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A typical English counterweight jack with flywheel, a rather inefficient mechanism - notice how the kitchen maid is pulling the chain to help turn the spit. From Martha Bradley,. The English Housewife ( London: 1756).


An eighteenth century English kitchen with a counterweight jack with foliate. Notice the spit in the rack above the fireplace. From Charles Carter, The London and Country Cook ( London: 1746).


A nineteenth century kitchen fireplace fitted with a smoke jack of a type very similar to that in the Kenwood kitchen. The jack illustrated here has pulleys for eight horizontal spits and folding jack racks below for at least two bottle jacks. From. Walsh, The British Cookery Book ( London: 1864).


A nineteenth century bottle jack and screen from Mary Jewry Every Day Cookery Book (c. 1890).



A fulsome dish of roast beef has been a symbol of our national identity since the time of William Hogarth, whose painting The Roast Beef of Old England (1749), elevated our favourite dinner to an emblem of defiance against our European enemies. However, it is a sad and surprising fact that very few modern Englishmen and women have ever tasted their national dish. The depressing truth is that the average British family is more likely to dine on chicken tikka masala or pizza than succulent roast sirloin.

Despite all the dramatic changes in our diet that have occurred since Hogarth's lifetime, we continue to regard the traditional Sunday roast as an English icon. However, real roast meat has almost entirely disappeared from the British repertoire of dishes. The dish we today call a ‘roast' is in fact baked in an oven and is very different in character to the roast meat that would have excited Hogarth's appetite. To be truly roasted, meat must be cooked on a spit in the radiant heat of an open fire.

Our ancestors accomplished this in a remarkable number of ways. The most basic method was to turn the spits by hand, a tiresome and very uncomfortable job due to the overpowering heat of the fire. A kitchen assistant known as a turnbroche or turnspit performed this task, but because the job was a tedious one, dogs and geese in treadmills were also frequently used to rotate the spits. In the sixteenth century, Doctor Caius, founder of Caius College , Cambridge described the turnspit dog, a breed now extinct: ‘There is comprehended under the curs of the coarsest kind a certain dog in kitchen service excellent. For when any meat is to be roasted, they go into a wheel, which they turning about with the weight of their bodies, so diligently look to their business, that no drudge nor scullion can do the feat more cunningly.' An eighteenth century writer tells us that these unfortunate creatures frequently hid or ran away when there was any indication that a roast was about to be cooked~ Geese were said to be able to keep the spits turning for up to twelve hours at a time.


During the late medieval period and Renaissance, various clockwork spit-turning mechanisms started to appear in European kitchens. The earliest kind was the counterweight jack, a device which worked on a similar principle to a grandfather clock. A heavy weight hanging from a rope rotated a drum and turned a simple clockwork movement which in turn rotated a pulley. A chain attached to the pulley drove a drive wheel on the end of the spit (see illustration opposite). These were made by blacksmiths rather than clockmakers and seem to have arrived in England in the late sixteenth century. There is an early reference to one in an inventory of the contents of a Bishopsgate inn dated 1612:

‘Item, one Jack with a weighted 10s.'

These devices were not very efficient and needed frequent maintenance. In 1692 Timothy Burrell ‘Paid Green for a new jack £1.1 0.6 and he is to keep the wheels and the pulley in good order for 6d. a year.'

They remained very popular in England until the nineteenth century. Some of the early ones have decorative front plates of brass or iron, frequently embellished with complex scrollwork. Some employed a flywheel to govern the rate of rotation; others used a vane or foliate to slow down the mechanism (see illustration below).

Although they were being used on the continent from the Renaissance onwards, springjacks never really become popular in England . The magnificent example on the front page is illustrated in Bartolomeo Scappi's papal cookery book of 1570. Springjacks were driven by a sprung steel spring and frequently used a spiral-like device called a fusee to regulate the movement -Scappi's mechanism employs this system. During the nineteenth century small domestic springjacks were manufactured in France and Italy on an enormous scale. The town of Dax in south-western France was an important centre of production. They can sometimes be found in junk shops in rural France -they look something like those old fashioned paraffin heaters we used to have in the 1950's.

In England, kitchens in large establishments were usually fitted with a smoke jack, a device that took advantage of the rising heat in the flu to turn a vane, which in turn rotated the spit via a simple train of gears and a chain. Leonardo da Vinci illustrated a smoke jack in his sketchbook in the late 1400's. The earliest to be found in this country date from the sixteenth century. To work efficiently, they needed a very large fire and were considered by many to be very wasteful. Count Rumford, who advocated using an oven to cook meat, wrote, ‘that much less than one thousandth part of the fuel that is necessary to be burned in an open chimney fireplace in order to cause a smoke jack to turn a loaded spit, would be sufficient to make the spit go round, were the force evolved from the combustion of the fuel, if it were properly directed through the medium of a steam-engine.' In the nineteenth century, the British navy took up this idea and some ships were equipped with steam-driven spits.

By far the most popular method of roasting meat in England during the nineteenth century was the bottlejack. This was a small and convenient device that ~used a verge escapement to turn the joint or bird through the vertical axis - it was really a type of spring jack and was wound up with a key. Bottlejacks were sometimes hung inside a tinplated firescreen or hastener (see illustration. opposite). They were usually equipped with a cast iron flywheel hung with four small hooks from which fat could be suspended, so the joint could be basted automatically. Bottle jacks were still being manufactured in the 1930's. If you could not afford a bottlejack, you could roast meat by simply hanging it from the mantelpiece on a length of string or with a cheap weighted device called a danglespit, which you could encourage to rotate by giving it a flick every time you went past the fireplace.

As hot-air ovens became increasingly efficient during the course of the nineteenth century, more cooks came to realise that open-fire roasting was very wasteful of fuel and the practice gradually died out. The oven door finally closed on the British roast just before the First World War.


English open fire cookery was frequently very sophisticated and was used to produce more than just plain roasted meats. A glimpse of this forgotten cuisine can be seen in this recipe from John Nott's Cooks' and Confectioners' Dictionary of 1723:

To Dress Venison in Collops

Cut part of a Haunch of Venison into Collops, then hack it with the Back of a Knife, lard it with small Lardons; then mince Thyme, Rosemary, Parsley, Spinage, and other sweet Herbs small with Beef-suet; season them with salt, Cloves and Nutmeg beaten, and mingle them well together with the Yolks of half a dozen Eggs; spread these upon your Collops, tye them together, spit them and roast them: Set a Dish under them to receive the Gravey, put to it some Claret; when the Collops are near roasted enough, set the Dish over a Chafing-dish of Coals, put in grated Bread, Vinegar, Sugar, and Beaten Cinnamon; stir them together, add a Ladleful of drawn Butter; dish your Venison, and pour the Sauce over them.



© Ivan Day 2000

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