Virol Lady

When I was child living in Tufnell Park in the late 1940s a regular feature of my Primary School week was the arrival of the Virol Lady. She would turn up every Monday morning and dole out to anyone with a penny in their pocket a spoonful of Virol, a brown, sweet and incredibly sticky Malt Extract. She came equipped for the job with a jumbo sized jar of the miracle cure along with a massive key ring strung with hundreds of battered spoons. You paid your money, then Virol Lady took the next clean spoon on her giant ring, scooped out a dollop of the brown goo from the jar and gave it to you. I cannot remember if the woman took the spoon off the ring or whether you had to slurp up the Virol with the jangling keyring swinging in front of your nose. I can remember that the next customer always got the next clean spoon.

Martyn 1953

My first introduction to philosophy came as I wondered if the Virol Lady actually washed all the spoons once they had been used or did she simply recycle them in their ‘sucked and sticky’ state. Did we know? Did we care? Discuss.

Although we were all probably healthier in the late 1940s and early 1950s than we are now, what with wartime rationing on virtually everything we ate and loads of exercise, (few families had cars in those days), there was the lingering fear that we were undernourished. The new formed Welfare State kept us topped up with free orange juice, cod liver oil and dried milk but for over anxious parents there were additional supplements they could buy like Roboleine, Radio Malt, Haliborange, Metatone Liquid Tonic and probably the most popular as far as children were concerned – Virol. Tasty!

Kanga and Roo

Virol was a by-product of the brewing industry, packed full of nutrients, including vitamins A, B and D, riboflavin, malt, sugar, egg, orange juice and refined fats. Small wonder that in ‘The House at Pooh Corner’, Kanga gives baby Roo malt extract as a “strengthening medicine”.

Virol Enamel Sign

Virol. Anaemic Girls Need It!
Virol. Growing Boys Need It!
Virol. The Delicate Child Needs it!

Virol certainly went down a treat in my neck of the playground. It was sweet and very tasty but did we need it? My memory of those times is unclear. We were skinny but we seemed healthy enough. Allergies, complicated dietary requirements and general ‘special needs’ were largely unrecognised. Some children were just deemed to be ‘fussy’, ‘difficult’ or ‘unruly’. There were plenty of things lurking out there to kill us including polio, the London smogs and TB but without fast foods, sugary drinks, pizzas and snacks we somehow survived.

Come, Hygiene, goddess of the growing boy,
I here salute thee in Sanatogen!
Anaemic girls need Virol, but for me
Be Scott’s Emulsion, rusks, and Mellin’s Food,
Cod-liver oil and malt, and for my neck
Wright’s Coal Tar Soap, Euthymol for my teeth.

JOHN BETJEMAN – Cornwall in childhood

A SPOONFUL OF VIROL

virol display

  • 1899 Virol was produced experimentally by Bovril, in their Old Street factory in London.
  • 1900 The company was registered on 20 January, to take over the business of manufacturing and selling the food known as Virol.
  • 1900s Demand grew and Bovril set up Virol as a separate company.
  • 1920 The production of Virol moved to Perivale, Middlesex, where the premises were larger and more modern.
  • 1929 Listed Exhibitor – British Industries Fair. Manufacturers of Virol, *Virol*ax, Virol and Milk. (Stand Nos. K.21 and K.32)
  • Pre-WWII. Virol became associated with Ambrosia to produce Virol and Milk in direct rivalry with Horlicks.
  • WWII. Sometime during the wartime period, production ceased as it proved too costly to manufacture.
  • Post-WWII. Virol changed hands several times.
  • 1971 Bovril, (and therefore Virol) was taken over by Cavenham Foods.
  • 1977 Virol was sold to Janks Brothers of High Wycombe.
  • 1979 Optrex bought Virol

Although Virol seems to have disappeared – along with the yo-yo, Dick Barton and the Beatles – you can still buy Malt Extract from Holland and Barretts made to the same recipe. According to Virol fans it is still as yummy as ever!

— from Martyn Day