The Turnspit Dogs


Ever since ancient China, horses have been turning wheels for men.

Harnessed to cogs which turn great shafts, they can be used for threshing and grinding grain. A slow and laborious existence: one such mill has been preserved here in the UK. A Northumberland farm which had not used it since the 1830s donated it to the Beamish Museum. Four horses would have been tethered to it and worked day in, day out.

Of course there would have been good masters, and there would have been doubtful ones. If we only have one existence here on this earth, I would not choose to spend it pulling a wheel to make a man who owned me rich. Let us hope there were mashed oats and kind words at the end of the day.

Horses are not the only ones whose labour would have been useful to our forebears.

Here in the UK we have been treated to a rather wonderful set of programmes over the last month or so. Their presenter is a charismatic ambassador for British social history. Lucy Worsley is the chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces: and she’s taken time out to research and present a set of programmes called “If Walls Could Talk”.

Each week, she has taken a different room of the house, tracking its history from early times to the present day. This week was the turn of the kitchen.

She doesn’t sit back and listen to experts: she tries out the old methods for herself. Thus she bathed like a Georgian when it was the turn of the bathroom: and she tested the first ever technique for a working closet using cherry tomatoes for solids.

This week we heard about a wheel turner with a difference: the Turnspit dog.

Turnspits became possible when iron grates were invented to keep wood and coal off the stone floor. The fire would be set into a wall, and a simple mechanism connected the spit, which turned the meat over an open fire, to a little wheel in the adjacent wall. A dog was bred with short, strong legs which would turn the wheel, freeing human hands to do other work.

Dr Worsley, in her own inimitable style, commissioned border terrier Coco to turn the only remaining turnspit mechanism in the country: at The George Inn, in Wiltshire.

A bemused Coco gave it her best shot: but her legs were long, and the spit was heavy. After some serious reconstruction she was rewarded with a piece of mutton which she helped to cook.

I wonder if her little stout-legged ancestors received the same pay?

The roundabout has been a way of life for so many working animals and many at leisure. Still, in parts of the world, they play a vital part, going round and round, day in and day out.

Let us hope, like Coco, they receive recompense for such a roundabout existence.


This is a repost: ever since I write this I have been looking to put Macaulay the family dog to good use.


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Image from BBC


Image from Wikipedia


36 thoughts on “The Turnspit Dogs

  1. I must say it gives me the shudders to think of humans making animals earn their keep in such a roundabout way or by making them get nowhere fast in one spot. Maybe very large hamsters could be bred for the purpose – they climb into their wheels and do it by choice?
    I wish I’d seen that Walls series. I hadn’t even known we had Sir John Harrington to thank for going to the john. I think I’ll call it the sir john in future!

  2. A fascinating corner of history, they also used dogs to pull carts even into the 20th C. There is still a turnspit dog somewhere in Britain, someone stuffed the poor wee thing, rather dusty and neglected, possibly much like he was in life. I wonder what Health and Safety would make of turnspit dogs. 🙂

  3. Mac serves a purpose already… he leads you on your walks. You thought you were taking him? How wrong can one be?

  4. I also noticed the cats in the illustrations. They just sat there, staring at the fire, or the food, while the dogs went galumph! galumph! They probably told the dogs to go faster.

  5. I can see that the Kennel Club would never acknowledge a dog that was bred for this purpose. Let’s face it, there are ‘working’ dogs, and there are ‘Working’ dogs! It was a good series.

    1. It was great. My heart hurts a little, I confess, when I read a passage from Wikipedia which quotes something called ‘the old Engllish Dog Book (?) as saying turnspit dogs – a specific breed – were ‘long-bodied, crooked-legged and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them’.

      1. I’m listening to my dog snore at my feet. I don’t think she has anything more important to do with her time, but then again, she’s not a terrier.

      2. She’s a mutt. Mom was a Shih Tzu, dad was an English Springer Spaniel. This led to long hair that is quite unfortunately kinky, but she has the distinction of being the smartest dog I’ve ever had, and my blogging BFF.

  6. I’ve heard of the turnspit, but knew nothing about how it worked. I’m really intrigued as much by the giant wheel as the idea of training the dog to turn it! It’s a rather ingenious device and very clever method of cooking. I would really love the show you referenced!

    1. Debra, you centrainly would. It’s so practical. We’ve always had requirements for water, heat, light, shelter and comfort – it’s just they have been fulfilled in different ways in the past. Lucy Worsley has written a book now, of the same name, I believe. And what she finds out about bathrooms is incredibly illuminating.

  7. That turnspit business looks like monotony bordering on the cruel to me. I know that Mac’s a British terrier, but I am sure if he knew what you were thinking he’d access his inner John McEnroe and bark, “You can’t be serious! Find yourself a turnspit hamster!”

  8. To think that many of us also were treated like that … like cogs in a wheel. Thank heavens for some of the humanitarian advances in science and technology.
    The phrase I often hear is “it’s like herding cats.” So, to what use were cats put? 🙂

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