by Eben van Tonder
26 May 2020


I came across this Anglo-Boer War photo of medical staff in the Bloemfontein Concentration Camp posted online by Elria Wessels. For those who are not familiar with the history, between 11 October 1899 – 31 May 1902, England fought a war against two independent Boer republics in Southern Africa to gain control of the lucrative gold and diamond fields of the Johannesburg and Kimberly areas.  Unable to win the war against a determined foe, they placed the women and children in over a 100 concentration camps while they enforced a scorched earth policy and burned down the farmhouses of the Boers. This provides the background for the photo.

I was struck by the prominence of the Bovril poster in the photo, appearing very deliberate and staged.  Further investigation revealed a fascinating history.

The Name: Bovril

The name, Bovril, comes from the Latin bovīnus, meaning “ox”. The inventor, Johnston, added the suffix, -vril, from a contemporary popular novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race (1870). It is a story of a superior race of people, the Vril-ya. They derived their power from an electromagnetic substance named “Vril”. Bovril is therefore great strength obtained from an ox. (Phillips, 1920) The essence of the meaning of the name is given in an advertisement in 1899 where it is claimed that it is “the vital principle of prime ox beef.” (Western Mail (Cardiff, South Glamorgan, Wales) 24 January 1899)

The Inventor: John Lawson Johnston

John Lawson Johnston

Johnston was born in 1839 in Roslin near Edinburgh where he was also educated. He studied dietetics. It was said that he pursued the discipline with a “thoroughness and pertinacity” with such “good purpose that, when, after the close of the Franco-German war, the French Government determined to thoroughly investigate the question of food concentration and preservation, he was chosen, as its Commissioner, to proceed to Canada, and make a thorough investigation of the subject. ” (The Isle of Man Weekly Times, 1900)

He was successful in the task given to him and “the French Government conferred on him the Fellowship of the Red Cross Society of France”. It is said that he realised the dream of Liebig to develop a beef concentrate “that should contain not only the stimulative extracts but also the nourishing fibrine and albumen of the beef.” (The Isle of Man Weekly Times, 1900)

“Returning to England he enlisted the cooperation of Lord Playfair, the friend and assistant of Liebig; Sir Edmund Franklin, Dr. Farquharson, and other leading scientists were quick to perceive the great value of Mr. Johnston’s invention. With their powerful endorsement and Mr. Johnston’s determined assiduity, Bovril soon became recognised as the embodiment of the latest scientific ideas on the subject of dietetics.” (The Isle of Man Weekly Times, 1900)

From the beginning, the invention had military applications as a prime objective and the British army became an important consumer of the new invention. The Marker: The British Army during the Anglo-Boer War and British Run Camps in South Africa. With a wide application in war theatres around the world, the South African War created a hungry market both from the perspective of supplying the British forces, including their hospitals and the concentration camps housing the Boer women and children. I am sure it would have included the many POW camps set up in Ceylon, India, Bermuda, St. Helena and in South Africa such as the Sea Point camp. It is here where our interest began because of the Bloemfontein photo of Elria Wessels.

I did some digging and found advertisements in British newspapers at that time, referencing its application in this war.

The Standard (London, Greater London, England), Fri, Feb 2, 1900
The Newcastle Weekly Courant (Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England), 25 November 1899
The Standard, (London, Greater London, England) Tuesday, February 13, 1900

The Key Differentiator: What Makes it Different from Beef Extract

The following advertisement makes it clear what sets Bovril apart from all other beef extracts.

Belfast News Letter, (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) Wednesday, March 16, 1898
In the preparation, the highest quality of beef is used as opposed to meaty bones and other scraps of meat, used in the production of meat stock in the late 1800s. The advertisement states that it contains both the “NUTRITIVE as well as the STIMULATIVE constituents of Beef.” The terminology is outdated, but it is relatively easy to transfer it into modern day vernacular.
An 1896 publication explains the difference between the two. The author states that beef extracts at the time were analysed and found to contain “the mineral matter and soluble flavoring extractives of the meat only; the albuminous matter to which beef owes its nutrient value, being rejected during preparation.” (The New Idea)
It describes the process of making extracts of beef as follows. Meat is soaked in water. The resulting broth is strained through a linen cloth which is boiled down to a soft extract. During the boiling process, the albuminous matter is dissolved out of the meat. Due to the heat, it coagulates and in the straining process, is removed. What is left has the flavour of the meat, but contains no nutritional value. (The New Idea)
The effect of boiling temperature upon albuminous matter is illustrated by poaching an egg. “The water in which the egg is poached, if boiled down, would yield and extract about as nutritious as the extracts of meats prepared in this way.” (The New Idea)
As far as STIMULANTS of beef, this refers to the fact that such extracts contain the inorganic salts and organic bases of the meat “upon which its stimulating properties depend.” They then make the point that this does not mean that it is nutritional. (The New Idea)
Contrary to beef extracts, then, Bovril retains all the nutritional value of beef.

Mass Marketing: The Role of the Bovril Company

What set the South African War apart from all previous wars was the unprecedented use of war correspondents and cinematography. One news report claims that it was the first mass media war. “The newly literate masses of industrial Britain, serviced by advances in printing and distribution, turned out to be avid consumers of newspaper and magazine reports about the war. There was a demographic inevitability about this – between 1841 and 1900 the literacy rate shot up from 63.3% to 92.2% – and a corresponding inevitability that public opinion would begin to figure in military calculations. The paper that was really to benefit was the Daily Mail. It launched in 1896 with about 400,000 readers; by 1900 it had nearly 1m.” (Bringing it all back home)
“The conflict was also the first to be recorded in its entirety by the sharp lens of cinematography. The newly established Biograph and Mutoscope Company was represented by the pioneer cameraman William Dixon, who travelled out to the Cape with Churchill (for the Morning Post) and the Guardian’s special writer, John Black Atkins. From behind the huge elm-wood box of his machine, Dixon and his assistant took film which – sent back regularly to play in packed London music halls – would give the public a closer perspective on warfare than ever before.” (Bringing it all back home)

The Bovril company became one of the first companies to capitalise on these developments. They recognised the glutenous consumption of war reports by the British public and, probably on account of the widespread use of Bovril in the war theatre, they seized on the opportunity to use this for marketing purposes. The Guardian article (Bringing it all back home) describes this very well. Looking at many Anglo-Boer War photographs, one can see many are staged. The author of the article writes that “the need to get close-up human interest in film meant that events were restaged for the camera. Others simply never happened at all – setting the model for wartime fakes of our own time. A famous painting of the relief of Ladysmith shows Buller (the relief column general) and White (in command of the town) shaking hands heartily. “Nothing of the sort ever happened,” Nevinson would later write, amused at finding prints of the painting on the walls of pubs after the war. The image’s ubiquity lay in the fact that the Bovril company, recognising its power, used it as a marketing tool: collect so many coupons and get your free Relief of Ladysmith print.” (Bringing it all back home)

The Elria Wessels-photo that started the fascinating inquiry does, in other words, not portray the full extent of the war-marketing done by the Bovril company and it will be interesting to try and find more war photographs featuring Bovril as well as the coupons spoken about.

Bovril: A Legendary Brand and Legendary Product

Reference: The Province. Thursday, November 5, 1925

Further Reading

The meat of the issue: Bovril



Belfast News Letter, (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) Wednesday, March 16, 1898

The Isle of Man Weekly Times (Douglas, Isle of Man, England), 22 December 1900.

The New Idea: A Journal of Commercial Pharmacy, Volume 18, Issue 1; January to February 1896.

The Newcastle Weekly Courant (Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England), 25 November 1899.

The Province. Thursday, November 5, 1925 Thompson, William Phillips (1920). 

Handbook of patent law of all countries. London: Stevens.

The Standard (London, Greater London, England), Fri, Feb 2, 1900

The Standard (London, Greater London, England) Tuesday, Feb 13, 1900


Leave a Reply