Wednesday 21 August 2019 6:49 am

Going to party like it’s 1919: Time to celebrate the centenary of some of the UK’s most important companies

This coming Sunday marks the centenary of an important anniversary. On 25 August 1919, the world’s first daily international scheduled flight took place. 

There was only one passenger on board the flight between London and Paris, along with cargo which included newspapers, Devonshire cream, jam, and grouse.

The carrier was Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited, founded by George Holt Thomas, a precursor of today’s British Airways. So in a few days’ time, BA will mark its one hundredth birthday. 

It may be that, after the recent lengthy delays and cancellations faced by travellers at airports, not everyone will feel like singing Happy Birthday. But this landmark of our national champion merits applause, respect, and celebration.


In fact, 1919 was an action-packed year, as Britain tried to return to normality after the trauma of the First World War. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it does seem to have been an unusually fertile year for the founding of businesses, as 2019 marks some other significant corporate anniversaries.

Take, for example, the grocery giant Tesco, which also turned 100 this year. 

In 1919, fresh out of the air force, the entrepreneur Jack Cohen set up a group of market stalls in Hackney. He used £30 of money he had received after demobilisation from the armed forces. 

Over time, Cohen built up Tesco using his flamboyant personality and a willingness to take risks, establishing a network of stores. 

Ironically, Tesco became even bigger in the years following Cohen’s death in 1979. By the late 1990s, it was the giant of the high street, responsible for £1 in every £7 spent on retail, and was embarking on some daring overseas ventures.

As well as Tesco, William Owen Bentley founded his eponymous company in 1919. The first Bentley was built in Marylebone, took nine months to make, and was ready just in time for the first post-War London Motor Show at Olympia in November 1919. 

Bentley remarked that he hoped the car “could be pushed all day long at 60 or more miles per hour over almost any sort of road surface”.


We sometimes forget that the UK has some of the biggest and best companies, which have created jobs, prosperity and value all over the world. 

They have also sparked the growth of small businesses through their supply chains. Above all, they show that the UK is engaged with the world, and have carried our “national brand” to far flung parts of the globe.

Whether you are a resisting Remainer or an optimistic no-deal Brexiteer, the strength of the UK’s corporate sector is something that we should all be proud of. 

When the likes of George Holt Thomas, Jack Cohen, and William Owen Bentley set up their companies in the mists of time, they had no idea what they had done. 

They would scarcely believe that their creations have grown to be such large and important companies in the UK today. These landmark anniversaries this year are a salutary reminder to cherish and support our corporate champions.

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