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Posts Tagged ‘Turnspit Dogs’

When I visited Bath in the U.K., I made a point of seeing No. 1 Royal Crescent, a fascinating museum whose interior was decorated in the Georgian style of the late 18th century/early 19th century. One had the feeling when entering the house that it may have been inhabited by people Jane Austen might have met in the Pump Room or the Upper Assembly Rooms. 

Completion of the Royal Crescent, Thomas Malton, 1769. No. 1 Royal Crescent sits towards the front.

Completion of the Royal Crescent, Thomas Malton, 1769. No. 1 Royal Crescent sits towards the front. Image in the public domain. Wikimedia.

My one lasting memory is of the kitchen and a contraption near the ceiling. It hung in the far corner near a fire place and looked like a torture instrument. Inside the wooden wheel was a stuffed dog, popularly known in its time as a turnspit dog, which represented a breed that no longer exists. They were small, long-bodied, and sturdy; had short crooked legs; and were trained to run inside a wheel that turned a roasting spit. These long-suffering, hard-working canines, resembled curs not purebreds, and saved cooks (or menial boys of the lowest servant order) the task of turning roasting spits by hand for hours. 

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Turnspit dog, 1862. H Weir – Illustrated Natural History, Rev JG Wood.  Image in the public domain. Wikipedia 

The dogs were first mentioned in 1576 under the name “Turnespete”(Wikipedia). Their lives were hot, tedious, strenuous, and short. They were considered more kitchen utensils than pets, this during the centuries when animal cruelty was casual and baiting animals was a sport. 

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A dog at work inside a wheel near the ceiling; from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales (1800). Wikipedia, public domain image

“To train the dog to run faster, a glowing coal was thrown into the wheel”- Turnspit Dogs: The Rise and Fall of the Vernepator Cur, NPR

Their breed was considered so common that its origins are unknown, although some experts think the turnspit dog was related to a terrier or perhaps the Welsh Corgi. Imagine the life of this dog–confined to a wheel for hours, forced to run near a fireplace while smelling the roasting meat of an animal that was out of their reach, tired, aching, and thirsting for water. 

“The wheels were put up quite high on the wall, far from the fire in order for the dogs not to overheat and faint.”- NPR

As we all know, heat rises, so one wonders how well that placement worked! Turnspit dogs worked in alternating teams of two and were regularly relieved by an equally hardworking companion dog. They often were given Sundays off, not because their owners cared about their well being, but because they acted as foot warmers in cold church pews (Kitchensisters). One must imagine their relief for these few hours of rest.

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Whiskey, the last known turnspit dog, now on view in the Abergavenny Museum in Wales.

These tiny unloved dogs were prevalent in the mid 18th century, but by 1900 mechanical spit turning machines replaced them. Since they were considered ugly and lowly, their breed became extinct. Whiskey, the last known surviving turnspit dog, lives on as a taxidermied specimen in the Abergavenny Museum in Wales. 

As an interesting footnote, in the United States the plight of the turnspit dog inspired the founding of the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

“In 1850, founder of the ASPCA, Henry Bergh, was so moved by the appalling conditions in which the Turnspits were found in Manhattan hotels, that its horrific living conditions contributed to the birth of the organization in 1866. Coincidentally, this was around the time the dogs had become scarce, and 50 years later, they completely disappeared.”- Barkpost

Note: Before COVID-19, Vic volunteered with the local SPCA, which is a no-kill shelter. She’s also been privileged to live with two rescue dogs, both of whom were (aside from friends and family) the loves of her life. Neither dog revealed their living conditions before she adopted them.

More References:

Spit Roast Doggie, Richard Wyatt, September 21, 2014, Day by Day. Bath News Museum

A Breed You’ve Never Heard Of Is The Reason We Fight Animal Cruelty Today, Bark Post

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