Wick Curiosity Shop

The Collection

Everyday Archaeology





Hackney Wick

These old set of bovril bottles are only some of those found by Charlie Charman on his plot at the former site of the Manor Garden Allotments on the banks of the river lea and now within the Olympic Park where they plan to carve away the river bank and put up a giant TV screen for the Olympics. Other curious dig finds include ceramic eggs used to induce hens to lay. "Several times while in the allotments I saw shadowy figures crawling under the entrance gate and crossing the bridge over the river, where they'd disappear out of site along the overgrown bank. Exploring down there, I found numerous large holes had been excavated and many abandoned old bottles and artifacts which presumably weren't considered valuable enough to take away. Among them were dozens of Bovril bottles in a range of sizes and ages. The bottles are late Victorian/early 20th C and there must be thousands of them under Hackney Wick, much of which was constructed on refuse tips".

Wikipedia states that Bovril was invented in 1886 by Scotsman Scotsman John Lawson Johnston and was originally formulated to feed Napoleon's troops on the Russian front, as a way of overcoming the problems of transporting meat. According to this account by Unilever, who own the Bovril brand, the name comes from the Latin 'bos' for beef + 'vril' which an 'electric fluid' which 'Johnston came across in a book'. This book would have been 'The Coming Race' by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, an early science fiction novel published in 1871. In it an ancient civilisation have learned to master a mysterious source of energy called the 'Vril fluid'. Conspiracy theorists believe the book gave rise to a secret Vril Society which included senior Nazi figures.
At the time these bottles were in use Bovril was being made in a big factory down in Shoreditch on Old Street. It must have been a temple of Victorian industry as this account of a visit suggests:

Nearly 3,000 doctors from all parts of the country recently visited the great Bovril factory in Old Street, London, and were entertained to lunch. Every county contributed its quota, including doctors from the far North of Scotland, and the remote parts of Devon, Cornwall and Wales. The visitors were welcomed by Sir George Lawson Johnston (Chairman), the Duke of Atholl, K.T. (Vice- Chairman), and other members of the Bovril board, and were then conducted in parties over the premises.

The processes of manufacture were followed with the keenest interest, from the blending of the extracts and essences in the great steam-jacketed pans, each capable of holding the concentrated juices of 300 oxen;and the incor-poration with these of the beef fibrin and albumen which are so important a factor in the nutritive value of Bovril to the automatic filling, capping, labelling and boxing of the bottles. The finished Bovril
is conveyed by pipes to the filling machines from the great storage tanks on the flooi above, each of these wonderful machines being capable of filling 400 gross of bottles per day. The final item in the programme, which was also much appreciated, was a cinematograph display of scientific films illustrating the activities in the blood of various micro-organisms. Nowadays boiled down beef carcases don't have quite such a healthy
reputation and from 2004 - 2006 Bovril was a completely different 100% vegetarian product.

IMAGE: Bovril. Alas! my poor Brother Based on the original design by W. H. Caffyn
S. H. Benson (advertising agent)
About 1905 VAM Collection.Museum no. E.147-1973