The meat of the issue: Bovril

Bovril beef extract was introduced into Britain in 1886. The product was a great success, and the business grew to become one of the largest companies in Britain.

Background and introduction of Bovril
John Lawson Johnston (1839 – 1900) was an Edinburgh butcher with an interest in military and medical provisions. He developed Johnston’s Fluid Beef, a beef broth product, in the 1860s.

Johnston won a three-year contract to supply one million tin cans of Fluid Beef to the French army in 1874. He established operations in Canada in order to be closer to his source of beef.

A caricature of John Lawson Johnston (1839 – 1900) by Spy for Vanity Fair (1897)

Johnston began to produce a concentrated version of Fluid Beef, which enjoyed lower distribution costs, from 1875. He was inspired to name the product “Bovril” whilst smoking a cigar, combining the Latin “bo” meaning ox, with “vril”, the mysterious life-force in the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871).

After the Canadian operations were destroyed by fire in 1884, Johnston established premises at Trinity Square, London. Bovril was launched in Britain from 1886. The classic bulbous brown Bovril bottles were introduced from 1888, by which time the product was distributed throughout 3,000 pubs and shops.

Bovril enters into mass production
The Bovril company was formed with a capital of £150,000 and a new factory at Old Street, London in 1889.

Virol malt tonic was introduced from 1889, and soon followed by Stelna corned beef.

Beef began to be sourced from Argentina and Uruguay from 1890.

Bovril was one of the first consumer goods to be advertised on a large scale. Advertising focused on its healthful properties. Pope Leo XIII (1810 – 1903) endorsed the product in advertisements, as he did for coca wine (a predecessor of Coca-Cola). An electric sign advertising Bovril was erected at Ludgate Circus, London from 1892.

The Bovril advertisement on Ludgate Circus, London (1918)

The lightweight and nutritious properties of Bovril led to it being taken on expeditions by the likes of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Edmund Hillary brought it with him on the Everest Expedition.

Bovril flotation
The Bovril company was sold to the financier E T Hooley (1842 – 1903) for £2 million in 1896. Johnston had privately believed that even £1.5 million would be a ridiculous price to pay for the business.

Hooley floated the company for £2.5 million, but stripped the business of its working capital, and promised higher dividends than the company could afford. Hooley walked away with his profit, but Johnston, who remained as chairman, was forced to loan the company £150,000 just to keep it afloat.

By 1896 Bovril was available in over 100,000 retail establishments, as well as most hospitals and infirmaries.

George Lawson Johnston takes over as chairman
John Lawson Johnston died in 1900, and was succeeded by his son George Lawson Johnston (1873 – 1943) as chairman of Bovril.

Bovril was ranked 35th largest among British companies as measured by share capital in 1905.

George Lawson Johnston (1873 – 1943) in 1940.

Bovril used a 100 percent beef recipe. It was made from finely granulated dried beef powder imported from Canada. It differed from rival beef teas in that it used bovine blood as a thickening agent.

The factory was hailed as the cleanest in London, and the company regularly invited doctors and chemists to inspect it.

After Bovril’s principal meat supplier entered into an exclusive contract with Liebig’s, its main rival, from 1906, Bovril acquired half a million acres of land in Argentina to ensure a supply of beef from 1908. It also acquired beef from Australia and New Zealand.

Bovril was a major supplier to the British armed forces during the First World War. The company earned the goodwill of the British public by its refusal to increase the price of its product during the conflict.

Bovril acquired Marmite of Burton-upon-Trent and Ambrosia, a Devon-based producer of milk-based desserts, in 1924.

The Old Street factory was capable of producing 57,600 bottles of Bovril every day by 1927.

Bovril, with 310,000 cattle, had the largest herd under single ownership in Argentina by 1930.

Bovril had a market value of £10.8 million by 1930, making it the 23rd most highly-valued company in Britain.

Stelna had been rebranded as Bovril corned beef by 1936.

Ambrosia Creamed Rice was introduced in 1936.

The Old Street factory was hit three times during the Blitz, but a total of only four working days were lost.

Post-war period
The Argentine estates covered more than one million acres with over 200,000 cattle by 1959. The cattle were descended from Bovril-bred pedigree bulls from Ampthill in Bedfordshire. The Santa Elena abattoir employed 3,000 skilled workers, and was one of the most modern factories in Argentina.

An advertisement from the early 1900s. Bovril had Papal approval

Bovril, Ambrosia creamed rice and Bovril corned beef were all market leaders in Britain by 1957.

The Old Street factory broke a new record when 131,868 bottles of Bovril were produced in a single day in 1961.

Production volumes of Bovril began to decline from the mid-1960s.

Bovril instant beef stock was launched in 1966. The Ambrosia purchase brought with it dairies, and Bovril processed 42 million gallons of milk in 1966.

Production of Bovril was relocated from Old Street to Burton-upon-Trent, in the English Midlands, from 1967.

Acquisition by Cavenham Foods
Bovril was acquired by Cavenham Foods, controlled by James Goldsmith (1933 – 1997) for £14.5 million in 1971. Goldsmith had identified the Bovril management, led by Lord Luke (1905 – 1996), as clueless.

Bovril’s dairy interests, including three dairies in Devon and two in Ireland, were sold six weeks later to Grand Metropolitan for £6.3 million. The Bovril Argentinian interests were divested for £3 million in 1973.

Cavenham focused on marketing the three principal brands: Bovril, Marmite and Ambrosia.

Bovril advertisement c.1900

Subsequent ownership
Bovril (including Marmite and Ambrosia) was sold to Beecham, a drugs and consumer goods company, for £42 million in cash in 1980. Bovril employed 1,400 people in Britain across sites in Burton-upon-Trent and Devon. Beecham planned to use its international marketing expertise to increase sales worldwide.

Following a merger with SmithKline Beckman, Beecham decided to focus on its pharmaceuticals business, and sold Bovril (including Marmite and Ambrosia) to CPC, an American food company which owned Hellman’s mayonnaise and Knorr, for £157 million in cash in 1990. The number of employees had halved to 700 since 1980.

Five million jars of Bovril were sold in 1998.

CPC (now renamed Best Foods) was acquired by Unilever in 2001. Unilever sold Ambrosia to Premier Foods for £105 million in 2003.

In the wake of an European Community ban on the export of British beef, Unilever changed the composition of Bovril from beef stock to yeast extract from 2004. The ban was lifted in 2006, and Bovril began to be made from beef again.

3.5 million jars of Bovril were consumed in Britain in 2009. Bovril also has a large export market in Malaysia, Singapore and China.

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