Saved for the nation: the survival of the Thomas Cook archive
In September 2019, the international travel firm Thomas Cook collapsed. Thousands of jobs were lost. People were left stranded on holiday or without the holiday they had paid for. The business entered into compulsory liquidation and The Official Receiver was appointed liquidator.
The firm began in 1841 in Leicester. The company had internationally important archives and artefacts. This collection of over 300 shelves had been extensively used by Thomas Cook and external researchers. Stored at head office in Peterborough, the collection was at risk of being broken up and sold. Widespread concerns from researchers and the archive community were voiced on social media.
The Business Archives Council and Crisis Management Team for Business Archives (CMT) stepped in to secure the archive’s future. They negotiated with The Official Receiver and insolvency firms tasked with winding up Thomas Cook. 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. The panel included the Business Archives Council, The Official Receiver, archive and academic communities. On 28 November, the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland (ROLLR) was informed that their bid had been successful. Thomas Cook had to vacate its head office by the end of 2019. ROLLR staff had three weeks to plan and complete the transfer of the collection.
Three months following collapse of business.
- Unprecedented reaction on social media showed the importance of the archive to researchers. Messages about its potential break-up were collated as evidence for the liquidator. These were vital in showing the collective value of the archive and helped prevent its dispersal and piecemeal sale.
- Effective communication was key. A meeting took place between insolvency firms acting on behalf of The Official Receiver, Thomas Cook staff and archive professionals representing researchers and museum sector advice. This allowed each to express their views and understand each other’s position.
- Insolvency practitioners are bound to a code of ethics. This requires them to understand the 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. It also demonstrated that a strategy was in place and provided assurance to the liquidator. This framework is useful for other situations.
- The enthusiasm and skills of ROLLR’s staff were matched with strong support from senior figures in ROLLR’s parent local authority and cultural heritage and research organisations. ROLLR could submit a convincing bid containing a clear vision for the future of the collection. ROLLR’s tight management of the transfer and help from stakeholders ensured successful deposit.
- As independent professional entities, the CMT and Business Archives Council could represent the heritage sector and engage with all parties.
Six high value artefacts were sold on the instruction of the liquidator. The archive and most artefacts, including a First World War memorial window, are now in public ownership at ROLLR. They are available for research and enjoyment for generations to come.