“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 conglomerate was announcing that Bovril, the viscous, salty meat extract that was beefier than Desperate Dan’s cow-pie was to be come suitable for vegetarians.
Around 150 years ago Scotsman John Lawson Johnston created ‘Johnston’s Fluid Beef’ while working in his butcher’s shop in Edinburgh. It started to become popular and he soon opened a factory in the Holyrood area of the city.
The odd name comes from Latin bos, meaning “ox”. Johnston took the -vril suffix from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s then-popular novel, Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (1870), a book that contributed to the early growth of the science fiction genre, whose plot revolves around a superior race of people, the Vril-ya, who derive their powers from an electromagnetic substance named “Vril”. Therefore, Johnston thought that Bovril indicates great strength obtained from an ox. Incidentally, Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote a stream of bestselling novels and is said to have coined the phrases “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “dweller on the threshold”, and the well-known opening line “It was a dark and stormy night”.
Bovril Crossed Class Boundaries
The famous meat-extract product came at a time when a revolution was taking place in the relatively new industrialised food economy. The urban population was rapidly increasing and 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”.
Bovril’s instant beef stock was launched in 1966 and its “King of Beef” range of instant flavours for stews, casseroles and gravy in 1971. That year Cavenham Foods acquired the Bovril Company but then sold most of its dairies and South American operations to finance further take-overs eventually selling out to Unilever.
In 2006, with the worst of the BSE crisis behind them the company decided to re-introduce beef back into 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.
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