HISTORY, ROMANCE AND...CATS!
Grace Elliot leads a double life as a vet by day and author of intelligent historical fiction by night. Grace is an avid reader and believes that smart people need to read romance - as an antidote to the modern world!
Grace is also obsessed by all things feline.
“How well do I
recollect, in the days of my youth, watching the operations of a turnspit at
the house of a worthy old Welsh clergyman in Worcestershire, who taught me to
Anecdotes of Dogs, Edward Jesse, 1870
Before the use of dog-power, spits were laboriously turned by hand
This week’s blog post is about the ‘Turnspit’ dog – a breed
now extinct. It was the purpose of these dogs to run inside a wheel which in
turn powered a spit used to roast meat. Prior to this automation roasting meats had to be turned by hand which
was both labour intensive and unreliable. The invention of a dog-powered device
was hailed as a great improvement.
“A dog…by a small
wheel, walking round it and making it turn in such a manner that no cook or
servant could do it more cleverly.”
Johannes Caius – 1576 – Royal physician and dog expert.
In the mid 1700’s Carolus Linnaeus mentions a breed of
turnspit dog and later still, Charles Darwin mention their short legs as an
example of genetic selection. Since the dogs had to work in a confined space
short legs and heavy bodies gave them an advantage to turn the wheel. In France
the breed were described as ‘Basset a jambs torses’ and pictures show a
short-legged dog with a long heavy body somewhat similar to the modern Basset
“The Turnspits are
remarkable for their great length of body and short and usually crooked legs.
Their colour is generally a dusky grey spotted with black or entirely black
with the under parts whitish.”
Bingley’s Memoirs of British Quadrupeds 1809
An example of a dog turnspit - From the White Hart Inn, Bath.
The work was hard, hot and lacking in stimulation. Whereas
other working breeds had the thrill of chasing rats or pointing out game, the
Turnspit dog did his work out of compulsion and a likely scolding if he slacked
in his task.
“The poor animal…went
about his employment like a caged mouse or squirrel with his recreation wheel…revolved
in a treadwheel, which in this instance was connected with apparatus for turning
the joints roasting at the fire and formed not so much recreation as extremely
Charles G Harper – The Old Inns of England - 1906
See the detail above (wheel in top left hand corner)
Numerous stories exist of dogs evading their work, as mentioned
by a Mr Wigstead, when writing about a pub in Newcastle where he observed:
“Great care must be
taken that this animal [the Turnspit dog] does not observe the cook approach the larder. If he does, he
immediately hides himself for the remainder of the day.”
In a large household where particularly heavy joints of meat
were roasted, often two dogs were used, each alternating for a few hours in the
wheel, or else worked on a ‘day-on-day-off’ basis. These animals soon became
accustomed to this routine and if called upon to work on a day other than his
usual, would hide away. Indeed, this regime is thought to be the origin of the
phrase “each dog will have his day.”
Whether as testament to a dog’s intelligence or the drudgery
of the work, other stories are recorded, such as that told of the kitchen of
the Duke de Liancourt who had two dog-powered turnspits, used alternately. One day
the ‘working’ dog went missing and so his companion was forced to work two days
in a row. At the end of his duty, by wagging and whining, the dog took the
kitchen staff to where his lazy companion was hiding and flushed him out.
A similar tale exists of a cook who couldn’t find the dog
whose turn it was to work the spit and so attempted to put his favourite dog in
the wheel. This dog rebelled and ran into the garden, found the missing dog and
drove him inside where the latter went of his own accord into the wheel.
eagerness he still does forward tend,
Like Sisyphus, whose journey has no end.'
- anonymous poem, Upon a dog called Fuddle,
turnspit at the Popinjay, in Norwich
A prototype dog-powered sewing machine!
when not working in the kitchen, Turnspit dogs were put to other purposes. An
old story exists of some turnspit dogs from Bath, who on cold Sundays were
taken to church to be used as foot warmers. However, on one occaision this
backfired whilst the Bishop of Gloucester gave his sermon and sited the line “It
was then that Ezekial saw the wheel…”. On hearing the word “wheel” the dogs ran
off, associating it with work to be done!
not everyone was oblivious to the hard lot of the turnspit dog. In 1866, Henry
Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals, sited the dogs’ treatment as tantamount to slavery. He abhorred how
the dogs were forced to trot for hours next to a blazing fire, with no access
to water – and if they were tardy about their task the cook might even toss a
hot coal onto the treadmill platform to enliven their paws.
Dogs were used to power other devices - such as a butter churn.
finally, on a brighter note, in Robert Chambers 1869 “Book of Days” he recounts
an anecdote about an 18th century ship’s captain. When the captain
docked at Bristol he became angry with the locals over their lack of
hospitality to his crew. In retribution, under cover of darknes he sent his men
to steal all the town’s turnspit dogs. When the roast meat was all gone and the
crisis became acute, the townsfolk apologized, opened their doors to the
sailors and the dogs returned.