never be a time when we know it all, or have all the answers. The joy is in the learning and discussion. It’s a journey that I believe any and everyone is capable of embarking upon. The powerful world wide web can connect us with vast tranches of information at the click of a button. Care needs to be taken here for sure, and I would counsel everyone to not always believe what they read online! Fake news is out there! But it is possible to push forward and increase knowledge of our collection, little by little, object by object.

So back to powder flasks.

In an unassuming acid free box marked ‘flasks’, lay this little beauty. A small, stiff hide flask for shot or powder, with a laced back section. Crude iron mount and funnel. The make and style were my first port of call. A Google images search for similar examples struck gold, and the chase was afoot.

A few hours later and it appears we have an early 19th century ‘Jezail’ flask from India or Afghanistan. The ‘Jezail’ was a long barrelled musket, also known as the ‘camel gun’. Used widely in these areas by local militia.

According to Arthur Conan Doyle, Dr John H Watson (Sherlock Holmes’ faithful companion) was shot by a bullet fired from a Jezail musket in the first Afghan War!

I doubt this item has had much ‘facetime’ in our museum since its acquisition in 1971. Yet in the space of an afternoon it has transported me to the arid Registan desert.  To a time when the ‘Great Game’ was playing out between the British and Russian empires as they strove for dominance in Central Asia. When, as ever, leather was a ubiquitous part of life. It has served us in our struggles, travels and endeavours across time and across continents.

This photograph of a group of Afridis was taken by John Burke in 1878 during the Second Afghan War. One can just about make out the leather belts hung with various tools, bullets and powder flasks.

To be honest, time has not been my friend today and the extent of my research has been naive. But I do want to leave you on the thought that struck whilst on this little sojourn – that we can all be curators, all be researchers and, above all (in my opinion), it’s a lot more enjoyable than filling in policy forms!

To find out more about our wonderful treasures, do get in touch. If you would like to have a go at blogging for us, if you would like Vikki to shout an object out to you from across the internet to research and write about, please let us know. Oh, and if you are in Northampton on Saturday 9th September between 10am and 4pm, do pop along and say hello. It would be lovely to welcome you to our new home.

This powder flask is just one example of the countless treasures in the National Leather Collection! To learn more about the collection, visit our homepage. All support is greatly appreciated, so please visit our support page to find out how you can get involved.

We are trying to raise £5,000 on JustGiving to open our museum to the public. To read more about our fundraising campaign, please visit our page here.