Turnspit dogs: the original rotisserie machines

Hundreds of dog breeds exist throughout the world, many bred for a specific purpose. Historically, Jack Russels hunted rats, Border Collies herded sheep, Greyhounds hunted hares and Alsatians were typically used as guard dogs. However, there a great many jobs that, for whatever reasons, humans no longer need to be performed and the breeds associated with those jobs go extinct as a result. The most famous example of this — the Turnspit dog.

For much of human history, roasting meat over an open fire was seen as the only proper way to cook. Unlike modern ovens though, spit roasting, or rotisserie, requires the meat to be constantly turning over the flames to ensure even cooking. While this creates a beautifully cooked piece of meat, it’s incredibly labour intensive. Initially, young children, mostly boys, operated the turnspit. These ‘spitjacks’ would sit by the huge fire, turning a lever that would in turn rotate the piece of meat, which would often be a whole hog or bird. If they were lucky, they might have a wet bale of hay to crouch behind during this time, but most simply endured the heat. Your average roasting hog weights about 150lb, with a cook time of 1hr and 15 mins per 10lbs according to contemporary sources. It could take between 12 and 18 hrs of cooking, subjected to the roaring heat of an open fire, that these children would be working for. Many of these children would work in nude in a desperate attempt to not faint from the heat. There are even reports of them urinating in the fireplaces in Hampton Court, home of King Henry VIII, which, while a hilarious mental image, hints at a more insidious culture. Their sole purpose was to turn the meat and they mustn’t stop for any reason.

Granted it was only inns, taverns, manor houses and castles that could afford such luxuries as a spit turn, but by the 1500s in England, a truly medieval form of outsourcing was taking place, likely as a response to the sorry state of the spitjacks, who would frequently faint from the heat and exertion, as well as forming horrendous blisters on their hands. Enter the turnspit dog.

Similar to the modern welsh corgi, the Turnspit dog was short, long and energetic dog, breed specifically for the purpose of turning meat. They would be placed in a large wheel, which was mounted on a wall away from the fire, where they would run much like a hamster. Their forward motion would turn an elaborate system of pulleys and this would turn the meat.

To our modern eyes, this is cruel and exploitative. We can imagine that the little dogs were in considerable discomfort as a result of the heat and noise of the kitchen, to say nothing of the pain involved in running for hours on end. While they were grievously mistreated by modern standards, compared to the spitjacks, they were actually treated a little better.

While the children worked directly in front of the fire, the Turnspit was placed far from it in their wheel, often on a different wall. There is also something to be said for the training required of a Turnspit. From puppies, their appears to have been at least some training period, with well-behaved dogs that kept time being given meat whilst running, and slow, lazy dogs having a piece of hot coal thrown in with them to ‘encourage’ them to run faster. Spit jacks on the other hand were simply children cranking a lever, very little training was required, making them a lot more replaceable that the Turnspits. Eventually, despite the training cost, they became seen as more desirable than a child in the kitchen, a strange combination of a novelty and cost and labour-saving device. What’s clear from the records though is that they were not pets, they were tools.

That being said, there appears to have been some closeness between Turnspit and master. On Sundays, the only day the servants had off, the Turnspit was used a footwarmer during church services, protecting their companions from the draughts of the Medieval churches and cathedrals of Britain. Their odd, short little bodies apparently made them perfect for the job.

By the 19th century, the Turnspit was ultimately replaced by steam power and a machine called a ‘clock jack’. This, combined with the rising popularity of ovens, led to a rapid decline in the population of Turnspits and by the 1850s they were rare. It had become an embarrassment to have a Turnspit, a symbol of being poor and old fashioned. Very quickly, the little dog became the source of intense dislike, and we see more examples of people pointing out how ugly they were, how stumpy their legs were and how sullen they could be. Because of this, and the associations that came with them, nobody was inclined to save the breed and by the end of the 19th century they were extinct.

The last surviving Turnspit dog, and only one ever taxidermied and preserved for future generations, was Whiskey, a Turnspit preserved with a surprising amount of love and care in Abergavenny Museum, Wales.

The legacy of the Turnspit is a sad tale of exploitation, but they have a legacy that has lasted a surprisingly long time. Queen Elizabeth II’s corgis are perhaps one of the closest living breeds to Turnspits, and her affection for the breed may run in the family. It’s rumoured that Queen Victoria kept four retired Turnspit dogs as pets, perhaps setting the pattern that the Queen still follows to this day

Charles Darwin is noted as having said “Look at the spit dog. That’s an example of how people can breed animals to suit particular needs.”

In this way, the Turnspit has contributed in some small way to one of the most important scientific discovers in history. Perhaps the most relevant to The Turnspits own life, the founder of American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Henry Burgh created the charity partly in response to the terrible treatment suffered by Turnspit dogs. It’s difficult to find accurate numbers since the institutions inception 1866, its helped reduce the suffering of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of animals across the US.

While we now have machines to do the work for us, spare a moment’s thought for the little dogs that once powered some of the greatest kitchens in Britain. Despite their small statue, the mark these dogs have left on the world is simply huge.

Food fan, writer and history nerd. Sometimes I combine the three and write about them here :)

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