The Turnspit Dogs




BT. V. Antony Raj

Since medieval times the British have delighted in eating roast beef, roast pork, roast turkey. They sneered at the idea of roasting meat in an oven. For a true Briton, the proper way was to spit roast it in front of an open fire, using a turnspit dog.” – Jan Bondeson, author of Amazing Dogs, a Cabinet of Canine Curiosities.


Roasted beef . (Credit:


The Roast Beef of Old England” is an English patriotic ballad written by Henry Fielding for his play “The Grub-Street Opera” which was first performed in 1731. The lyrics were added to over the next twenty years.

The Roast Beef of Old England

When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman’s food,
It ennobled our brains and enriched our blood.
Our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good
Oh! the Roast Beef of old England,
And old English Roast Beef!


Large chunks of beef prepared in the oven are usually referred to as roasts, but in a strict sense, only meats cooked on an open coal fire are truly roasted. The radiant heat of the coals gives the beef roast a richly browned crust and a hint of smokiness that can’t be achieved with oven roasting. Cooking the roast on a fire though not difficult entails a bit more work than cooking in an oven.



Cooking meat on a spit turned by humans dates back to the 1st century BC.

A roasting jack is a device which helps to rotate the roasting meat on a spit. It is also called a spit jack, a spit engine or a turnspit. While roasting meat on an open fire the person who turns or rotates the turnspit had to pay constant attention to turning of the spit and he or she was also subjected to burns and blisters. This tedious and exhausting job was usually assigned to the lowest ranking member of the household – invariably a small boy.

The term ‘turnspit’ can also refer to a human turning the spit or a Turnspit dog.


The Turnspit dog


In the 16th century, households in Europe employed special breeds of dogs called Turnspit dogs to turn or rotate the spit. They were long-bodied, short-legged but compact and muscular. Turnspit dogs were named quite literally to run on a wheel called a turnspit or dog wheel.



To roast any meat, a Turnspit dog was hoisted into a wooden dog wheel mounted on the wall near the fireplace. The dog wheel was attached to a chain which ran down to the spit. As the dog ran, like a hamster in a cage, the spit turned.


A turnspit dog at work in a wooden cooking wheel in an inn at Newcastle, Carmarthen, Wales, in 1869.


According to Jan Bondeson, “Turnspit dogs were viewed as kitchen utensils, as pieces of machinery rather than as dogs… The roar of the fire. The clanking of the spit. The patter from the little dog’s feet… The wheels were put up quite high on the wall, far from the fire in order for the dogs not to overheat and faint.”


John Caius, Master of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge.


The very first mention of the Turnspit dog is in the first book ever written on dogs in 1576 titled “Of English Dogs” by the English physician, John Caius. He mentions the breed under the name “Turnespete“.

In 1809, the William Bingley’s Memoirs of British Quadrupeds also mentions a dog employed to help chefs and cooks. Hence, Caira Farrell, library and collections manager at the Kennel Club in London says, “They were referred to as the kitchen dog, the cooking dog or the Vernepator Cur.”

In Linnaeus’s 18th century classification of dogs, it is listed as Canis vertigus or “dizzy dog”.

Since the Turnspit dogs were considered to be common and lowly, no records were adequately kept about them and soon the breed was lost. The “Complete Dog Book” (20th ed.) of The American Kennel Club published in 2007 considers the Turnspit as a kind of Glen of Imaal Terrier and on May 13, 2014, The Kitchen Sisters in “Turnspit Dogs: The Rise and Fall of the Vernepator Cur” make it a relative of the Welsh Corgi.

According to Jan Bondeson, “One way of training the dog was to throw a glowing coal into the wheel to make the dog speed up a bit.” This type of horrific treatment of the Turnspits is reportedly what inspired Henry Bergh (August 29, 1813 – March 12, 1888) to start the American Society for the prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in April 1866.

In 1750, there were Turnspit dogs everywhere, especially in Europe and for a short time in America. By 1850 they became scarce, and by 1900 they disappeared altogether and considered extinct.




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