This summer thousands of British people will book a ‘holiday’.

‘High Days and Holy Days’ were religious observances and ‘Saint’s’ days. We assume that before the Industrial Revolution people worked all the time, but before the ‘Factory System’ became the norm in the 1840’s -  this was not the case.

Most ordinary people worked flexibly in their own businesses, on farms or in households they worked for and were available for work every day, but didn’t work fixed hours and took time to ‘make merry’ or visit family to celebrate these religious or community events.

These disappeared with mechanisation and workers made the most of any time off they could get – usually only Sundays and Christmas Day.

Campaigns amongst the working class for votes and freedom to form Trades Unions came with those for time off and access to other benefits which was something Middle Class people already had using agencies like Thomas Cook’s (established in 1841) and an expanded railway network to visit country estates and former fishing ports-turned seaside resorts in addition to the ‘excursion trains’ offering day tickets at a knock down price for those on lower incomes.

What these customers didn’t have was the time or the funds to have an extended break. Anyone taking time off who do so unpaid until a national campaign in 1939 legislated for one week’s paid holiday for all. The image here of a car in the streets of Manchester's Co-op Quarter reflects this change as the prospect of European War was building that summer before being declare in September. Statutory time off increased to two weeks in the 1950s and doubled again in the 1980’s when a greater number of working class people were able to travel abroad for cheap ‘package deals’ provided as a result of price wars between established and new commercial travel firms.

Image from Co-operative Press Archive Collection - July 1939.

By the 20th Century, having a holiday might not have been considered an essential but it was in demand and was – like most things, provided for by co-operatives. Some small co-ops organised their own deals with railways companies and travel firms to secure cheaper trips for the members as well as ‘shop trips’ and outings for the workforce and their families. At the federated level, Co-operative Wholesale ventured into their own travel department in 1905 in order to use their bigger purchasing power to reduce costs further.

The idea started as the 'CWS Excursion and Travel Agency in the Paper and Twine / Stationers Department of the Federal Society in Balloon Street, Manchester. This was where the travel ads and holiday guide would be designed. There were trips to Northern France and Belgium - and even further on to Switzerland or the Black Forest in Germany, but most of the £80,000 turnover came from the traditional seaside trips for ordinary co-op members through their own societies.

Image from Royal Arsenal Co-operative: Travel office in a disused air-raid shelter, late 1940's.

The Worker’s Travel Association was formed after the Second World War and worked with CWS on establishing a holiday camp at Rogerson Hall in Lowestoft specifically for co-operators and ensuring that working class people – even those not associated with a co-operative, could go on holiday. Sir Edward Shackleton, Member for Preston, addressed the House of Commons in June of 1949 to campaign for a better approach, not only to encourage British people to take holidays for the good of the economy, but to provide better facilities for foreign tourists wanting to come to Britain.


“The Workers' Travel Association is a completely different body; to some extent it is a commercial body, and, as its name suggests, provides holidays primarily for the workers. The Travel Association is a body designed to develop the export of tourism—in other words, to persuade foreign tourists to come to this country and to assist in the provision of facilities, and so on. I may say that some of the leaders of the W.T.A. have played a considerable part in the development of the Travel Association of Great Britain. I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies, he will deal with the structure of the British Tourist and Holidays Board and the Government's intentions with regard to the Travel Association. There is a great deal of vitality in that body which should be given full scope. In particular, I think one should draw attention to the work of the research department, which has produced figures that have astonished me and undoubtedly have astonished all those who have seen them. It is important that we should have precise information about the tourist industry.”

Image from the Co-operative Travel Collection - 1961 'Youth Market Offer'

One of the reasons that the Co-operative College established a residential training facility at Stanford Hall, Loughborough in the 1940’s and moved away from Manchester City Centre was that increasing international students found it very difficult to find good food, accommodation and leisure in Manchester after the war. The city had sustained a lot of bomb and fire damage and tourism was not a priority for authorities. 

At this time; with peace and freedom of movement resumed - the travel department became a separate co-op with London headquarters in 1946 and at it’s highest point had a turnover of £3million, by this time organising coach trips in addition to rail travel. The hit 1963 film 'Summer Holiday' (starring Cliff Richard and the Shadows) was based on this new generation of travellers looking for adventure trips to Europe in the sun. Attempts to exploit this market included the controversial firm 'Club 18-30' who sold night-life based holidays in the 1990's before being bought out by Thomas Cook. 

In the 1980’s a decision was made to administrate ‘Travelcare’ through CRS (Co-operative Retail Services) as was one of the top five agencies in the market in the 1980’s and 90’s at the peak of access to cheaper flight networks and expansion of infrastructure in destination countries… but as the millennium approached, people began to approach booking holidays differently. More people were looking for adventure tourism as well as being able to save money by booking their own travel online as package holidays were beginning to be unaffordable as the typical two week break became one-week for most people.

Parts of the business were sold off and although some travel provision was retained by Central England Co-operative after a series of mergers in the early 2000’s, what remained of Travelcare was also bought out by holiday giant Thomas Cook in 2016. Although, buyouts were not enough to save Thomas Cook itself when it became a victim of the changes to the travel industry and was liquidated in 2019 after 178 years of trading.

 Co-op travel still exists as a brand in some of the independent retailers such as Mid-counties, East of England and Lincolnshire Co-op. Today’s co-op customers will still be interested in the cost of holidays but getting them through ethical suppliers is just as important – especially to younger generations wanting to find low carbon alternatives. Recent increases in cost of living, fuel and travel may mean that trends towards home-holidays such as camping and trips to the seaside will be longer lasting and our holidays in the long term could look more Victorian than we are used to!