History in the Present: Saving the Thomas Cook Archives

By Zoë Jackson

On September 23, 2019, the British travel company Thomas Cook suddenly went out of business. The company had been dealing with financial issues for years. But its end was abrupt enough as to catch hundreds of thousands of travellers in the middle of trips or looking forward to trips planned with the company.[1]

In person and online, there was a range of reactions to the announcement of the company’s closure. But the reactions I was most interested in were those of scholars in my social media network. Historians, history organizations, and historical journals urged their followers to help save the Thomas Cook archives.[2]  Some noted the archives were already at risk due to Thomas Cook removing their archivist in May 2019.[3] In their online pleas, these historians were not as concerned with the economic or legal implications of a major travel company shutting down, but with the urgent need to rescue the records of the company before they were forgotten or destroyed.

At first glance, such an event has little connection to my own research into female memory in seventeenth-century England. My research relies on central court records held in The National Archives, not posters and pamphlets from a modern company. But in contributing to the effort to save the archives of Thomas Cook, these historians, and the other individuals who joined in the conversation, were participating in a centuries-old discussion: what will get saved? What should get saved?

The experience of Thomas Cook and its records fits into several trends in the historical study of archives and recordkeeping. Michel Duchein, the former Inspector General of the Archives de France, traced the development of modern archives to the early nineteenth century, when archives shifted from being ‘only “historical” repositories’ to keeping ‘papers originating from functioning institutions’.[4] Even before this change, though, Ann Blair demonstrates that the early modern focus on archives was connected to ‘the fear that documents might be lost through violence, or through simple neglect’. In early modernity, these fears reflected contemporary events threatening records, including the English dissolution of monasteries and Spanish rebellions in the sixteenth century.[5] Like the Thomas Cook archive, people in these earlier periods realised that important, contemporary documents could disappear if no active effort was made to preserve them.

Thomas Cook started his company in Leicestershire in 1841.[6] It is known for having transformed the world of travel, described by The New York Times as having ‘specialized in low-cost package holidays that put beach vacations in exotic locales within the budgets of middle-income Britons’.[7] In an article for The Conversation, Stephanie Decker, Professor of Organisation Studies and History at Aston University, articulated why this particular archive was so important to rescue. She attributes Thomas Cook with creating modern tourism, at a time when travel was seen as a luxury reserved to the elite, and credits the company with making group trips ‘socially acceptable’.[8]

Organizations have been established with the specific intent to preserve the histories of companies like Thomas Cook. The Business Archives Council (UK) lists as one of its objectives to ‘Promote the preservation of business records of historical importance’.[9] Decker describes how the Council set up a ‘crisis management team’ to preserve the records of companies that collapsed in response to the 2008 financial crisis.[10] In the United States, organizations like the Society of American Archivists’ Business Archives Section make sure the needs and goals of corporate archivists are clear, and institutions like the Hagley Museum and Library aim to preserve the histories and records of American business.[11]

In the end, the Thomas Cook archives were saved. Led by efforts by the Business Archives Council and the Association of Business Historians to preserve the company’s records, and working with the Official Receiver of Thomas Cook, regional archives were able to submit proposals outlining why they should host the records. On January 13, 2020, the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland announced that it had won a bid to host the travel company’s archives.[12]

Thomas Cook, as a popular company, offers an example and, perhaps, a lesson for historians and non-historians alike. While historians may think (more often than most people) about how the products of today will be interpreted by future generations, the dramatic and public collapse of Thomas Cook brought attention to the company and its almost 200 years of significance to the tourism industry. The records in question didn’t belong to an organization defunct years ago but to a company with which hundreds of thousands of people today interacted. In saving the records of the Thomas Cook company, historians facilitated future research into travel and business history, but they also brought attention to a process that has implications for any historically-minded modern person.


[1] Ceylan Yeginsu and Michael Wolgelenter, ‘Thomas Cook Travel Company Collapses, Stranding Thousands’, New York Times, 23 September 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/23/travel/thomas-cook-airline-collapse.html.

[2] For examples, see Mark Roodhouse (@illegalmarkets), ‘#twitterstorians and .@UkNatArchives, what now happens to the #ThomasCook historical records?’, Twitter, 23 September 2019, https://twitter.com/illegalmarkets/status/1176017236701720576; Laith Shakir (@L_Shakir), ‘Researchers (esp in the UK): your voice is needed to help save the Thomas Cook archive!’, Twitter, 29 September 2019, https://twitter.com/L_Shakir/status/1178359286038183937; and JTH Official (@JTransportHist), ‘People: you’ve seen the bad news about Thomas Cook. We *urgently* need to secure the archives, hugely important in the history of transport & mobility’, Twitter, 23 September 2019, https://twitter.com/JTransportHist/status/1176119066743988224.

[3] Andrew Humphreys, ‘Goodbye Paul Smith’, Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel, published 15 May 2019,  http://grandhotelsegypt.com/?p=3014.

[4] Michel Duchein, ‘The history of European archives and the development of the European archival profession’, American Archivist 55, no. 1 (Winter 1992): 18, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40293621.

[5] Ann Blair, ‘Introduction’, Archival Science 10, no. 3 (September 2010): 198. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-010-9131-0.

[6] Katie Prescott & Francesca Gillett, ‘Thomas Cook: The much-loved travel brand with humble roots’, BBC, 23 September 2019,  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-49789073.

[7] Yeginsu and Wolgelenter, ‘Thomas Cook Travel Company Collapses, Stranding Thousands’.

[8] Stephanie Decker, ‘Why historians are fighting to save Thomas Cook’s enormous archive’, The Conversation, 30 September 2019, https://theconversation.com/why-historians-are-fighting-to-save-thomas-cooks-enormous-archive-124435.

[9] ‘Home’, Business Archives Council, accessed 27 March 2020, https://www.businessarchivescouncil.org.uk/.

[10] Decker, ‘Why historians are fighting to save Thomas Cook’s enormous archive’.

[11] ‘Business Archives Section’, Society of American Archivists, accessed 27 March 2020, https://www2.archivists.org/groups/business-archives-section; ‘Research’, Hagley Museum and Library, accessed 27 March 2020, https://www.hagley.org/research.

[12] Robin Jenkins, Jenny Moran and the Staff of the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, ‘Thomas Cook Comes Home’, The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, published 13 January 2020, http://www.recordoffice.org.uk/news/thomas-cook-comes-home/.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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