Special Report: Althams celebrates in style as it turns 150

Juliet Dennis reports from Burnley as agency holds summer ball to mark milestone

Althams Travel staff have each been awarded a £150 ‘thank you’ bonus as the firm celebrates its 150th anniversary – making it the UK’s oldest travel agency still trading on the high street.

To mark the occasion the agency’s annual summer ball pulled out all the stops to include extra entertainment and announced its workforce of just over 200 staff would all receive a bonus payment in their next pay packet.


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Managing director Sandra McAllister told staff: “This is a thank you bonus of £150 to show our appreciation; you are worth every penny and I want to say how grateful I am. Be proud to work for Althams Travel.”

She credited staff with going out of their way to look after customers, from helping them with online banking to taking their shopping home.

McAllister also revealed the company plans on July 23 to recreate the first excursion run by founder Abraham Altham in 1874 to Blackpool. This took customers in a charabanc, an early form of motor coach, and signified the start of Althams’ travel business.

The outing took place 33 years after the first organised travel agency excursion by Thomas Cook in 1841 – but Cook’s collapse in 2019 lifted Althams into the position of longest‑serving current high street agency.

The following year, in 1875, the company – which started a decade earlier as a grocer’s and became tea merchants – took 7,000 customers on excursions, with each of its 64 branches boasting a travel counter.

In 1969, Althams became Althams Travel Services, reflecting the fact travel had become its core business. The company, alongside Cook, was a founder member of Abta. McAllister attributed the company’s successful survival on the high street to the way staff are looked after and the way it has retained it family ethos.

She said: “The core family values have been ingrained in the company since it started. I have always felt valued and I noticed that when I started at the company 33 years ago as a branch manager. I have always believed in treating staff well; I know everyone in the company by name. I don’t want to lose touch. I feel like one of the staff; I know what it’s like in the branch and how difficult it can be.”

McAllister, who still makes holiday bookings, took over as MD when Eddie Starkie left in 2018. He served 60 years in the business.

Since then, McAllister has met and lobbied prime minister Rishi Sunak, her local MP, to highlight the industry’s plight during the Covid pandemic, and introduced a ground-breaking four-day week in 2022.

The latter change saw staff keep the same pay and stores continue to open six days a week.

The shift in working patterns, which had been due to be introduced in April 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic, had long been a personal priority of McAllister’s.

She credited the four-day week with “dramatically” reducing staff turnover and “changing the mentality” towards work, with better service and fewer sick days.

“Where I can make staff lives better, that in turn means they give better service and the four-day week has proved that,” she said.


57 years not out: Stalwart Peter Mackie has no plans to retire

Althams Travel general manager Peter Mackie is 73 – and has no plans to retire yet.

He has been at Althams, headquartered in Burnley, Lancashire, for 57 years, starting at its Halifax branch as a junior in 1967.

As its current longest-standing employee, the fact he is still at the company speaks volumes.

“I enjoy it. If I didn’t, or felt I couldn’t contribute, I wouldn’t still be here,” he says.

Mackie joined from school, aged 16. “It was between Althams and a building society – travel was more interesting. I’ve never looked back,” he says.

He met wife-to-be Cheryl while managing the Otley branch, where she also worked, and later rose up the ranks to become area manager, sales manager and general manager, with responsibility for all branch properties and the relationship with landlords.

He remembers the travel chain when it still had grocery stores in the 1960s, while big collapses, such as Clarksons in 1974, are still fresh in his memory.

Recalling that operator’s failure, he says: “I remember having to be in work when clients were banging on the doors because they had no holiday.”

But he says some of his best times have been in recent years, adding: “We are a good team, and while I am still enjoying it, I have no intention of retiring.”


Long-time employees

“I started at 16 in the travel division in head office, issuing car ferry tickets and continental rail tickets, and progressed up to become PA to the managing director. Althams is just so friendly; we’re like a family.”
Karen Mason, administrative director – 49 years at Althams

“I worked in our Bolton branch as a travel consultant and progressed quickly. I’ve been a regional manager for more than 20 years, looking after all our branches. A lot has changed. Branches used to do their own promotions, marketing, hiring and firing, and everything was manual. I have stayed because I love the way the company is run.”
Sue Mulligan, regional manager – 44 years at Althams

“I worked at Althams my entire career from the age of 16 as a trainee at the Accrington branch. At Althams you are a person, not a number. When I started, it was a very male environment; now it’s very female-orientated. It’s been phenomenal since Sandra became managing director; if you have happy staff that’s all you need.”
Beryl Towne, regional manager until retirement earlier this year


Looking back: The history of Althams Travel

1864: Founder Abraham Altham starts his career as a wholesale grocer in Burnley, Lancashire – but soon earns himself the title of the ‘prince of tea and travel’.

1872: Altham’s empire grows to 64 branches after he expands into the tea trade and opens branches in locations including Blackburn, Darwen, Halifax and York. To reward clients, he offers gifts based on how much tea they buy, from mugs to teapots. Customers buying the best brands are given ‘tea cheques’ to put towards rail tickets sold in many Althams stores.

1874: On July 23, he organises his first excursion for patrons to Blackpool – his first foray into the travel industry and the start of Althams as a travel agency. By 1877, as travel counters start to appear in stores, the business carriers about 15,000 customers on 30 arranged trips – still regarded as a means to increase tea sales.

1885: Abraham Altham dies, aged 44, but the company continues to progress selling both tea and travel.

1960s: As supermarkets start to appear, the company decides to concentrate soley on travel, changing its name to Althams Travel Services in 1969.

2024: Today, Althams employs 213 staff and has 33 branches and eight homeworkers.

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