According to its brand owners, Unilever, Bovril made its first appearance 125 years ago and to celebrate this anniversary it has relaunched Bovril in some of its original styled bottles. As we will see, the product was however, invented somewhat earlier. But what has this got to do with Dulwich? Our cover picture shows Kingswood House, the romanticised mansion now a community centre in the middle of the Kingswood estate. When the original, rather plain, Georgian house was clad in stone to resemble a Scottish baronial hall by the inventor of the product, it was nicknamed ‘Bovril Castle’ by other Dulwich residents.
Bovril was the invention of John Lawson Johnston, the nephew of a Scottish butcher who learnt his trade as an apprentice in his uncle’s shop in Edinburgh, eventually taking over the business. One of the many stories which Johnston told was that It was while working as a butcher that he decided to use a large quantity of surplus beef trimmings to make his own meat glaze - a beef stock, concentrated by heating until it becomes dark brown and viscous and, importantly, giving it a long shelf-life.
The young Johnston also studied dietetics in Edinburgh and came into contact with Lyon Playfair who was professor of chemistry at the university and through him Johnston’s interest in food science and preserving was stimulated. This included the development of ‘marching rations’ for troops. He might have also discovered an interest in Dulwich at this point because Playfair was a Dulwich College governor and years later became a director in Johnston’s company.
Johnston took himself off to Canada around 1870 and established a factory in Quebec. According to some sources, in 1874 Napoleon III learning from the experience of the Franco-Prussian war sought to provision all French forts and the army with iron rations and ordered a three year supply of a million tins of beef from Johnston. What Johnston supplied was what he called “Johnston’s Fluid Beef” but later renaming it, BOVRIL (from Bos -meaning ox or cow and vril suffix from Bulwer-Lytton’s then popular novel The Coming Race published in 1870, whose plot revolves around a superior race of people, the Vril-ya, who derive their powers from an electromagnetic substance named “Vril”. So Bovril is really 145 years old!
Ever the publicist (Victorian inventors invariably wrote their own advertising copy or produced their own advertising stunts), Johnston ensured his product acquired fame when in 1881 he rented the annual Ice Palace in Montreal. He described the enterprise - “I had a gigantic urn 10 feet high and 12 feet in circumference created. This urn was filled with Bovril and heated by a specially adapted stove. During the carnival, thirty waiters were placed to serve and an entrance fee of ten cents to the Palace was charged, which entitled each person to a cup of hot fluid beef. In eight days 75,000 people tested my invention.”
The product was a huge commercial success, although Johnston sold the Canadian end of the business after his factory burned down. Manufacturing was expanded in Britain and in 1896 he sold the company for £2million to his friend Ernest Terah Hooley, who a month later 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.
Hooley was the consumate wheeler-dealer, the Gordon Gecko of Victorian London. He had had a meteoric business career, buying up Dunlop, Raleigh cycles, Schweppes, the Papworth Estate, founding the Trafford Park Industrial Estate Manchester and then acquiring Bovril. Two years after the Bovril deal he was judged to be bankrupt and in 1912 sentenced to a 12 month prison term for obtaining money under false pretences. He later went bankrupt a second time.
Johnston, already a very wealthy man, had earlier sold his yacht Brittania, which he had bought from the Prince of Wales, to Hooley. Johnston then purchased The Whyte Ladye, a yacht previously owned by Lily Langtry. Johnston died on it in Cannes in 1900 at the age of 61, leaving a wife and thirteen children. With the proceeds of the deal with Hooley he had bought Kingswood and began his fantastic transformation of the house and grounds. He bought up fireplaces and fountains which had been stripped from the Palace of St Cloud in France as well as the reputed bed which Bonnie Prince Charlie had slept in before the battle of Culloden. He installed ornate ceilings, panelling, tapestries and displays of armour to the interior. Outside, he added turrets and crenulations to the facade and built a mock medieval castle in the grounds. It could be argued, that without these changes Kingswood House would not have survived when the extensive parkland was built over as a council estate after World War 2.
Bovril continued to be a huge money spinner and Johnston’s son George ran the company which bought huge tracts of land in Argentina on which it ran 1.5million cattle. When Sir James Goldsmith’s Cavenham Foods took over the company in the 1971 the Argentina property was one of the assets it stripped. The brand was later sold to Unilever, its present owners. In 2004, the alarm over BSE commonly called ‘mad cow disease’ obliged the company to change the recipe from beef extract to yeast extract, although the change was promoted to make the product more suitable to vegetarians and Muslims. However, the new recipe was not successful and Bovril is today made from beef.