Bovril is the trademarked name of a thick and salty meat extract paste similar to a yeast extract, developed in the 1870s by John Lawson Johnston. It is sold in a distinctive bulbous jar, and as cubes and granules. Bovril is owned and distributed by Unilever UK. Its appearance is similar to the British Marmite and its Australian equivalent Vegemite.

InventorJohn Lawson Johnston
Inception1889 (1889)
ManufacturerBovril Company
Current supplierUnilever

Bovril can be made into a drink (referred to in the UK as a "beef tea") by diluting with hot water or, less commonly, with milk.[1] It can be used as a flavouring for soups, broth, stews or porridge, or as a spread, especially on toast in a similar fashion to Marmite and Vegemite.[2]


Copper alloy promotional medal or token for Bovril, c. 1866-1914

The first part of the product's name comes from Latin bovīnus, meaning "ox".[3] Johnston took the -vril suffix from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's then-popular novel, The Coming Race (1871), the plot of which revolves around a superior race of people, the Vril-ya, who derive their powers from an electromagnetic substance named "Vril". Therefore, Bovril indicates great strength obtained from an ox.[4]


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

In 1870, in the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon III ordered one million cans of beef to feed his troops.[5] The task of providing this went to John Lawson Johnston, a Scottish butcher living in Canada.[5] Large quantities of beef were available across the British Dominions and South America, but transport and storage were problematic. Therefore, Johnston created a product known as 'Johnston's Fluid Beef', later called Bovril, to meet Napoleon's needs.[6] By 1888, over 3,000 UK public houses, grocers and dispensing chemists were selling Bovril. In 1889, Bovril Ltd was formed to develop Johnston's business further.[7]

During the 1900 Siege of Ladysmith in the Second Boer War, a Bovril-like paste was produced from horsemeat within the garrison. Nicknamed Chevril (a portmanteau of Bovril and cheval, French for horse) it was made by boiling down horse or mule meat to a jelly and serving it as a beef tea-like mixture.[8][9] Bovril also produced concentrated, pemmican-like dried beef as part of the British Army emergency field ration during the war. The ration came in the form of a pocket-sized tin can that contained the beef on one half alongside a dried cocoa drink on another half. The dried beef could be eaten alone, or mixed with water to create a beef tea. [10]

Bovril continued to function as a "war food" in World War I and was frequently mentioned in the 1930 account Not So Quiet: Stepdaughters of War by Helen Zenna Smith. It describes the drink being prepared for the casualties at Mons where "the orderlies were just beginning to make Bovril for the wounded, when the bearers and ambulance wagons were shelled as they were bringing the wounded into the hospital".[11]

Bovril beef tea was the only hot drink that Ernest Shackleton's team had when they were marooned on Elephant Island during the 1914–17 Endurance Expedition.[12]

When John Lawson Johnston died, his son George Lawson Johnston inherited and took over the Bovril business. In 1929, George Lawson Johnston was made Baron Luke, of Pavenham, in the county of Bedford.

Bovril's instant beef stock was launched in 1966 and its "King of Beef" range of instant flavours for stews, casseroles and gravy in 1971. In 1971, James Goldsmith's Cavenham Foods acquired the Bovril Company but then sold most of its dairies and South American operations to finance further take-overs.[13] The brand is now owned by the Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever, which bought Bovril in 2001.[6]

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

Licensed production

Bovril is produced in South Africa by the Bokomo division of Pioneer Foods.[14]

Recipe changes

In 2004, Unilever removed beef ingredients from the Bovril formula, rendering it vegetarian. This was mainly due to concerns about decreasing sales, particularly from exports due to an export ban on British beef, as a result of the growing popularity of vegetarianism, religious dietary requirements, and public concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy.[15] In 2006, Unilever reversed that decision and reintroduced beef ingredients to their Bovril formula once sales increased and the beef export bans were lifted.[16] Unilever now produces Bovril using beef extract and a chicken variety using chicken extract.[17]

In November 2020, Forest Green Rovers Football Club announced a collaboration with the makers of Bovril to create a beet-based version of Bovril to be sold at their New Lawn stadium, where meat-based products had been removed from sale some years prior.[18]

Cultural significance

Advertisement for Bovril at Southsea, c. 1914
Bovril advertising token issued for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria

Bovril was promoted as a superfood in the early 20th century. Advertisements recommended people to dilute it into a tea or spread it on their morning toast. Some adverts even claimed that Bovril could protect one from influenza.[5]

Bovril jars are commonly excavated as part of archaeological assemblages, such as at Knowles Mill in Worcestershire.[19]

Since its invention, Bovril has become an icon of British culture. It is associated with football culture. During the winter British football fans in stadium terraces drink it as a tea from Thermos flasks – or from disposable cups in Scotland, where thermoses are banned from football stadiums.[20][21]

In the film In Which We Serve, the officers on the bridge are served "Bovril rather heavily laced with sherry" to warm them up, after being rescued during the Dunkirk evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force.

British mountaineer Chris Bonington appeared in TV commercials for Bovril in the 1970s and 1980s in which he recalled melting snow and ice on Everest to make hot drinks.

See also


  1. "Try Bovril and milk (advert)". The Sydney Mail. 1 July 1931. p. 23.
  2. Wainwright, Martin. "Bovril drops the beef to go vegetarian". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 May 2018. In Malaysia they stir it into porridge and coffee
  3. OED entry at bovine.
  4. Thompson, William Phillips (1920). Handbook of patent law of all countries. London: Stevens. p. 42. Retrieved 5 August 2009.
  5. Wong, Cecily; Thuras, Dylan (2021). Gastro obscura : a food adventurer's guide. New York: Workman Publishing Company. p. 2. ISBN 9781523502196.
  6. "Bovril". Retrieved 12 October 2015.
  7. "Money-Market and City Intelligence". The Times. No. 32638. London. 5 March 1889. p. 12.
  8. Watt, S. "Intombi Military Hospital and Cemetery". Military History Journal. Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging. 5 (6).
  9. Jacson, M (1908). "II". The Record of a Regiment of the Line. Hutchinson & Co. p. 88.
  10. "1899-1902 British Emergency Ration Field Service Oldest MRE Beef Eaten Survival Food Review Test" via
  11. Vivian, Evelyn Charles (1914). With the Royal army medical corps (R.A.M.C.) at the front. Hodder and Stoughton. p. 99.
  12. "Shackleton's men kept hope of rescue high; Marooned Scientists, Living on Penguin and Seaweed, Watched Daily for Relief" (PDF). The New York Times. 11 September 1916. Archived (PDF) from the original on 9 October 2022. Retrieved 11 May 2009.
  13. "Goldsmith". Archived from the original on 5 January 2009.
  14. "Pioneer Foods".
  15. Wainwright, Martin (18 November 2004). "Bovril drops the beef to go vegetarian". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 1 March 2017. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  16. "Unilever puts the beef back into Bovril". The Guardian. 1 September 2016. Archived from the original on 1 March 2017. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  17. "Bovril Unilever food brands". Archived from the original on 11 April 2012.
  18. "Rovers bringing Bovril back". Forest Green Rovers F.C. 1 November 2020. Retrieved 2 November 2020.
  19. Halsted, Jon; Hewitson, Chris; Booth, Tim (2010). Knowles Mill, Wyre Forest, Bewdley, Worcestershire - Historic Building Recording, Archaeological Evaluation. Birmingham: Birmingham Archaeology. pp. 14–22.
  20. "Bovril: It's a drink, a spread, even a crisp flavouring, and it was created in Edinburgh". The Scotsman. 8 June 2010. Retrieved 20 October 2013.
  21. Alexander Lawrie (7 August 2009). "Tribute to Scots Bovril inventor". Deadline News. Retrieved 20 October 2013.
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