John Lawson Johnston Vanity Fair Magazine 1897
Life and Times
John Lawson Johnston was the inventor of Bovril.
He was born in Roslin, Scotland (of Da Vinci Code fame) on 28 September 1839. His parents were William Johnston and Jane McWilliam.
John grew up to become a butcher.
Chronology of his life
- 1863 — At the age of 24, John came to Canada. While there, he came up with a recipe for fluid, liquid beef broth. He called it “Johnston’s Fluid Beef” at first.
- 1871 — On 29 June, he married Elizabeth Elliot Lawson (born 1851, Edinburgh) in Edinburgh, Scotland. The couple lived in Scotland until 1875; the first three of their children were born there.
- 1874 — The French had lost the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 – 1871. They decided that part of the reason they lost was poor rations for their soldiers. John won a contract to supply one million tins of beef over the next three years to the French government. He felt that he’d be better able to supply this quantity of beef in the New World.
- 1875 — At the age of 39, John returns to Canada, bringing his wife and children to Quebec City. There, their last two children are born. While there, he also worked on his liquid beef, and re-invented it as a concentrate. A concentrated version would be cheaper to ship as a consumer product. He made it from beef parts leftover from the tinned beef for the French government’s order.
- 1879 — John moves production from Quebec City to Montreal. During the Montreal winter carnivals, he would make an ice block building (as is typical of Winter Carnivals in Quebec) and from it sell warm Bovril drinks.
- 1884 — His Canadian operations are destroyed by fire. John decides to return to London, where he sets up shop in Old Street, Shoreditch. Within four years, he had his been concentrate being sold in pubs and grocery stores.
- 1887 — John registers the name “Bovril.” He had decided that Bovril would not only be a more appealing name than “fluid beef”, but that it would also be more accurate, now that the fluid was concentrated.
- 1888 — The now-iconic Bovril shaped brown-glass bottles are introduced.
- 1889 — The company moves to larger premises in Farringdon Street. Later, it would subsequently move back to Old Street, where it remained until a 1968 move out of London altogether to Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire.
- 1892 — John buys Kingswood House in Southwark, London. The house was originally built by a lawyer named William Vizard in 1811. John spent £10,000 on it to improve it, adding the entrance, north wing, and the castellations, which decoration caused others to nickname the house “Bovril Castle.” John’s Canadian connection came back when, after his death during the First World War, the house was rented by the Massey-Harris company, who used it as a Canadian army hospital. In 1919, the estate was purchased by the Vestey family, and remained in their hands until it was acquired by compulsory purchase by London City Council after The Second World War, during which it had suffered some bomb damage. Later, in 1956, it would be opened as a community centre and library for the area.
- 1896 — John sold the Bovril Company to E.T. Hooley for £2 million
- 1900 — Johnston died on 24 November 1900 in Cannes, France. He was buried at Norwood Cemetery in London.
- 1901 — Bovril was being sold by now in South Africa and in South America.
- 1908 — Bovril established its own huge beef ranch in Argentina by purchasing an existing slaughterhouse and existing ranches outside Santa Elena (about 450 miles / 725 km north of Buenos Aires) on the Parana River. Shorthorn cattle were raised. Bovril built a processing factory right in Santa Elena, which turned out corned beef as well as beef extract. The nearby town of Bovril (area code 3438) is named for the product. Bovril also had ranches in Australia. The Bovril Estates, as the holdings were called, were sold in 1970 by John’s grandson, Ian St John Lawson Johnston.
Many of the company’s records were destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.
For further information on Bovril the product, see the separate page on cooksinfo.com dedicated to Bovril.
1. William Elliot Johnston (1872-?)
2. George Lawson Johnston (9 September 1873 – 1943)
3. William John Johnston (1874-?)
4. Novah Elisabeth Johnston (1875-?)
5. Edward Allison Johnston (1877-?)
George became chairman of Bovril upon his father’s death. He also acquired a title in 1929, becoming the 1st Baron Luke, of Pavenham. His son, Ian St John Lawson Johnston, became the 2nd Baron Luke upon George’s death during the Second World War, and he, too, became a chairman of Bovril.