There's A Place Called Bovril Castle In South London

There's A Place Called Bovril Castle In South London

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A jar of Bovril and a castle-esque house
Bovril Castle is a real place - look. Image: Legirons/Marathon via creative commons

Like 'Spam Heights' or 'Findus Crispy Pancake Palazzo', Bovril Castle sounds like a made up place. It isn't though. It's in Sydenham.

OK, the official name of this crenellated country pile located a couple of minutes from Sydenham Hill station is Kingswood House — but in the late 1890s, it became home to the Scottish entrepreneur John Lawson Johnston aka 'Mr Bovril'.  In 1870, Johnston had been commissioned by Napoleon III to provide his troops with a million cans of beef, and the Scot came up with a meat extract, 'Johnston's Fluid Beef'. The name was later changed to Bovril; 'Bo' taken from 'bovinus' (Latin for cow) and 'Vril' being the name of some life-giving electromagnetic substance from a science fiction story by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Now that's a marketing pitch we'd liked to have seen.

A well dressed man with white hair
John Johnston, as depicted in Vanity Fair in 1897. Image: public domain

Though it continued to be used as a fortifying drink for troops (and indeed Ernest Shackleton and his men), Bovril soon became one of THE hot drinks of the masses. A beautiful factory was built in Old Street; adverts for Bovril appeared from Piccadilly Circus to tube trains; and everyone from cabbies to football supporters supped steaming mugs of it. As was often the case back then, many spurious claims were made about Bovril's efficacious properties, with some ads claiming that doctors and the Lancet medical journal, no less, said it was good for you. (Even the Pope advertised it.) Not only was Bovril sipped, it was used in sandwiches, soups, gravies — pretty much everything. It's a wonder the whole metropolis didn't smell of liquidated cow.

An advert for Bovril saying it's recommended by doctors
The border here appears to be an early example of SEO optimisation. Image © Reach PLC courtesy of the British Library Board
A silhouette of a castle
The best photo we could find of the temporary Bovril Castle at White City. Image © British Library Board

With his beefed-up fortune, Johnston moved into Kingswood House in 1891, and given that he was already nicknamed 'Mr Bovril', it wasn't a big leap for his stately pile to become known as Bovril Castle. It didn't have a steaming hot moat of Bovril, nor gargoyles fashioned like cow's heads, although in 1908, a second — more novel — Bovril Castle did make an appearance. This was at the Franco-British Exhibition in White City, and was a glorified stall, complete with battlements (over which three model bulls stuck their heads) and turrets flying the Union Flag/the Royal Warrant Holders' flag, which by now had been awarded to Johnston's bovine bevvy. This second Bovril Castle, it's said, symbolised Bovril as a 'tower of strength' (whatever that means), and thirsty exhibition goers could nip inside for a mug of delicious piping hot Horlicks. Only joking, it was Bovril.

A poster for Bovril showing a cow on a train
Image: public domain
A Bovril ghost sign on the side of a house
A Bovril ghost sign in Brixton. Image: Londonist

London's Old Street factory shut in 1968, when Bovril moved its operation to Burton, but the drink remains a part of London life for some — whether the occasional Bovril ghost sign, or mugs of the stuff still dished up at footy matches and in old school caffs. As for Sydenham's Bovril Castle, that serves as a reminder of a once-great empire founded on boiled up cows. You can go and see Bovril Castle any time (there's even a blue plaque outside), although it only opens to the public sporadically.

Last Updated 21 February 2024

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