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 described the manufacturing process for Fluid Beef. Steam was used to separate the albumin from the beef. The albumin was mixed with lean beef which had had all of its moisture, fat and gelatine removed. The mixture was then dried and ground to a fine powder. This powder was then added to beef extract to create Fluid Beef.

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.

The Canadian operations were destroyed by fire in 1884. Johnston returned to Britain, “intending to do nothing. But before long I found idleness too hard work”. Johnston discovered a new way to make albumin soluble which created an improved beef extract which he called Bovril. He established a modest factory at Trinity Square, London with a staff of two people, and introduced Bovril to Britain in 1886. Johnston was inspired whilst smoking a cigar to name the product by combining the Latin “bo” meaning ox, with “vril”, the mysterious life-force in the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871).

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 registered with a capital of £150,000 in 1889. A new factory was established at Old Street, London.

Virol malt tonic was introduced from 1889, 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 Old Street factory employed over 200 people by 1896.

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.

Bovril was available in over 100,000 retail establishments by 1896, 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 as the 35th largest British company as measured by share capital in 1905.

George Lawson Johnston (1873 – 1943) in 1940.

Bovril’s principal meat supplier entered into an exclusive contract with Liebig’s, its main rival, in 1906. In order to ensure supply, Bovril acquired half a million acres of land in Argentina in 1908. Beef also continued to be sourced 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. The company owned 1.3 million acres in Argentina and nine million acres in Australia.

20 to 30 pounds of good quality, lean beef were used to make one pound of Bovril.

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

According to a profile of Bovril for TIME magazine in 1932:

a meeting of the Bovril directorate would resemble a meeting of the British Cabinet, were it not for the fact that the Bovril board has the honor of including a member of the royal family (addicted to Bovril since Edward VII) but whose name is discreetly withheld.

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 Argentina 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 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.

Ten million jars of Bovril were sold in 1994. Production had halved by 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 maintains a large export market in Malaysia, Singapore and China.

The protein content of Bovril was increased by 15 percent in 2017.

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