In the kitchen, one dog wheel – 12th February 2017

In the kitchen, one dog wheel – 12th February 2017


A 1732 Bristol merchant’s inventory has

‘In the Kitchen’

“One Dogg wheel in a frame” – valued at 6 shillings.

Knowing that there are ‘fire dogs’, metal bars for resting logs on in the hearth, I began by assuming that a ‘dogg wheel’ was something of the same nature, a metal wheel with some purpose in the kitchen.  And it is indeed a wheel, but a far more literal description than I had expected.

Since medieval times, and before the development of closed ovens, in larger houses, inns and palaces meat would be cooked over an open fire.  To make sure that the meat was evenly cooked, and not spoiled, it was necessary to keep the spit turning more or less constantly, and usually this was the job of the lowliest of kitchen servants, the ‘spit boy’.


This poor lad would sit by the blazing fire, sometimes protected from the worst of the heat by a wet hay bale, or a metal screen, turning the spit for hour after weary hour.


At some stage someone invented the dog wheel, replacing the poor, over-heated lad as a source of power with something resembling a modern day hamster wheel, powered by a dog.


This wheel would be set up somewhere in the kitchen, linked to the spit by a chain, and as the dog ran around in the wheel so the spit would turn, and the meat would be cooked evenly.



Over time a breed of dog was developed purely for this task, a heavy dog with a long back and short powerful legs.


The ‘turnespete’ is first documented in Arthur Fleming’s Of English Dogs (1576), which is a translation of John Caius’s De Canibus Anglicis, where it is said that turnspit dogs “so diligently look to their business that no drudge nor scullion can do the feat more cunningly.” These dogs had other names including ‘vernepator’ [Latin for spit turner], and Canis vertigus [literally ‘dizzy dog’ because it was constantly going round and round].



For a large joint, that needed many hours of cooking, the job of running in the wheel would be shared by two dogs, taking turns at the hard work.


Training of the dogs was often not a gentle process, with tales of hot coals being put in the wheel with the dog to ‘encourage’ it to keep running, or be burnt on its back legs.  In various descriptions the dogs are noted to have ‘unhappy’ faces, small wonder when they spend so many hours forced to constantly run without getting anywhere, with the smell of roasting meat that they could not reach.

They feature in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, where Dromio of Syracuse says “She had transform’d me to a curtal dog and made me turn i’ the wheel.”  Charles Darwin used turnspit dogs as an example of genetic engineering, saying ‘Look at the spit dog. That’s an example of how people can breed animals to suit particular needs.’

For some turnspits Sunday brought a short interlude of rest, when they were taken to church as foot warmers.  It is said that during service at a church in Bath, the Bishop of Gloucester gave a sermon and uttered the line “It was then that Ezekiel saw the wheel…”. At the mention of the word “wheel” several turnspit dogs, who had been brought to church as foot warmers, ran for the door. [Coren, Stanley (2002). The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events. Simon and Schuster.]

Queen Victoria kept three turnspits as pets, though they don’t seem to have been generally adopted as family pets, and when mechanical methods were invented to do the job of turning the spit the dogs were no longer needed, and as a breed they are now extinct.


Illustrations taken from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales, published in 1800, showing a dog at work.  By Henry Wigstead – Henry Wigstead (1799) Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales: in the year 1797, No, 40 Charing Cross, London: W. Wigstead

The Illustrated Natural History (Mammalia), published in 1853 showing the conformation of a Turnspit Dog.

The dog wheel circa 1890, drawn in E.F. King’s Ten Thousand Wonderful Things.

 Annals of Bath, from the Year 1800 to the Passing of the New Municipal Act – Rowland Mainwaring, Mary Meyler and son, 1838 – Bath (England)