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Bovril in a 250 g jar

Bovril is the trademarked name of a thick, salty meat extract, developed in the 1870s by John Lawson Johnston and sold in a distinctive, bulbous jar. It is made in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, and distributed by Unilever UK.

Bovril can be made into a drink by diluting with hot water, or (less commonly) milk[1]. It can also be used as a flavouring for soups, stews or porridge, or spread on bread, especially toast, rather like Marmite.

The first part of the product's name comes from Latin bos (genitive bovis) meaning "ox" or "cow". Johnston took the -vril suffix from Bulwer-Lytton's then-popular 1870 "lost race" novel The Coming Race, whose plot revolves around a powerful energy fluid named "Vril".[2][3]



Poster for Bovril, about 1900 V&A Museum no. E.163-1973
The Two Infallible Powers - The Pope & Bovril

In 1870, in the war against the Prussians, Napoleon III found that his armies could not 'march on empty stomachs'. He therefore ordered one million cans of beef to feed his starving troops. The task of providing all this beef went to a Scotsman named John Lawson Johnston. Unfortunately, Britain did not have a large enough quantity of beef to meet the French people's and Napoleon III's demand, so Johnston created a product known as 'Johnston's Fluid Beef', later called Bovril.[4]

By 1888 over 3,000 British public houses, grocers and chemists were beginning to sell Bovril. In 1889 the Bovril Company was formed. Bovril's instant beef stock was sold beginning 1966, followed by the 'King Beef' range of instant flavours for stews, casseroles and gravy in 1971.

During the Siege of Ladysmith in the Second Boer War a Bovril-like paste was produced from horse meat. Named Chevril by replacing the Bov (ox) with Chev (horse) in the Bovril name, it was produced by boiling down the horse meat to a jelly paste and serving it like beef tea.[5][6]

Bovril continued to function as a "war food" in World War I,[7] and was frequently mentioned in the 1930 account Not So Quiet... Stepdaughters of War by Helen Zenna Smith (Evadne Price). As a drink mixing the beef flavouring with hot water, it helped sustain ambulance drivers.

A thermos of beef tea was the favoured way to fend off the chill of winter matches for generations of Scottish and English football enthusiasts; to this day Bovril dissolved in hot water is sold in stadiums all over the United Kingdom.

Bovril beef tea was the only warm drink that Ernest Shackleton's team had to drink when they were marooned on Elephant Island during the Endurance Expedition.[8]

When John Lawson Johnston died, George Lawson Johnston inherited the Bovril business. In 1929, George Lawson Johnston was recognised by the British Government and monarchy and was ennobled as Lord Luke', of Pavenham in the county of Bedford. This hereditary title passed to Ian St John Lawson Johnston in 1943 and to Arthur Charles St John Lawson Johnston in 1996. The current Lord Luke is one of the 90 hereditary peers elected to remain in the House of Lords of the United Kingdom after its 1999 reform.

In 1971 Cavenham Foods acquired the Bovril Company but then sold most of its dairies and South American operations to finance further take-overs.[9] The brand is now owned by Unilever.[3]

Bovril holds the unusual position of having been advertised with a Pope. An advertising campaign of the early 20th century in Britain depicted the Pope seated on his throne, bearing a mug of Bovril. The campaign slogan read: The Two Infallible Powers - The Pope & Bovril.

Product Range

Jar of Bovril and Bovril on bread
Chicken Bovril
  • Bovril 125g
  • Bovril 250g
  • Bovril 500g
  • Bovril 125g (Chicken)
  • Bovril cubes (12x71g)

Licensed production

Bovril is also produced in South Africa by the Bokomo division of Pioneer Foods. [2] The product range includes a version with chilli.


In November 2004 the manufacturers, Unilever, announced that the composition of Bovril was being changed from beef extract to a yeast extract, claiming it was to make the product suitable for vegetarians and vegans; at that time fear of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) may have been a factor. According to Unilever, "in blind taste tests, 10% didn't notice any difference in taste, 40% preferred the original and 50% preferred the new product."

The manufacturer also hoped to increase exports (Unilever UK Export) to Asian countries such as Malaysia, a primarily Muslim country where the government was becoming restrictive regarding non-halal meat. By changing Bovril to a non-meat base, Unilever hoped to increase sales there, where people enjoy Bovril stirred into porridge.

The removal of beef from the recipe in 2004 was not without criticism, with many complaining that the new variant did not taste the same and had a different mouth feel[citation needed]. Beef extract was eventually reintroduced as a key Bovril ingredient in 2006, after the European Commission lifted its ban on the export of Britain's beef products; it was only at this point that the manufacturer stated explicitly that this had been the main reason for beef's removal.[citation needed]


Bovril was famously advertised as a potential aid to slimming in the 1980s via an ad campaign featuring actress and model Jerry Hall, using the slogan 'Are you a Bovril body?'

Bovril is served at the Groucho Club and is associated with football culture, being commonly drunk on the terraces from thermos flasks in winter. At Scottish football stadiums containers such as thermos flasks are banned by law, so Bovril is purchased inside the grounds where it is served in polystyrene or plastic cups.

Some Bovril lovers (as seen at football matches) like to shake white pepper and a little cayenne into the drink. Burton Albion have named their home end after Bovril due to the sponsorships between club and company.

Famous Bovril drinkers include former Ipswich Town stalwart Bontcho Guentchev, BB7's Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace, Lewis Tomalin from the 'Perfect Week' and London Scottish's Martin Tattersall.

In July 2008 NME magazine referred to up-and-coming Manchester-based indie band Mucky Minds as, Vampire Weekend on Bovril[citation needed].

In the British sit-com Spaced episode 2.4, Bovril is the punchline of a joke while Tim, Mike, and Tyres are walking home.

  • Tyres: Are we happy?
  • Tim: Are we happy.
  • Tyres: Excellent. Mine's a pint of the black stuff.
  • Mike: (scoffs) You can't drink a pint of Bovril.

See also


  1. ^ TRY BOVRIL AND MILK (advert), The Sydney Mail, 1 July 1931, p. 23. [1]
  2. ^ Thompson, William Phillips (1920). Handbook of patent law of all countries.. London: Stevens. pp. 42. Retrieved 2009-08-05. 
  3. ^ a b Unilever brands
  4. ^
  5. ^ Watt, S. "Intombi Military Hospital and Cemetery". Military History Journal (Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging) 5 (6). 
  6. ^ Jacson, M (1908). "II". The Record of a Regiment of the Line. HUTCHINSON & CO. pp. 88. 
  7. ^ Vivian, Evelyn Charles (1914). With the Royal army medical corps (R. A. M. C.) at the front. Hodder and Stoughton. pp. 99. 
  8. ^ "SHACKLETON'S MEN KEPT HOPE OF RESCUE HIGH; Marooned Scientists, Living on Penguin and Seaweed, Watched Daily for Relief.". The New York Times. 1916-09-11. Retrieved 2009-05-11. 
  9. ^ Goldsmith

External links



Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Proper noun

Wikipedia has an article on:





  1. (trademark) A brand of beef extract made in the UK.

Derived terms

  • bovrilise, bovrilize

Related terms


  • 1860 William Makepeace Thackeray - The Cornhill Magazine
    The conversation had turned to pictures, and some of those on the walls were being admired by the guests, most of whom showed by their remarks that they saw little difference between a water colour and an advertisement for Bovril.
  • 2005 Harold Strachan - Make A Skyf, Man!
    We mix up at the stainless steel kitchen sink under the shelves with all the jars of jam and bottles of Bovril and butter and stuff this infinitesimal minute wee tiny quantity of ammonium nitrate with about a snuff pinch of aluminium powder . . .


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