The first part of the product's name comes from Latin bos (genitive bovis) meaning "ox" or "cow". The -vril comes from Bulwer-Lytton's once-popular 1870 "lost race" novel, The Coming Race (also reprinted as Vril: The Power of the Coming Race), in which a subterranean humanoid race have mental control over, and devastating powers from, an energy fluid named "Vril."
In the year of 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 Scottish man 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.
By the year 1888, in excess of 3000 British pubs, grocers and chemists were beginning to sell Bovril. In 1889, the Bovril Company was formed. 1966 saw the beginnings of Bovril's instant beef stock, followed by the 'King Beef' range of instant flavours for stews, casseroles and gravy in 1971.
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 (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 was based in Argentina, and at the height of the Bovril empire, the company owned ranches in Argentina that were equivalent in size to half of England and sustaining over 1.5 million livestock.
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 ninety hereditary peers elected to remain in the House of Lords of the United Kingdom after its 1999 reform.
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 ran: "The Two Infallible Powers - The Pope & Bovril".
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 in the country, 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. Beef extract was eventually re-introduced as a key Bovril ingredient in 2006, after the European Commission lifted its ban on the export of Britain's beef products.
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.