Hidden Kitchens Story #2: Turnspit Dogs: The Rise & Fall of the Vernepator Cur
In an old hunting lodge on the grounds of an ancient Norman castle in Wales, a small extinct dog peers out of a handmade wooden display case.
“Whiskey is the last surviving specimen of a turnspit dog, albeit stuff,” says Sally Davis, long-time custodian at the Abergavenny Museum.
The turnspit was a breed of dog that was once an essential part of every large kitchen in Britain. The small cooking canine was bred to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit in cavernous kitchen fireplaces.
“They were referred to as the Kitchen Dog, the Cooking Dog, or the Vernepator Cur,” says Caira Farrell, Library and Collections Manager at the Kennel Club in London as she pages through one of the oldest books on her shelves. “The very first mention of them in is 1576 in the first book on dogs ever written.”
Turnspit Dogs were viewed as Kitchen Utensils
“Since medieval times the British have delighted in eating roast beef, roast pork, roast turkey,” says Jan Bondeson, author of Amazing Dogs, a Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, whose book first led us to the turnspit dog. “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.”
Open fire roasting required constant attention from the cook and constant turning of the spit. When any meat was to be roasted one of these dogs was hoisted into a wooden dog wheel mounted on the wall near the fireplace. The 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.
“Turnspit dogs were viewed as kitchen utensils, as pieces of machinery rather than as dogs,” said Bondeson. “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.” Bondeson is just warming up. “One way of training the dog was to throw a glowing coal into the wheel to make the dog speed up a bit.”
Descriptions of the dogs paint a rather mutty picture: small, low bodied, short crooked front legs, quite a heavy head, strong and sturdy, capable of working for hours. Most had drooping ears. Some had grey and white fur, others were black or reddish brown. Over time these dogs evolved into a distinct breed. The zoologist Carl Linnaeus named it canis vertigus, Latin for “dizzy dog.”
From Small Boys to Dogs
Before dogs were employed, the fireplace spit was turned by the lowliest person in the kitchen staff, usually a small boy who stood behind a bale of wet hay for protection from the heat, turning the iron spit for hours and hours. Their hands used to blister. During the 16th century they made the transition from small boys to dogs.
Shakespeare mentions them in Comedy of Errors. He describes somebody as being a curtailed dog fit only to run in a wheel.
“Curtailed means they’ve got their tails cut off,” Sally Davis explains. “It was a way they used to differentiate between the dogs of the nobility and the dogs belonging to ordinary people. These little curtailed mongrels were the ones put into the wheels.”
We visit Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces of London, the home of Henry the VIII. The kitchen there is still working. “Charles Darwin commented on the dogs as an example of genetic engineering,” she tells us. “Darwin said, ‘look at the spit dog. That’s an example of how people can breed animals to suit particular needs.’”
On Sunday, the turnspit dog often had a day off. The dogs were allowed to go with the family to church. “Not because of any concern for their spiritual education,” says Bondeson,” but because the dogs were useful as foot warmers.“
Turnspits and the SPCA
There are actually a few records of turnspits being employed in America. Hannah Penn, the wife of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania wrote to England requesting that the dogwheel for her turnspits be sent. Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette had advertisements for turnspit dogs and wheels for sale. A turnspit was active in the kitchen of the Statehouse Inn in Philadelphia.
“The Statehouse Inn was where all the old political cronies hung out, for their slice of beef and their ale,” author and food historian William Woys Weaver tells us. “In 1745 the owner of the Statehouse Inn advertised that he had turnspit dogs for sale. Evidently he was also breeding them.”
In this country the dogs were used in large hotel kitchens in cities to turn spits. “In the 1850s the founder of the SPCA was appalled by the way the turnspit dogs were treated in the hotels of Manhattan,” says Weaver. “This bad treatment of dogs eventually led to the founding of the SPCA.”
In 1750 there were turnspits everywhere. By 1850 they had become scarce, and by 1900 they had disappeared. The availability of cheap, mechanical spit turning machines, called clock jacks brought about the demise of the turnspit dog.
“It became a stigma of poverty to have a turnspit dogs,” says author Bondeson. “They were ugly little dogs with a quite morose disposition so nobody wanted to keep them as pets. The turnspit dogs became extinct.”
Imagining the Turnspit
Back at Abergavenny Museum, Whiskey, the last remaining turnspit, is a permanent fixture. Sally Davis believes that the blue painted background and spray of artificial flowers in the case is a sign that someone really cared for her. “But the way she’s posed,” Sally says, “the taxidermy… I think possibly it was their first go at it, I don’t know.”
What kind of dog today is the closest to a turnspit dog? Jan Bondeson thinks possibly it’s the Queen of England’s favorite dog the Welsh Corgie. “The downtrodden, lumpenproletariat, turnspit cooking dogs may well be related to the Queen’s pampered royal pooches.”
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Turnspit Recipes – Roasting throughout the Ages
The techniques of open-fire roasting were first committed to print in
Countrey Contentments, or, The English Huswife Gervase Markham, published 1615.
To roast a Pig
To roast a Pig curiously, you shall not scall’d it, but draw it with the hair on, then having washt it, spit it and lay it t othe fire, so as it may not scorch, thn being a quarter roasted, and the skin blistered from the flesh, with your hand pull away the hair and skin, and leave all the fat and flesh perfectly bare; then with your Knife scotch all the flesh down to the bones, then baste it exceedingly with butter and Cream, being no more but warm: then dredge it with fine bread crums, Currants, Sugar, and Salt mixt together, and thus apply dredging upon basting, and basting upon dredging, till you have covered all the flesh a full inch deep; Then the meat being fully roasted, draw it, and serve it up whole.
Kennel Club Fruit Cake
Use 10 inch round pan
1 lb currants
11 oz sultanas
6 oz raisins
4 oz almonds
4 oz mixed peel
4 oz cherries
2 zest of lemon
3 tbsp brandy
11 oz plain flour
2 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp nutmeg
10 oz butter
10 oz soft dark brown sugar
1 tbsp black treacle
6 large eggs
All in one mix for 3 mins. Bake at 275 degrees F, middle shelf for 3 hours
Humanists & Scholars
For additional academic references, please see the following publication:
D.J. Eveleigh, Firegrates and Kitchen Ranges (Shire 1983) and The English Tradition of Open-Fire Roasting (Leeds 1990).
“The Roast Beef of Old England” is an English patriotic ballad. It was 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 song increased in popularity when given a new setting by the composer Richard Leveridge, and it became customary for theatre audiences to sing it before, after, and occasionally during, any new play. The Royal Navy always goes in to dine at Mess Dinners to the tune, which is also played at United States Marine Corps formal mess dinners during the presentation of the beef.
‘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!
Listen to the music from Turnspit Dog
Lucy Worsley is an English historian, curator and television host. She is currently Chief Curator at History Royal Palaces, and independent charity responsible for palaces not in current use by the royal family.
In this video, she takes us through the history of the kitchen from the 17th century to the 21st.
Turnspit dogs in popular culture
“The Turnspit Dog” by Maria Leach, published in 1952.
|The Kennel Club of London
|Black Country Living Museum