Saved for the nation: the survival of the Thomas Cook archive
In September 2019, the international travel firm Thomas Cook failed, leading immediately to the loss of thousands of jobs and people stranded on holiday or without the holiday they had paid for. The business entered into compulsory liquidation and The Official Receiver was appointed liquidator. Founded in 1841 in Leicester, the firm’s internationally important collection of archives and artefacts, over 300 linear shelf metres, had been extensively used both by Thomas Cook and external researchers. Stored at head office in Peterborough, the collection was suddenly placed at risk of being broken up and sold. Widespread concern was quickly voiced by researchers and the archive community across social media.
The Business Archives Council and Crisis Management Team for Business Archives stepped in to negotiate with The Official Receiver and insolvency firms tasked with winding up Thomas Cook to secure the archive’s future. The timescale for the emptying and sale of the head office building was very tight. Archive services interested in offering the collection a new home were invited to submit a bid by 22 November 2019. The bids were considered by a panel made up of representatives from the Business Archives Council, The Official Receiver and the archive and academic communities. On 28 November, the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland (ROLLR) was informed that their bid had been successful. ROLLR staff were left with three weeks to plan and complete the transfer of the collection, as Thomas Cook had to vacate its head office by the end of 2019.
Three months immediately following collapse of business.
- An unprecedented number of messages shared on social media evidenced the importance of the Thomas Cook archive to researchers and level of concern about its potential break-up. These were collated and channelled into a coherent message for the liquidators. The messages were vital in emphasising the collective value of the archive and helped prevent its dispersal and piecemeal sale.
- Effective communication was key. In particular, a meeting attended by insolvency firms acting on behalf of The Official Receiver, Thomas Cook staff and archive professionals representing the collective voice of researchers and advice from the museum sector allowed each to express their views and understand each other’s position.
- Insolvency practitioners are bound to a code of ethics which requires the practitioner to understand specific context and acquire up-to-date knowledge to manage implications of actions around a company’s winding up and the disposal of assets, including archives. This encouraged the liquidator to listen to and act on advice outlined by the archive sector.
- Developing a robust, transparent framework with clear processes for submitting and assessing bids and transferring ownership assisted services submitting bids, demonstrated that a strategy was in place and provided assurance to the liquidator. This framework can be used in other situations.
- The enthusiasm and skills of ROLLR’s staff, matched with strong support from senior figures in ROLLR’s parent local authority and local cultural heritage and research organisations, enabled ROLLR to submit a convincing bid containing a clear vision for the future of the collection. ROLLR’s tight management of the transfer and targeted requests for assistance from internal and external stakeholders were effective in ensuring successful deposit.
- Acting as independent professional entities in the proceedings, The Crisis Management Team and Business Archives Council were able to represent the archive sector and engage with all parties.
Six high value artefacts were sold on the instruction of the liquidator. The archive and the rest of the artefacts, including a First World War memorial window, are now in public ownership at ROLLR for research and enjoyment for generations to come.