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Extinct breeds: Turnspit

 by danielle on 29 May 2014 |
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Everyone knew what a Turnspit was. There were thousands in kitchens all through the kingdom. No one thought about them much. Turnspits as were as regular, and dull, as dishwashers.

British people in the 16th century loved roasts. The problem was meat roasted on a spit needed to be turned constantly, and without the technology, this had to be done by hand. This was the chore of the lowliest kitchen boy until the turnspit came along.

 

Turnspits were dogs designed specifically to run, hamster-style, in a wheel connected by a chain to the roasting meat that spun it around. The wheels were generally placed high up on the wall, away from the fireplace, so the dogs did not overheat and faint.

Also known as the ‘vernepator cur’, Latin for “the dog that turns the wheel”, the Turnspit appeared in one of the first books on dogs ever written in 1576. Even Shakespeare mentioned them in his play, The Comedy of Errors: “a curtailed dog fit only to run in a wheel.”

Charles Darwin also used them as an illustration of genetic engineering, commenting, “Look at the spit dog. That’s an example of how people can breed animals to suit particular needs.”

 

They were not glamorous creatures. They were small, low-bodied with short crooked front legs and drooping ears. Their fur was gray and white, black or reddish brown. However, for their size, they were very strong and capable of working for hours. It is thought the modern day Welsh corgi, beloved by Queen Elizabeth, might trace some of its ancestry to the lowly, commonplace Turnspit.

Forget the tradition of the modern Sunday roast – that was the day the Turnspit was usually given off to accompany the family to church. This wasn’t due to kindness or concern for their doggy souls, but their other practical use as foot warmers.

 

Over the years however the Turnspits use steadily declined as technology developed. By 1900, what was once the most common of dogs, had all but disappeared. The final nail in their coffin was the emergence of clock jacks, cheap spit-turning machines that took over their job entirely.

Unfortunately, Turnspits were quite ugly and known for having a glum temperament, so no one wanted to have them for pets like other working breeds such as the Border Collie when dog jobs became scarce.

But the turnspit is to be remembered as a hard-working canine who helped to feed our ancestors for centuries and played a largely unseen, but valuable part, in human history. 


 
 

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