“It wasn’t an easy decision,” said Unilever Foods, the makers of Bovril, in 2004. It couldn’t have been! The spokesman for the multi-national food company was announcing that Bovril, the viscous, salty meat extract was beefier than Desperate Dan’s cow-pie was to be come suitable for vegetarians. Bovril which had begun life as a by-product of a Scottish businessman’s contract to supply a million cans of beef to Napoleon III’s army in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
Around 150 years ago Scotsman John Lawson Johnston created ‘Johnston’s Fluid Beef’ while working in his butcher’s shop in Edinburgh. It took off and he soon opened a factory in the Holyrood area of the city. After emigrating to Canada Johnston won the contract with Napoleon who was fearful of his troops well-being after the disastrous siege of Paris in 1870/1.
Johnstone strongly believed his new liquid invention was truly nutritious but it also came in a form that defeated all the problems associated with the transportation of meat across thousands of miles of land and sea. It was the British who took to Bovril though, and it sold spectacularly throughout the UK and in 1888 over 3,000 public houses, grocers and dispensing chemists were selling the stuff now called Bovril. The first part of the word ‘bo’ comes from the latin bovine and the, slightly more obscure, second part ‘vril’ comes from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s science fiction novel, The Coming Race, in which the Vril-ya were an underground people with incredible electrical powers.
Bovril Crossed Class Boundaries
The famous meat-extract product came at a time when there was a veritable revolution taking place in the relatively new industrialised food economy. While the urban population was rapidly increasing it meant that there was a need for the mass production of affordable, non-perishable foodstuffs sold in cans and jars. Historian Lesley Steinitz wrote:
Johnston used his commercial success and his newfound wealth to march up the social scale, he exploited his network of powerful contacts to generate orders for his product which went into the armed forces, hospitals and workhouses. This gave Bovril the credibility as a legitimate health food for people to buy it also for home use. Its markets crossed class boundaries and Bovril could be drunk any time of day or night. It could also be spread on toast or added to soups and stews. In the summer, the company tried to persuade consumers to drink it cold with soda!
Johnston went on to sell his company for 2 million in 1896, four years before he died while on holiday in Cannes, in France.
Bovril was still thought of as a “war food” in World War 1 and according to wikipedia was frequently mentioned in the 1930 account Not So Quiet… Stepdaughters of War by Helen Zenna Smith (Evadne Price). One account from the book describes it being prepared for the casualties at Mons where “the orderlies were just beginning to make Bovril for the wounded, when the bearers and ambulance wagons were shelled as they were bringing the wounded into the hospital”
In 2006, with the worst of the BSE crisis behind them, the company, now owned by Unilever went back to including beef in the recipe. Almost from the day it was launched, Bovril enjoyed huge popularity. Over three million jars of Johnston’s product are still sold every year in the United Kingdom.