Saturday 15 December 2012

The Turnspit Dog

by Marie-Louise Jensen

Today, I'm staying only vaguely with my theme of Georgian Bath. I wanted to write something seasonal this month, about Christmases past. But the fashionable Georgians did not celebrate Christmas in Bath. The city was their summer holiday resort. At Christmas they were in their grand houses in the country, where the holding and attending of house parties was popular. Gifts were exchanged and the wealthy would have sat down to the traditional Christmas dinner of roast beef or goose.
In Bath, meanwhile, only the residents and the poor were left behind and there was little enough business for them with all the visitors gone. It was said of Bath that it was so quiet out of season that the only living being you would encounter in its streets was a turnspit dog.
An exaggeration, I'm sure. But it made me wonder how many of you have heard of the turnspit dog?

Before the days of automated spits and fan ovens, a way was needed to keep the meat turning on the spit. From earliest times, this was the task of the young or the lowliest kitchen servant. But by Georgian times, they had come up with a contraption to save even that labour. With the invention of a wheel in a cage, connected to the spit, a dog could perform the task.
I had seen one of these wheels years ago at No. 1 The Royal Crescent, Bath, in their wonderful kitchen museum. (The museum is currently closed for extension into the adjacent house but is wonderful and well worth a visit once it's reopened; the kitchen is my favourite!) I was rather horrified to hear that a dog used to be made to run in it to turn the meat. While I was researching Georgian Bath for The Girl in the Mask, I came across a number of mentions of the dog, apparently a special breed. (Pictues via Wikipedia.)
Considered to be a lowly and common breed, it is now extinct. But it had a long body, short legs and had to run for up to three hours to roast a large joint. In large establishments or inns, there would be two dogs to take turns. Apparently this is the source of the phrase "Every dog has his day".

Apparently they were fiercely protective of their days off and resented being made to work out of turn. Woe betide the cook who tried to force the issue! Unless he or she wanted a bite, they needed to be wary. In general, I'm not sure the dog had much of a life. I wonder if this is also where the Phrase "A dog's life" comes from?

In the winter, the dogs doubled as a foot warmer in church. One story from Bath tells how the Bishop of Gloucester mentioned that "Ezekiel saw the wheel..." and at the word 'wheel' all the foot-warmer dogs rushed for the door. I'll leave you to ponder whether they were running to do their duty or fleeing from it.



Marie-Louise said...

(Fitzpatrick) I have heard of turnspit dogs and was fascinated to see them try and work a turnspit with a dog on If Rooms Could Talk. My old dog was a Glen of Imaal terrier and while they were bred for digging out and fighting badgers and foxes they think the Glens may also have been used for working the wheel. They are the right shape -short legs, very powerful bodies-and have a rather obsessive temperament. Love the illustration. No idea that that was where the phrase 'Every dog...' came from!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Hello Marie-Louise (I'm delighted to meet someone else with my name, doesn't happen often) That's interesting that the breed of dog may still be around after all. I'd never heard of a Glen of Imaal terrier. What a great name. I bet they were glad when electric spits were invented.

adele said...

Wonderful insight into the past. I had no idea about turnspit dogs.

Marie-Louise said...

Glen of Imaal terriers are a very old and rare Irish breed and I'd never heard of them either until someone suggested my supposed terrier cross mutt was one. He was about ten when a vet who had worked with the breed a fair bit confirmed Cara was one. I never saw another till a month after he died - rarer than giant pandas apparently.
And yes, we Marie-Louise's are a bit thin on the ground too! I think I may have caused confusion a few times when I posted comments here -especially when I mentioned once that I'm an illustrator!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Marie-Louise - ha! I've seen your name here before; obviously it's not one I'd miss! Can quite see confusion might arise. Are you from Ireland? Apart from The Danish Marie-Louise I was named after, the only other ML I've met was an actor from Ireland who I met in Germany.
Thank you, Adele! It's not something you'd ever think of, is it? Unless you'd happened to come across it like I did in the museum.

Marie-Louise said...

I am Irish, Marie-Louise (always strange to write/say that to another person!) living in Wicklow, luckily for me in the town in all the world which must have the highest concentration of Glen terriers - 10 last count. Some statistics suggest there are only 70 in the country but I think that's a bit low.

Re Glen as turnspit dog Wikipedia says:

According to Irish lore, which is repeated in many descriptions of the breed including the AKC's, Glen of Imaal Terriers were also used as turnspit dogs to turn meat over fires for cooking. Actual evidence for this is scarce, and engravings of turnspit dogs from the 19th century do not show much resemblance to the modern Glen.

Really enjoy all the posts on History Girls - I'm a daily reader!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Fascinating!Perhaps they were used specifically in Ireland, and different breeds were used in England. How I wish I had a tardis!
So glad you're enjoying The History Girls. I'll look out for your name again :-)

Marie-Louise Jensen said...
Lovely pic here (so cute!) and also mentions the breed were originally turnspit dogs.

Unknown said...

The description make me think dachshunds could have been influenced by that breed....and Marie-louise your not the only one who wants a tardis...but think I'd quite like the doctor too!!

Unknown said...

When I got my dog, Chuli, I was told that his breed was a teckle terrier / setter. I never believed that was his true breed. From reading about the Turnspit dogs, I think that he may be one of them! He looks identical to the black and white sketch including his crooked front legs and the white stripe down the centre of his face!