The collapse of Thomas Cook left 155,000 tourists stranded overseas, forcing the UK government to step in to orchestrate the biggest ever peacetime repatriation. The company’s 9,000 employees woke up on September 23 with no job. The focus is, justifiably, on the people immediately affected by this terrible news.
But it’s also important to take the long view. With this 178-year-old firm, its heritage is also about to be lost and a number of business historians—myself included—are fighting to save it.
Thomas Cook maintained a company archive in its Peterborough headquarters, which includes millions of written records and thousands of artefacts. This is an invaluable resource not just for the history of tourism, but also a record of innovation and social change that provides an unrivalled insight into Britain’s relationship with leisure and travel.
The company’s founder, Thomas Cook, invented tourism as we know it today, against a substantial public backlash from Victorian elites of the 19th century who viewed travel as the preserve of aristocrats and the wealthy. They were horrified by the notion they might rub shoulders with the riff-raff of the working and middle classes.
Newspapers at the time vilified Cook, even likening him to a “modern Attila,” who, with his “swarms of followers” like the “barbarian hordes of old,” would ravage the “fairest provinces of Italy.” When it started, the firm mostly offered group holidays, first in the UK and later abroad. These proved to be immensely popular with a clientele that had previously not had the means or knowledge to engage in this pastime.
Changing the narrative
Cook’s genius as a businessman was to make this new mode of travel socially acceptable. The firm opened its first office in London in 1861, and both the company and the man were attacked by the press and traditional wealthy “traveller” (they called themselves travellers as opposed to mere tourists) for most of the 1860s. Yet by 1877, Cook had successfully changed the narrative. The press now celebrated his role in cultivating tourists as knowledgeable travellers. The wealthy and the aristocracy even starting using his travel agency when travelling to more exotic destinations, such as Egypt.
This social history of tourism and the strategies used by the firm to make its innovative business model socially acceptable can all be gleaned from the resources maintained in the firm’s archive, which is now at risk of being lost as a result of the company’s collapse.
There is historical precedent here. The Wedgwood Archive and Art collection was nearly lost after the company’s collapse in 2009, but is now managed with help from the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was one of many major companies that failed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis—including Woolworths Group, Lewis’s of Liverpool, Comet, Clinton Cards, and Borders—leaving their heritage at risk.
In response, the Business Archives Council created a crisis management team, which has worked hard to save some of these historical records. By 2017, the team has handled 100 such cases. Nevertheless, the number of archives that can actually be saved is unfortunately lower, because they are dealing with a number of challenges.
The crisis management team first engages with the administrators, liquidators, and receivers that handle a collapsed company. While some are sympathetic to heritage concerns, others are focused on getting the maximum value out of what’s left of the business. Company records are rarely a priority for this, unless they contain significant art collections. And in those cases, there is a risk of this being sold off to satisfy the creditors.
More often, many administrators ignore the issue of heritage in the face of more pressing concerns. So in many cases, archivists cannot gain access and secure the records at all, and these important resources are simply lost.
Where records can be protected, the next hurdle is to find a home for them. The millions of records and artefacts in the Thomas Cook archive need to be stored in suitable conditions and made accessible to the public. An archive that is not used will not survive for very long.
Thomas Cook, despite its demise, is still a brand loved by many. Since the Business Archives Council started its call for support, they have received nearly 100 emails in support of the Thomas Cook archive and are contacting the liquidators to find a way to save it. It is easy to forget that Britain is a country whose identity was shaped by its businesses as much as by its pioneers in other fields. Saving archives is a crucial way to preserve this.