Great British Icons: A History of Bovril

Bovril is a beef extract used in England for making a hot drink, as well as to boost the flavor of gravies and soups. It was invented in the 19th century at a time when food preservation and transport methods made meat transportation difficult and when meat was often beyond the pockets of the poor. Associated from the beginning with war, it was fed to wounded soldiers, who brought home a taste for it. Today it is widely consumed at football matches, particularly in its homeland, Scotland. The inventor, John Lawson Johnston, was a butcher who was influenced by the food science of the German Baron Justus von Liebig. Beef extracts were widely used in Edwardian times and into the early decades of the 20th century. Bovril and its main rival Oxo are the main survivors and inheritors of that popularity. Johnston became fabulously wealthy and died in 1900 on his yacht in the French Riviera.

Key Facts:

  • Iconic winter drink, especially at football matches
  • Invented by the Scotsman John Lawson Johnston
  • Originally made in Canada and then in South America
  • Unique flavor requiring a specific British gene to appreciate

If you attend a football match in the cold, damp winter days in England, and especially in Scotland, you may see the fans drinking from thermos flasks or Styrofoam containers. They are unlikely to be drinking tea, or even coffee or hot soup. Alcohol is banned in football stadiums, so it cannot be that either. The chances are they are drinking a hot, pungent liquid almost black in color. This is Bovril, a beef extract that is iconic in British culture and only half-joking referred to in the question – ‘Coffee, Tea, or Bovril?’ This product, sold in a squat glass jar in every store, and hidden in the cupboard of almost every household, originated in a time when the storage of fresh food and meat was almost impossible since refrigeration was only a distant dream and canning only partially mastered . The inventor of this iconic British drink was a Scotsman, John Lawson Johnston.

Born in Roslin, Midlothian, an area to the south of Edinburgh, Scotland in 1839, Johnston was just a boy when he moved to the city. His uncle John had a butcher’s shop at 180 Canon gate, in what today is the Old Town section of Edinburgh. As was common at the time, he was apprenticed to his uncle’s shop, probably when he was between 8 and 12 years old. When he became older, he took over the business, and while there, he decided to use the beef trimmings from his work to produce a concentrated meat stock called glace de viande in French cuisine. This involved boiling the trimming for many hours in water until it concentrated into a thick, viscous dark-brown liquid that could be used to assemble sauces and gravy. This concentration process gave the stock a longer shelf-life, something important in those times before the invention of refrigeration. It proved popular and sold so well that he was able to open a second shop in West Preston Street and a factory for his stock-making in the Holyrood district of the city.

Around the time Johnston was born, a German chemist, Baron Justus von Liebig, was studying the effect of cooking on the nutritional value of foods. He noted that boiling beef in open, uncovered pots meant that most of the nutrients were destroyed. He proposed instead a method that reduced the meat to a thick paste while retaining its nutritional value. For many poor people, meat was an impossible luxury, and von Liebig was hoping his product would improve the diet of the poorest people. Some small companies began to make his extract after he made a public presentation of his findings in 1847.

However, it was only in 1862 that a young Belgian railway engineer called George Christian Giebert, read about the extract and realized how to make it much more cheaply on an industrial scale. He was working in Uruguay in South America, and there, as well as in Argentina, vast herds of cattle roamed the grasslands. They were slaughtered for their hides to make leather, but the carcasses had no value, as without refrigeration or canning, they were highly perishable. With financial backers and local ranchers, he established the Societé de Fray Bentos Giebert & Cie. in the Uruguayan port of Villa Independencia, which was later re-named Fray Bentos. In 1865 a company, with von Liebig as a director, was established in London. Originally marketed as Extractum Carnis Liebis, or ‘Liebig’s Extract of Meat,’ after several re-brandings the product became the famous brand Oxo. The company also developed Fray Bentos Corned Beef.

In Edinburgh, Johnston met Professor Lyon Playfair, a chemist at the University of Edinburgh. Playfield probably told Johnston about Liebig’s work, and anyway, by 1865, Liebig’s extract was widely sold in London, and had become well-known. St Thomas hospital alone was using 1,000 pots a month as an easily digested food for patients. With his knowledge of that product, and the advantages of manufacturing where cattle were abundant and cheap, Johnston migrated to Canada in 1871. There he set up a plant outside the city of Montreal to manufacture his extract.

Just as Liebig’s extract had been recommended for soldiers in the American Civil War, so the French Army were interested in improving the health and vigor of its soldiers. This was particularly important at that time, since France had just a humiliating defeat in a matter of weeks in 1891 at the hands of the Prussian army in the Franco-Prussian War. Johnston a contract to supply the French Army with a million metric tons of his ‘Johnston’s Fluid Beef’, as it was then called.

Considering that it takes around 30 pounds of beef to make one pound of extract, and with a cow producing around 500 pounds of meat, he would have needed 4.4 million head of cattle to fill the order. By this stage, his produce had been further developed. Simple concentrates contained a large amount of gelatin, which made it solid at room temperatures and therefore difficult to measure, package or use. He overcame this by using alkali to break down the mixture into a semi-liquid state, that could be poured and would mix more easily with water. So successful was his product with the French Army, he was awarded a medal by the French Red Cross.

Just as Johnston was getting started with his business, he said a setback. His factory burned down, and rather than re-build, he sold the business and returned to London in 1884. Britain had strong ties with Argentina and Uruguay, and like Liebig, Johnston moved his manufacturing process to those countries, where beef was abundant on the endless pampas, and labor was cheap. Within two years of his return to England, he had an improved product, more concentrated and unlike Liebig’s Extract, with additional flavorings. Searching for a name, he took the Latin word bos, meaning an ox. A popular novel at the time was “The Coming Race,” written in 1879 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. This early science-fiction novel was about a superior race of humans, the Vril-ya, who powers came from an electromagnetic substance named ‘Vril.’ By combining these two parts, in the name ‘Bovril,’ he conjured up a substance that gave power from an ox.

By 1888, over 3,000 grocery shops, chemist’s shops, and pubs were selling Bovril. The following year Johnston formed the Bovril Company. During World War I Bovril was widely used at the Front, both by soldiers and for the wounded. Nurses in field hospitals dispensed Bovril, dissolved in hot water, to troops when they were first brought in from the battlefield. This must have had a deep effect on the psyche of the troops when they returned to England because Bovril became a staple food, even when canning and later freezing, made the product redundant as a way of storing beef. Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic from 1914 to 1917 relied on Bovril tea to survive after their ship was crushed by the ice. You cannot buy publicity like that. The growth of dietetics and a general rising interest in health and eating well coincided with the development of Bovril, and that too served Johnston well in promoting his product.

After his return to England, Johnston had moved to a Victorian mansion in West Dulwich, to the south-east of London. The house originated as the smaller Kingswood Lodge, which had belonged to a solicitor called William Vizard. He had handled the legal affairs of Queen Caroline when she was divorced from King George IV. Johnston re-modeled the house, adding sections and topping it with battlements. These, and his presence there, earned the house the nickname ‘Bovril Castle’ from his neighbors.

In 1896 Johnston sold Bovril for £2 million pounds, which today would be equivalent to two or three billion pounds. He continued as Chairman of the Board until his death. Johnston was a keen sailor, and in 1897, with part of the proceeds from the sale, he bought a boat.

The 204-foot steam yacht, with three masts and a 142 horse-power engine, had been built for Francis Denzil Edward Baring, 5th Baron Ashburton, and originally named ‘Ladye Mabel’. She it was bought by George Alexander Baird, who gave it as a gift to the actress Lillie Langtry, with the new name of the ‘White Ladye’. Baird was a famous jockey, race-horse owner and breeder who was notorious for his wildlife. Langtry was briefly his mistress, and she, in turn had been the mistress of the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII. Langtry leased the boat to the American yachtsman Ogden Geolet, and when he died, it was put up for auction and bought by Johnston.

In 1900 Johnston was sailing near Cannes, on the French Riviera when he died, on the 24th of November. His body was brought to England and buried in a large mausoleum at West Norwood Cemetery, London. The cemetery is well-known for a large number of inventors, artists, doctors, and sportsmen buried there.

The Bovril brand continued after his death, and today it is owned by Unilever. As they entered the present century sales began to fall. There was an export ban on British beef and growing concerns about Mad Cow Diseases (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). Vegetarianism was on the rise, and the large Hindu population in the UK do not eat beef for religious reasons. So in 2004, Unilever removed the beef and made it a vegetarian product. This does not seem to have been a wise move, as once the export bans were lifted the beef was brought back in 2006. Besides the classic beef variety there is now a chicken Bovril available.

Sites to Visit

there is a commemorative plaque outside Johnston’s birth-place, at 29 Main Street, Roslin, Midlothian.

Johnston’s original butcher’s shop at 180 Canon gate, Edinburgh is now a block of tenement flats.

Johnston’s home, Kingswood House, is today owned by the local council, and used for conferences, meetings, and civil marriages. The address is Seeley Drive, Kingswood Estate, West Dulwich, London. SE21.

Feeling mausoleum still stands in West Norwood Cemetery, Norwood Rd, West Norwood, London SE27.

Feeling yacht‘White Ladye’, was broken up in 1935.