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Back in the day, in large houses, inns, monasteries and castles, meat use to be cooked on a spit. Skewered on a long rod of iron it was propped in front of the fire – never over it because that way you could collect the juices as they dripped – and turned slowly so an even heat was applied to all sides. Initially a kitchen drudge was assigned the task of turning the spit but later an arrangement of pulleys and a wheel meant that the lad could be given another job while the boring task of turning the spit was allocated to a specially trained dog.
The turnspit breed is described as long bodied and short legged with a deep chest, floppy ears and a curly tail.
I imagine that they had the manic energy of some of the terriers, but even so spit roasting is a long business so they used to have several dogs so one could take over when the other began to tire. Sadly the breed died out or was cross bred out of existence during the 19th century so we only have descriptions, a few illustrations and one solitary stuffed specimen remaining.
The stuffed dog was formerly on display at the Old Shop in Llantilio Crossenny and was donated to the museum along with his wheel in 1977. His name was Whiskey.
It is not known exactly when the dog died but it is assumed from the style of the taxidermy that it is Victorian. It is known that Queen Victoria made pets of retired turnspits at Windsor and it seems likely that their use continued in Wales somewhat later than in England.
Since the dog was in an unenviable position – stuck up in his wheel, too high to jump down, hard work ahead with the tantalising smells of meat out of reach – the plight of the turnspit dog was taken as a parallel for the human condition.
Samuel Butler in Hudibras, 1663
“But as the Dog that turns the spit
Bestirs himself, and plys his feet,
To Climb the Wheel; but all in vain,
His own weight brings him down again;
And still he’s in the self same place
Where at his setting out he was.”
John Gay [1685-1732] The Turnspit Taught
The dinner must be dished at one;
Where’s this vexatious Turnspit gone?
Unless the skulking cur is caught,
The sirloin’s spoilt and I’m at fault.
Thus said (for sure you’ll think it fit
That I the cook-maid’s oath omit],
With all the fury of a cook,
Her cooler kitchen Nan forsook:
The broomstick o’er her head she waves,
She sweats, she stamps, she puffs, she raves —
The sneaking cur before her flies;
She whistles, calls, fair speech she tries;
These nought avail, her choler burns,
The fist and cudgel threat by turns.
With hasty stride she presses near;
He slinks aloof and howls with fear.
“Was ever cur so cursed (he cried)!
What star did at my birth presde!
Am I for life by compact bound
To tread the wheel’s eternal round?