Tag Archives: John Lawson Johnston

The meat of the issue: Bovril

Bovril is a beef extract made from boiled cow carcasses with added flavouring. It is consumed as a hot beverage or used as a substitute for stock in recipes.

John Lawson Johnston (1839 – 1900) was an Edinburgh butcher with an interest in military and medical provisions. In the 1860s he developed a beef broth that he called Johnston’s Fluid Beef. In 1874 he won a three-year contract to supply one million tin cans of Fluid Beef to the French army. In order to be closer to his source of beef, he established operations in Canada.

In 1875, to lower distribution costs, he began to produce a concentrated version which he named Bovril. The name came to Johnston as he smoked a cigar, combining the Latin “bo” meaning ox with “vril”, the mysterious life-force in the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race.

After his Canadian operations were destroyed by fire in 1884, Johnston established premises at Trinity Square, London. Bovril was launched in Britain in 1886. Within two years it was distributed in 3,000 pubs and shops. The classic bulbous brown Bovril bottles were introduced in 1888. In 1889 the Bovril company was formed with capital of £150,000 and a new factory at Old Street, London.

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

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 took it to the Everest Expedition.

In 1896, Bovril was sold to the financier E T Hooley for £2 million, who later that month floated the company for £2.5 million. However he stripped the company of its working capital, and promised higher dividends than the company could afford. Hooley walked away with his profit, but John Lawson 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 in the UK, as well as most hospitals and infirmaries. In 1889 Virol malt tonic was introduced, soon followed by Stelna corned beef.

Following the death of his father in 1900, George Lawson Johnston managed the company. In 1905 the company was ranked 35th among British companies as measured by share capital.

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

In 1924 Bovril acquired Marmite of Burton-upon-Trent and Ambrosia, a Devon based producer of milk-based desserts. By 1927 the Old Street factory was capable of producing 57,600 bottles of Bovril every day.

By 1930 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, making it the 23rd most highly valued company in Britain. By 1936 Stelna had been rebranded as Bovril corned beef.

Sadly, many of the company records were destroyed during the Second World War. The Old Street factory was hit three times during the Blitz, but only four working days were lost.

By 1959 the Argentine estates covered over one million acres with over 200,000 cattle. 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.

By 1957 Bovril, Ambrosia creamed rice and Bovril corned beef were all market leaders in Britain. In 1961 the Old Street factory broke a new record when131,868 bottles of Bovril were produced in a single day.

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

In 1967, production of Bovril was relocated from Old Street to Burton-upon-Trent.

In 1971 Bovril was acquired by Cavenham Foods for £14.5 million. 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. In 1973 the Bovril Argentinian interests were divested for £3 million.

Cavenham invested heavily in marketing for the neglected Ambrosia brand.

By 1976 Cavenham had the tenth highest turnover of any British company.

In 1980 Bovril (including Marmite and Ambrosia) was sold to Beecham, a drugs and consumer goods giant, for £42 million. At this stage Bovril employed 1,400 people in Britain, across sites in Burton-upon-Trent and Devon. Net assets were valued at around £18 million.

In 1990 what was by now called SmithKline Beecham sold Bovril (including Marmite and Ambrosia) to CPC, an American foods giant which owned Hellman’s mayonnaise and Knorr, for £157 million in cash. Since 1980, the number of employees had halved to 700.

Five million jars of Bovril were sold in 1998.

In 2001 CPC (now renamed Best Foods) was merged with Van den Bergh Foods, to bring Bovril into the Unilever stable. In 2003 Unilever sold Ambrosia to Premier Foods for £105 million.

In 2004, 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. 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.