A Brief History of turnspits in the English Public House
Many years ago when my wife and I were first wed, we travelled from our flat in Chelmsford to Somerset in our battered but well-loved MG Midget (British Racing Green of course) to spend a few days in a country pub.
We had been most impressed with the ‘blurb’ about the pub which boasted not only first class accommodation but also a bowling green and a croquet lawn. The sample menu also caught our attention, as did the accompanying list of fine wines and beers. It took us no time at all to agree that this was where we both wanted to spend our first holiday as a married couple.
The weather was lovely as we meandered down to the West Country and as we turned into the short drive – the pub was set back from the road a couple of hundred yards – our hearts sank. Hammer Horror had nothing on this place. The lawns – presumably one of them was the croquet lawn – were overgrown and the appearance of the building reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher; ‘There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart – an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into ought of the sublime.’ Indeed if there had been a ‘deep and dark tarn’ nearby, I’m certain that the pub would have collapsed and slipped silently into it.
With both of us plunged into a vat of depression we parked up. As we stepped through the doorway we espied through the function room window the ‘fresh prawn cocktail’ already awaiting the evening guests. A ring of the bell on the bar brought forth a man of extreme unattractiveness and ragged attire, who welcomed us with a booming, “YES?” giving the impression that we were interrupting a very important part of his day. We were just telling the man our names when there was a sound of crashing crockery and a huge dog appeared at the door of the kitchen with a fresh joint of beef hanging from its huge jaws.
Our host snatched the meat from the dog’s mouth, kicked the animal up the backside, pushed it back into the kitchen and closed the door behind it. The man then wiped the beef joint on one of the torn sleeves of what appeared to be his gardening cardigan. As we turned and left the building we heard him sneeze loudly and daren’t look back to check if he was using a handkerchief. (I think we knew he wasn’t.)
These memories of early wedlock and of a dog in the kitchen were brought back to me recently when I was researching the life of Thomas Burke and his literary work on English inns. In his book The Beauty of England published in 1933 Burke offered some unusual insights into pub life, one of which directly involved our canine friends. Burke was travelling through Wiltshire when he stopped at Lacock, north-west of Chippenham and sampled its two picturesque inns, The Angel and The George. At one of them, he does not say which, he ventured into the kitchen and espied a wooden dog-spit wheel, an instrument apparently in common use in the eighteenth century for turning the spit before the fire. Burke recalled, ‘The chain of the spit was fixed to a hollow wheel by the side of the fire; the kind of wheel that is seen in a dormouse cage – and at roasting time a small dog who had been trained for the work was shut inside the wheel, and by his trotting turned the spit.’
Investigations via the Internet reveal that the pub that Burke had visited in Lacock was – and still is – The George. Lacock – owned entirely by the National Trust – is allegedly one of the most beautiful villages in Wiltshire, a popular tourist attraction and the ideal setting for this medieval pub which dates back to 1361. It has ‘a lovely old interior’ and ‘is packed with features’, including a fine medieval fireplace and beamed ceilings and ‘its famous dog in the wheel fire.’ Another website reveals that ‘One of the talking points at this atmospheric old place has long been the three-foot treadmill set into the outer breast of the magnificent central fireplace. This used to turn a spit for roasting, and was worked by a specially bred dog called with great imagination, a turnspit.’ Yet another report on the pub informed me that, ‘There is character here aplenty.’ (Clearly either the former kitchen has become part of the public area of The George or the turnspit has been moved to a central position to become a feature.)
In the first volume of his The Old Inns of England (1906) Charles G. Harper recalled that, in the eighteenth century, two gentlemen named Rowlandson and Wigstead came across some strange sights on their ‘wild tour’ of England and Wales. One of these sights was observed at ‘a decent inn’ in the pleasant village of Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire, where they found in the kitchen ‘a dog acting as turnspit.’
Harper remarked that ‘the turnspit dog’, usually of the ‘Dachshund type’ was a familiar sight in the kitchen of any ‘considerable inn’ at that time. They would have been in great demand in the numerous coaching inns as coach after coach disgorged its hungry travellers. Harper described the poor animal and his employment as like ‘a caged mouse or squirrel with his recreation-wheel, revolved [in a kind of] treadwheel which, in this instance was connected with apparatus for turning the joints roasting at the fire and formed not so much recreation as extremely hard work.’ A large solid piece of beef would take at least three hours before it was properly roasted.
But turnspits were not only to be found in pubs. Harper’s research found one gentleman who, as a day scholar at the home of an old Welsh clergyman in Worcestershire, recalled watching the operation of two turnspits that were employed to meet the demands of his boarders. The gentleman is quoted as saying that the canine operatives were ‘long-bodied, crook-legged and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them, as if they were weary of the task they had to do, and expected every moment to be seized upon to perform it.’
This wariness of the dogs is borne out by Mr. Wigstead. When writing of the pub in Newcastle Emlyn he commented, ‘Great care must be taken that this animal does not observe the cook approach the larder. If he does, he immediately hides himself for the remainder of the day’, Harper adding that the dog was clearly ‘acting…like a professional “unemployed” when offered a job!’ Given that the poor turnspit dog ‘performs his task with compulsion, like a culprit on a tread-wheel, subject to scolding or beating if he stops for a moment to rest his weary limbs, and is then kicked about the kitchen when the task is over’, it is really not surprising that, as the cook approached the larder, the dog ran for cover.
The training for the task would have also engrained in the mind of the dogs that the job of turnspit was not a walk in the park. Harper discovered a method of training that would today have the RSPCA running to the High Court. First you caught your dog and then, writes Harper, ‘…you put him, uneducated, into the wheel, and in the company with him a live coal, which burnt his legs if he stood still. He accordingly tried to race away with it, and the quicker he spun the wheel round in his efforts the faster followed the coal: so that, by dint of much painful experience, he eventually learned the (comparatively) happy medium between standing still and going too fast.’
But it also appears that in addition to the uneducated dogs which were simply thrown into the turnspit wheel to learn the task, there was a dog especially bred for the purpose. This is confirmed by a BBC website which reveals in an article ‘The Turnspit – Every Dog Has His Day’ that there was a specific breed of turnspit dog recorded as early as 1576, but that the breed died out with the advent of mechanisation in the kitchen. The last surviving, albeit stuffed, specimen of the turnspit dog – named ‘Whiskey’ – can be viewed at the Abergavenny Museum in Wales, as can an example of the dog wheel turnspit.
But it wasn’t just dogs that turned the spit. Men too were often employed in the task; sitting by the fireside turning the meat. It was a simple, soulless occupation that anyone at all could undertake. Indeed, by the early seventeenth century, the word ‘turnspit’ found its way into the English language as a term of contempt. But whether the turnspit was man or canine, three hours turning a spit was a heavy task. Doubtless the man was rewarded with a slice of beef and/or a quart of ale for his efforts whilst the dog had to be satisfied with being released from the wheel and kicked around the premises.
Mercifully, as the industrial age eventually found its way to kitchen appliances, machinery, in the form of ‘bottle-jacks’ (a contrivance for turning meat while it is being roasted, shaped like a bottle) revolved by clockwork came to relieve man and his dog.
Finally, for those not able to make the trip to either Lacock or Abergavenny to view the turnspit wheel or the exhibits at first hand, the accompanying drawing of the kitchen of a country inn dated 1797 ‘from an engraving after Rowlandson’ extracted from Harper’s work will demonstrate the principles.
©2005 Patrick Chaplin
Revisions ©2009 Patrick Chaplin
The original of this article appeared in the Pub History Society’s Newsletter Autumn 2005.
(For further information about the PHS check out www.pubhistorysociety.co.uk)