Posted on: July 8, 2020 Posted by: belle Comments: 0
An etching of a Turnspit Dog

Roasted meats are perhaps the shining jewel in what is otherwise the bland landscape of British cooking. Even from the time of sticks and stone the hearth is a central focus of all homes, and by the time we get to the grand palaces of the Tudors the fire gets so large it needs to move to a whole separate building to reduce the risk of burning the whole palace to the ground.

I’m not sure how many of you have attempted to roast and entire animal over an open fire (everyone needs a COVID hobby), but it takes a huge amount of work to keep the meat moving and ensure an even roasting. Initially under the feudal system in England the work was done by the youngest children of the estate.

The grand fire in the kitchens of Hampton Court Palace

Child welfare was not really a concern at the time, and the first child labour laws did not get implemented for another 200-300 years, but at some point between the reign of Kings Harry 7 & 8 someone came up with the idea of the Turnspit Dog. There was a general fascination with mechanisation and clockwork during this period so the installation of a belt driven meat rotator would have been mildly futuristic.

It’s a fairly simple setup: a small wheel is pinned to the wall with a belt stretching to turn the meat spit. Dogs were common working animals at the time (the idea of dogs as pets was a much later concept), but they were usually much larger and used for hunting and general garbage disposal. Turnspit dogs had to be smaller with little legs to fit inside the wheels.

We know from mentions in books that the heyday of the Turnspit dog was somewhere between 1576 and the late 1800s / early 1900s. Through this time, selective breeding led to the development of a distinct genetic line for these curious animals. It seems sad that now this particular line is extinct, but perhaps less sad when you think that that particular traits that make an animal perfect for life in an over-size hamster wheel are not the traits of a healthy animal.

There is only one surviving specimen of the Turnspit breed – a poorly taxidermied dog called ‘Whiskey’ cared for by the Abergavenny Museum in Wales. It’s difficult from this presentation to see what features are a result of breeding deformities and which are simply poor craftmanship, however we know from written descriptions that Turnspit dogs were study, scruffy mutts with short legs. Historians believe they were closest in presentation to modern-day corgis.

Because it would take hours to roast a large cut of meat Turnspit dogs were worked in pairs to make sure they could keep pace and not burn the meat. There’s some anecdotal evidence that this is where the term ‘every dog has it’s day’ originates.

As is British tradition, the dogs were given a half-day reprieve every Sunday. I’m not entirely sure how much the tiny hounds appreciated the scripture being read, but they did make excellent foot warmers for the senior kitchen staff.

Eventually truly automatic mechanisms took over the control of rotating the meat: from slowly dropping weights, to steam and coal powered engines to the electric spit roast systems today. The breed died out and now is only remembered through a few curious etchings in dusty books.