Ernest Edward Cook 1865 – 1955
This serious boy, posing in a way very popular with Victorian photographers, grew up to be the founder of the Ernest Cook Trust; his family background exemplified the success of the rising middle class in the Victorian era and reflected the self-confidence and global outreach of the age.
Ernest’s grandfather Thomas Cook, though born in a humble labourer’s cottage in Derbyshire, grew up to head the internationally successful Thomas Cook Travel Agency. Thomas’s son John Mason Cook also went into the family firm and it was his organisational genius and great energy which extended the Cook empire even further. It was considered natural therefore that young Ernest should, with his older brother Frank Henry (1862-1931), also enter the family business. A third brother Thomas Albert, who died in 1914 aged 47, worked in the firm before his brothers acquired his share, after which he bought an estate at Sennowe in Norfolk, to which he moved.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two brothers Frank and Ernest found their forbears hard acts to follow though Frank in particular, who was an adventurous youth, enjoyed travelling and was good at acting as agent for the company in the more remote parts of the world.
Ernest, however, was a shy and retiring man who chose to work in the banking department of the firm at the main office in Ludgate Circus in London. There, conscientiously and efficiently, he worked to develop the banking and foreign exchange side of the Thomas Cook business for more than 30 years.
On his retirement in 1928, he and his brother unexpectedly sold the firm to Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits of Belgium for the sum of £3,500,000 – a fortune at the time.
This made Ernest a wealthy man and it allowed him to indulge his many interests – and eventually led to the foundation of the ECT. Ernest devoted the remainder of his life to the preservation of English country houses, the estates to which they belonged, the paintings and furniture which they contained and the well-being of the communities of which the estates were the pillar.
Why Ernest was passionate about landed estates is not at all clear as he was a Londoner born and bred, but it is understood he had a deeply sentimental love of ‘old England’. In buying estates he was preserving not only buildings and landscape, but the social, economic, architectural and environmental elements of rural life.
Ernest collected paintings and decorative arts; his first recorded acquisitions were made in late 1928 and 1929, when he bought ‘Thames at Twickenham’ by Richard Wilson, believed to have been one of his favourite paintings.
Cook was also an excellent connoisseur of architecture; his retirement home at No 1 Sion Hill, Bath with its Chippendale façade (affixed to the building by Cook having been rescued from demolition), was altered to house his extensive art collection. The collection which was, on his death, left to the National Art Collections Fund, was regarded as one of the most important ever bequeathed to the fund; nearly 100 museums and art galleries throughout England benefited from his generosity in this regard.
Ernest’s other interest was country estates, many of which were in a perilous state following the huge changes wrought by the First World War.
He went on to buy several country estates in the south of England as well as some very fine houses. These included the Assembly Rooms in Bath, Montacute House in Somerset, Bradenham House and Estate in Buckinghamshire and Great Matham (sometimes known as Great Maytham or Great Maythem), Buscot Manor and Estate and the Coleshill Estate in Oxfordshire which were all later given to either the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings or the National Trust.
In 1952, Ernest Cook established the educational charitable trust which bears his name and, between 1952 and 1961, seven of his remaining country estates were either assigned or bequeathed to the Trust. These were the Boarstall and Hartwell Estates and Penn Woods in Buckinghamshire, the Fairford Estate in Gloucestershire and the Little Dalby Estate in Leicestershire (1952), the Slimbridge Estate in Gloucestershire (1953) and the Trent Estate in Dorset (1961).
The original bequest has since been enhanced by the Trustees over the years in accordance with the wishes and interests of Cook.
The Hatherop Estate in Gloucestershire was added in 2002 and, in 2007, the Filkins estate, which was bequeathed by Sir John Cripps and his executors following his death in 1993, but which had been partly passed over to the Trust since then, was fully transferred to the Trust’s portfolio.
The Trustees continue to manage these estates using the best of both traditional and modern estate management principles. For more information about the estates in the present day, click here.
One other little known aspect of Ernest Cook’s philanthropy is the fact that he established the Fund for the Benefit of District Nurses with an anonymous gift of £100,000, to which he later added a further £60,000. It was only with considerable difficulty that Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who took an interest in the Fund, learned the identity of the donor!
This was typical of Cook’s self-effacing attitude, exemplified again by the fact that he was very upset when his identity as the person who had bought and given Bath Assembly Rooms to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, was revealed in 1931.
Ernest Edward Cook died on 14th March 1955 aged 89 years; the announcement in The Times said: ‘Cremation private. No mourning. No flowers please’. Cook’s legacy lies in the estates which have been preserved due to his generosity and the many, many organisations which have been enabled to educate children and young people in the subjects which so interested him.
Postscript: For five years until 2006, Tom Cook, descendant of Thomas Cook, Ernest’s brother, who died in 1914 (see above) and therefore a great-nephew of Ernest Cook, served as a Trustee of the Ernest Cook Trust. On his retirement from the Board he planted a sequoia tree in memory of his great-uncle in the grounds of the Fairford Estate. The sapling was raised from seed obtained from trees on his Estate at Sennowe in Norfolk.