Working Like a Dog: Rethinking Animal Labour Through the Industrious Turnspit Dog 

Today’s blog by Neil Humphrey introduces his thought-provoking (and just a little heart-rending) new article on animal labour in Environment and History (online-first, April 2022), ‘Working Like a Dog: Canine Labour, Technological Unemployment, and Extinction in Industrializing England’.

Is a dog a worker? Despite that most dogs in industrialised countries no longer work, many of us still conceive of their identities through the tasks they once performed. These skills, ranging from retrieving ducks to tracking scents and beyond, were honed by humans over thousands of years as they steadily selected breeding pairs to promote the most advantageous traits. Job descriptions still feature prominently in modern breed nomenclature whereby our nonworking companions maintain functionary names, such as Golden Retrievers, Yorkshire Terriers, Bassett Hounds and Australian Shepherds.

Even though most British dogs now serve as lovable family pets, their intrinsic connection to their former working roles remains a tangible link to the canine past where nearly every dog worked for a living. Only a small minority of privileged lapdogs did not have to perform physical labour to earn their keep. 

Historians, even many writing about historical animals, have been hesitant to describe working animals as labourers. Owing to the seemingly pervasive influence of the seventeenth-century French philosopher Rene Descartes, some historical actors and accompanying historians have conceived of animals as quasi-machines defined by rhythmic inputs and outputs that were merely reactions to stimuli. However, recent environmental and animal historians have questioned this framework’s prevalence in a variety of places and periods as diverse as milking cows on early modern Essex farms to horses in nineteenth-century New York City. A more nuanced animal identity emerged as historians analysed anecdotes from folks that worked alongside animals. Gradually, an understanding emerged quite distinct from prior interpretations – one where historical actors conceived of working animals as unique individuals that skilfully performed specialised tasks – to which historians then framed working animals and humans as a co-working partnership.

Although animals working alongside humans have been theorised as co-workers, their status as labourers remains uncertain. By looking at past dog breeds, however, it appears that not only did one particular breed fit into broader labouring regimes that governed work in industrialising England, but also the people of the past thought of it in tandem with cottage workers.

The labouring turnspit was inextricably bonded with its tool, the dog wheel. Note its gaping, harried stare. Credit: Thomas Bewick, A General History of Quadrupeds (New York: G. & R. Waite, 1804), 365 (image in the public domain).

The breed I refer to is the turnspit dog. Before ordering a DNA test kit or performing a Google search to see if your dog descends from this industrious hound, however, know that this breed is no longer extant. Despite their physical absence, historical depictions in textual and visual records highlighting their elongated body and stubby legs suggest their similarity to the contemporary Dachshund. They even had an increased rate of a genetic deformity – crooked forelegs bent inward – that continues to occur, albeit infrequently, in Dachshunds today. This dog was primarily concentrated in England’s West Country and Southern Wales. It also found employment, albeit to a lesser extent, in southern France and in some British colonies in what is today the United States.

Since their initial domestication, dogs have assuredly performed many unbelievable tasks – and the turnspit undoubtedly figures as one of the most eccentric. Appearing in the historical record first in the sixteenth century, this dog was tasked with an extremely important role: turning a roasting spit that cooked England’s national dish of roast beef. The turnspit operated a tool, known as the dog wheel, within which he trudged counterclockwise for two to three hours. A rope attached to the wheel’s outside rotated the roasting spit placed over an open hearth. If this is a bit difficult to picture, it is comparable to how a human propels a bicycle! This was tough work. The turnspits replaced blackguards, strong men or boys, who had previously done this work. Contemporaries, like physician John Caius, described how turnspits could do it better – and dutifully stuck to the task until completion – fundamental to ensuring a delicious roast.

Image drawn by caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson depicted a busy inn where a turnspit works while an attendant cook eyes the roast. These patrons would go hungry without the dutiful dog. Credit: Charles Harper, The Old Inns of Old England (London: Chapman and Hall, 1906), 48 (image in public domain.)

The turnspit continued cooking John Bull’s favoured dish until the early nineteenth century. Mechanisation began threatening the continuity of many traditional English trades, as well as the livelihood of those employed in them, beginning in the eighteenth century. The turnspit – carefully honed to fill one specialised niche – saw its utility wane alongside a host of other occupations, especially those in textile industries. On one hand, a humane ethos began pervading English society that decreed animal abuse unwelcome in modern life. This arduous regime that many believed made the dog suffer seemed abjectly cruel to nineteenth-century commentators. This attitude was compounded by the adoption of a new mechanism known as the smoke-jack. This artifice turned a spit entirely by the force of hot air surging up the chimney. It ultimately obviated the burdens inherent in training, maintaining and resting a turnspit.

Rather than repackage the turnspit into a companion like the dogs mentioned at our story’s beginning, however, the English discarded it due to its inextricable connection with punishing work. This characterisation coloured its identity – Victorian commentators disparaged the poor dog as deformed, misshapen, sullen, awkward and even downright ugly. To them, this was no dog worth saving. Influential nineteenth-century commentators, such as publisher Robert Chambers and reverend naturalist J.G. Wood, mentioned it – and its tool the dog wheel – as merely one loss amongst a litany of foregone trades and skilled craftspeople. Here, there was no clear divide demarcating human and animal labour. Rather, the turnspit’s work was part of a broader system of labour that industrialisation steadily reshaped for both species. 

Left: Perhaps this turnspit tried to hide or escape from work and has now been cornered. Note the dog’s perspective mannerism, a ‘whale eye,’ indicating anxiety and apprehension. Credit: William Bingley, Memoirs of British Quadrupeds (London: Darton and Harvey, 1809), 120 (image in the public domain.)

Right: John George Wood, The Illustrated Natural History (London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1861), 316 (image in the public domain.)

While the turnspit has long since spun his last revolution, its historical identity as a labourer raises questions fundamental to the welfare of working animals with us today. What does fair compensation look like for working animals – and what benefits should they receive in old age for a life well served? Should working dogs today – especially guide and police dogs – have the ability to unionise under the banner of an animal welfare organisation? Are livestock employed in the occupation of gaining weight – and if so, how might we help make their occupation, from living and working conditions to feed and shelter, more just, humane and compensatory? Conceiving of animals as labourers not only provides us with a novel perspective to think about historical animals, but also has the potential to drastically alter current conditions for contemporary working animals to create for them more equitable, enriching and just futures. For a more detailed analysis of how the turnspit dog explicates animal labour, check out my article in Environment and History: ‘Working Like a Dog: Canine Labour, Technological Unemployment, and Extinction in Industrializing England’.


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