Thomas Cook & Son – part of British Transport

Thomas Cook first showed enterprise in the travel business in 1841. Since the company’s recent demise, quite a few bits and pieces have appeared in print concerning its long history. These have omitted a certain amount of detail that I thought interesting and think some of my readers might too. I won’t repeat the early historical stuff which is reasonably well documented already.

The company was essentially family-owned until 1928, when Frank and Ernest Cook, the two surviving grandsons of Thomas Cook, retired. At that time the headquarters was in Berkeley Street, having moved there from Ludgate Circus in 1926. They sold the business to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens. Although Thomas Cook had been under English control, its substantial worldwide interests made the (Belgian) Wagon-Lits company a logical home (at that time it ran many international services).

At the start of the Second World War Belgium was overrun by the invading German army who took control of the transport system. As a consequence the assets of Thomas Cook were seized by the Custodian of Enemy Property in England. There were three Custodians, one each for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and these were set up on the eve of the 1939 war under the Trading With The Enemy Act, 1939. The custodians were to act as trustees of property and businesses in the UK that were actually owned by the businesses and individuals of enemy countries. The intention was not to confiscate the assets, but to hold them in trust until matters could be resolved at the end of the war, perhaps in the form of compensation. This process was carried out during the Great War, though not very well, and promises were given that a better job would be done this time around.

Thomas Cook was owned by the Belgians but was under German control. However the British business, though much circumscribed by wartime conditions, was capable of trading on its own account and it was desired the British side of the firm carry on regardless in Britain and accessible parts of the Empire. It was felt that this could not be satisfactorily arranged whilst in the hands of the Custodian. It would seem that there was a degree of government encouragement of the four main line railway companies to take over the Cook’s business which needed direction from those who understood its business. It took many months of discussion to resolve this but during 1942 a deal had been agreed, subject to the the railways jointly obtaining the necessary statutory powers. The four companies were sold 25 per cent of the equity in Thomas Cook and its subsidiaries for £1 each; the mechanism was that ownership of Thomas Cook was vested in Hays Wharf Cartage Co, a cartage company that was owned in equal shares by the big four railways. The finances of Cook during this very difficult period were slightly precarious and Hays Wharf agreed to make certain financial guarantees to Thomas Cook, and in turn each railway company had to back the guarantee, which caused a little disquiet amongst shareholders and required another Act to be passed. The railway companies did think there was a long term future for Thomas Cook after the war and pledged to keep the existing experienced management in place. The takeover involved only the tourist business and not the banking subsidiary, although the tourist business did operate a substantial traveller’s cheque operation.

In fact Thomas Cook’s logistical skills became a useful contribution to the war effort. A job that arose quickly was repatriation of large number of British tourists and businessmen stranded abroad when the countries they were in were unexpectedly occupied; they also arranged for foreign tourists to be quickly sent back home before transport became impossible. Early in the war Thomas Cook & Son was given responsibility for conveyance of private mail between the UK and occupied territories on the continent, the Post Office being prohibited from doing so directly under wartime conditions. The Lisbon office (Portugal was neutral) assisted the movement to the States and elsewhere of jews who had escaped from occupied Europe. Other offices may have done something similar and this is a part of the company’s history that might be better known.

At the end of the war, the main line companies compensated Wagon-Lits out of the resources of Thomas Cook and agreed to give back to Wagon-Lits 25 per cent of the overseas activities of Thomas Cook (but not of the UK business). This arrangement pertained on the evening prior to the nationalization of the railways on 1st January 1948 and explains how it was that Thomas Cook & Son became part of a nationalized industry. Readers may already know that the railways and all the odds and ends that came with them (which were substantial) became part of the unwieldy British Transport Commission (BTC).

As it happens, Thomas Cook was not the only travel agency finding its way into the BTC. Dean & Dawson was another company owned by the railways, this time wholly-owned by the LNER. Then there was British Holding Estates (BHE); this was 50 per cent owned by Thomas Cook and 50 per cent by the LMS. BHE had hoped to build a chain of holiday camps throughout the country but the war intervened and only one, at Prestatyn, was established. Thomas Cook also had a freight subsidiary, England and Parrotts Limited, which also meandered its way into the BTC.

From 1948, Thomas Cook became a wholly-controlled subsidiary of the BTC ‘not engaged in the principal activities of the Commission’. This meant it operated as far as possible as a stand-alone company controlled by its directors but with (most) shares owned by the BTC. For many years all branches of Thomas Cook in the UK, and many abroad, had stocked main line railway tickets and sold them as agents of BR by the million. We must remember that before the electronic age, and when travel within the UK by rail was pretty much the only way for people to get about, it was perfectly normal to buy one’s ticket in advance from a travel agent. My family did this all the time as it provided certainty of getting the ticket without the faff of going to a station and having to queue. The tickets cost the same as buying them at the station (the agencies got a commission and the opportunity to present you with holiday brochures at the same time). Thomas Cook remained profitable during its time with the BTC.

At the end of 1962 the BTC was abolished and the activities distributed amongst a number of successor boards. Those activities that did not conveniently sit amongst these successors were transferred to the Transport Holding Company: Thomas Cook was one of them. The THC was organized into divisions and most of its activities related to freight haulage by road or the operation of bus companies. In either case the holding company owned some or all the shares but the individual companies (of which there were well over a hundred) were stand-alone companies expected to produce a net profit. By comparison with the vast number of transport businesses, the Travel and Tourism division, substantially Thomas Cook, looked a bit thin, though in 1968 it was joined by Lunn-Poly a ‘reliable’ tour operator (my parents used it) which I doubt anyone knew was government-owned.

However, restless government activity resulted in the bus interests being shifted into the new National Bus Company, and the freight interests into the new National Freight Corporation, both with effect from 1st January 1969. An attempt was made to get rid of Thomas Cook during this process, but the move failed. This left an exceedingly lean Transport Holding Company with Thomas Cook and a small number of other diverse interests, mainly shipping. This arrangement could clearly not be left indefinitely and the remnants were disposed of with the holding company wound up in 1973. During the 1968 debates it was suggested that Thomas Cook was perhaps suffering because of the rapid overseas holiday competition that was developing and that government ownership was something of a constraint to responding adequately to this. In hindsight it is at least likely that whether or not it was a constraint, government ownership was of no assistance.

Thomas Cook was actually sold only in 1972, to a consortium of Britain’s Midland Bank, Trust House Forte and the Automobile Association, as random a collection of owners as one could find. Perhaps more focus was given after Midland Bank became sole owner in 1977. Midland (‘the listening bank’) had its own problems and sold Thomas Cook in 1992.

Some more about the history of the company can be found HERE, with some rather nice illustrations.

There is also some information about the Prestatyn Holiday Camp HERE.

I should add that there is great concern about the records of Thomas Cook which, before its bankruptcy, maintained its own record office available for research. You can see from what I have hinted at about its wartime activities that there is still a great story to be told. It would be very regrettable if the records should leave the UK or cease permanently to be available to the British public. Those interested in such things should keep eyes and ears open about the future of these records.


About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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