When Meat Extract was King – 150 Years of Bovril

“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 is British to the Backbone’ – 1914

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.

Bovril doffs the cap to the splendid women of Britain ww2

Always considered a ‘war food’ for its supposed nutritional qualities here in a WW2 ad “doffs the cap” to the splendid women of Britain – the sex who were no doubt buying most of the product.


19 year old Jimmy Greaves advertising Bovril in 1959.

19 year old Jimmy Greaves, ad from 1959.


Bovril Aviatrix

“I”m jolly well taking Daily Bovril” Aviatrix ad from 1938.



Bovril by Electrocution, ad from the Christmas edition of the Graphic in 1891.


Bovril meat-extract

Football ad c.1965


BOVRIL The Tatler - December 28th 1932

From The Tatler – December 28th 1932.


They're jolly well taking Daily Bovril - advert - 1939

Ad from 1939.


Bovril meat extract

Ad from Wembley football programme c.1965


Bovril ad c.1925

The ads often emphasised the nutritional qualities especially cold weather, c.1925



BOVRIL meat-extract prevents that sinking feeling

Ad from March 1921 and designed by Herbert H. Harris.


Bovril beef extract

For Sandwiches, ad from 1928



Bovril meat-extract

Ad featured in the News of the World, 1953


Bovril meat extract

Bovril Boy’s Own Paper – March 1958


1959 Bovril ad After Swimming Shivers

1959 Bovril does you a power of good – ad from 1959

1927 Bovril ad Don't Get Tired Fancy Dress

Don’t Get Tired – Bovril ad from 1927

BOVRIL Punch - February 20th 1946

Wherever Something’s Cooking – cannibal ad from Punch, February 20th 1946.

1934 Bovril ad Mummy Says So

Advert from 1934

Bovril coal mining 1955

“We’re all fit on Bovril again this winter” ad from 1955.

Bovril meat extract 1955

“It’s Bovril or nothing with my man” ad from 1955


Bovril meat extract 1954

Beefeaters ad from 1954.


Bovril ad 1954 tennis

Bovril tennis ad from 1954


Bovril Ministry of Reconstruction 1944

Ministry of Reconstruction, ad looking forwards to the end of the war, 1944.


Bovril meat extract 1942

More doffing of the cap to the splendid women of Britain,  ad from 1942.


Bovril Barrage Balloon September 1939

Ad from the very start of World War Two, September 1939


Bovril 1939 puppet on a bike

Ad from 1939


Bovril 1936 wobble

…but Man has not this unaided power of recovery – ad from 1936


Bovril 1936

Children get that “Sinking Feeling” too! Ad fro 1936.


Bovril ad from 1930

Ad from 1930


Bovril meat extract 1935

“A kitchen without Bovril is like an egg without salt”, ad from 1935.


Bovril 1893

Better than the best beef tea – ad from 1893


Glow to school with Bovril -advert issued by Bovril, 1951

Advert from 1951


Bovril 1895

It comprises all that is essential to the production of new blood, brain, bone, and muscle. Ad from 1895.


Bovril 1896

“Prevention is better than cure” Ad from 1896 – the year Johnston sold his company for £2 million.

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