John Lawson Johnston, the son of William and Jane (nee McWilliam) Johnston, was born in Roslin in Midlothian in 1839. Although his father initially worked in the gunpowder works close by Roslin and latterly became a shoemaker, John first decided on butchery as a trade and served his apprenticeship with his uncle, John Lawson. Both John Johnston (as he was first called) and his older sister, Elizabeth were living with their uncle and aunt at 1 St John Street, Canongate in 1851 although the butcher’s, where John learnt his trade, was at 180 Canongate. Today the shop no longer exists, but was on the site of the present day Moray House College of Education building; Johnston’s shop is known to have been located to the east of St John’s Close on the Canongate.
John had been educated in Edinburgh and it is thought that he may have intended to take up a career in medicine. Whatever the truth of this, he did study with Lyon Playfair, professor of chemistry at the University of Edinburgh and no doubt it was through this connection that he began and developed his interest in food chemistry and preservation.
By 1862, John Lawson Johnston is recorded as the sole tenant of the butcher’s shop on the Canongate and it would have been here that he carried out his very early experiments with what would come to be called ‘Johnston’s Fluid Beef’ – later, ‘Bovril’.
Archival material in Edinburgh City Archives records that by the mid 1860s, he also owned a property at 194 Canongate which was, at that time, rented out commercially to an individual running a grocery business from it; even in his mid-20s it seems, Johnston had a keen eye for business opportunities. From such small beginnings Johnston was to go on to build a commercial enterprise worth £2 million by the mid-1890s.