From Anecdotes of Dogs, by Edward Jesse, Esq., London: Bell & Daldy; 1870; pp. 418-420.
How well do I recollect, in the days of my youth, watching the operations of a turnspit at the house of a worthy old Welsh clergyman in Worcestershire, who taught me to read. He was a good man, wore a bushy wig, black worsted stockings, and large plated buckles on his shoes. As he had several boarders, as well as day-scholars, his two turnspits had plenty to do. They were long-bodied, crooked-legged, and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them, as if they were weary of the task they had to do, and expected every moment to be seized upon to perform it. Cooks in those days, as they are said to be at present, were very cross, and if the poor animal, wearied with having a larger joint than usual to turn, stopped for a moment, the voice of the cook might be heard rating him in no very gentle terms. When we consider that a large solid piece of beef would take at least three hours before it was properly roasted, we may form some idea of the task a dog had to perform in turning a wheel during that time. A pointer has pleasure in finding game, the terrier worries rats with considerable glee, the greyhound pursues hares with eagerness and delight, and the bull-dog even attacks bulls with the greatest energy, while the poor turnspit performs his task by compulsion, like a culprit on a tread-wheel, subject to scolding or beating if he stops a moment to rest his weary limbs, and is then kicked about the 419 kitchen when the task is over. There is a story (it is an old one) of the Bath turnspits, who were in the habit of collecting together in the abbey church of that town during the divine service. It is said, but I will not vouch for the truth of the story, that hearing one day the word “spit,” which occurred in the lesson for the day, they all ran out of the church in the greatest hurry, evidently associating the word with the task they had to perform.
These dogs are still used in Germany, and her Majesty has two or three of them amongst her collection of these quadrupeds. they are extremely bandy-legged, so as to appear almost incapable of running, with long bodies and rather large heads. They are very strong in the jaws, and are what are called hard-bitten. It is a peculiarity in these dogs that they generally have the iris of one eye black and the other white. Their colour varies, but the usual one is a bluish grey, spotted with black. The tail is generally curled on the back.
As two turnspits were generally kept to do the roasting work of a family, each dog knew his own day, and it was not an easy task to make one work two days running. Even on his regular day a dog would frequently hide himself so cordially did he hate his prescribed duties. A story is said to have been related to a gentleman by the Duke of Liancourt, of two turnspits employed in his kitchen, who had to take their turns every other day to get into the wheel. One of 420 them, in a fit of laziness, hid himself on the day he should have worked, so that his companion was forced to mount the wheel in his stead, who, when his employment was over, began crying and wagging his tail, and making signs for those in attendance to follow him. This was done, and the dog conducted them into a garret, where he dislodged his idle companion, and killed him immediately.
The following circumstance is said to have taken place in the Jesuits’ College at La Flèche.
After the cook had prepared his meat for roasting, he looked for the dog whose turn it was to work the spit, but not being able to find him, he attempted to employ for this service another that happened to be in the kitchen. The dog, however, resisted, and, having bitten the cook, ran away. The man, with whom the dog was a particular favourite, was much astonished at his ferocity. The wound he had received was a severe one, and bled profusely, so that it was necessary to dress it. While this was doing, the dog, which had run into the garden, and found out the one whose turn it was to work the spit, came driving him before him into the kitchen, when the latter immediately went of his own accord into the wheel.
Buffon calls the turnspit the Basset à jambes torses, but some of the breed are said to have straight legs. Short as they are, the body is extremely strong and heavy in proportion to the height of the dog, and this weight must facilitate the turning of the wheel.