Why historians are fighting to save Thomas Cook’s enormous archiveRoundup
tags: travel, business, tourism, archives, thomas cook
Stephanie Decker is a Professor in Organisation Studies and History at Aston University
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.
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.
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.
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