Cooking with dogs: How man's best friend powered the kitchens of the past

A 17th-century kitchen with dog-wheel

Long before electric ovens and animal cruelty legislation, the task of roasting joints of meat on an open fire was held by the most unlikely of figures: short-legged, long-bodied dogs known as turnspits. Delve into the beleaguered existence of this now extinct breed of dog, and discover how canine labour was used to power kitchen technology in early country houses.

Canine power

During the medieval period, roasting was a laborious process. In order to be evenly cooked, meat had to be regularly rotated on a metal spit, a process which required hours of constant attention. Originally, such spits were turned manually by low-ranking kitchen servants but eventually they were powered by short-legged dogs known as turnspits.

Wooden dog wheel in the George Inn, Lacock / NT 149377
Wooden dog wheel in the George Inn, Lacock
Wooden dog wheel in the George Inn, Lacock / NT 149377

The turnspit was bred specifically to run inside encaged wheels which were typically mounted on a wall near an open range. The wheel was attached to a chain, which ran down to the spit. As the dog ran, the spit turned, cooking the meat evenly.

The wooden dog wheel at the George Inn, Lacock is situated on the wall adjacent to the medieval fireplace.
Dog wheel at the George Inn, Lacock Village
The wooden dog wheel at the George Inn, Lacock is situated on the wall adjacent to the medieval fireplace.

Wheels like this became indispensable items of kitchen machinery, not only in households wealthy enough to have the means to roast a large joint of meat on a regular basis, but also in inns and taverns. 

The George Inn, a 14th-century pub in the village of Lacock, is home to a dog wheel, mounted on the wall adjacent to the open range. Situated in this way, the turnspit would have run in relentless and tantalising pursuit of the meat, roasting just beyond its field of vision.

The misery of these unfortunate dogs was so commonplace that they often figured in literature, including Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, as a symbol of the worst kind of servitude.

Turnspits - A lost breed of dog

By the end of the 18th century, developments in roasting technology rendered the use of dog wheels obsolete and the turnspit breed became extinct. So what did they look like?

The 18th-century engraver and  natural historian Thomas Bewick described them as, 'generally long-bodied... [with] short crooked legs, its tail curled upon its back, and ... frequently spotted with black upon a blue-gray ground.... It is a bold, vigilant and spirited little Dog.' 


 

Engraving of a turnspit by Thomas Bewick, 1790. Note the wheel and spit at the feet of the dog / NT 3143772
Engraving of a Turnspit by Thomas Bewick, 1800
Engraving of a turnspit by Thomas Bewick, 1790. Note the wheel and spit at the feet of the dog / NT 3143772

By the 19th century, more advanced and increasingly affordable alternatives replaced canine-powered kitchen technology. A smoke jack, such as the type that can be found in the open range at Petworth House, was a device placed in the chimney above the fire. It made use of the ascending heat to turn a vane linked to a series of gears and pulleys below, thereby causing the meat to rotate on horizontal spits.

The open range in the kitchen at Petworth, with a smoke driven spit mechanism / NT 486890
The Open Range in the Kitchen at Petworth House
The open range in the kitchen at Petworth, with a smoke driven spit mechanism / NT 486890

The pulley wheel could also be linked to one or more horizontal bars mounted across the front of the chimney breast, from which could be suspended a series a dangling hooks for smaller joints of meat hanging vertically rather turning horizontally in front of the open fire.

Despite their eventual redundancy in the kitchen, dog wheels were not limited to joint roasting. Historians have identified numerous applications of dog-powered technology, including water pumps, butter churns and sewing machines.

You can find out more about how technology transformed houses, from developments in kitchen technology to new ways to heat and light homes, in the new book 'Technology in the Country House' by Marilyn Palmer and Ian West.