British and Commonwealth Holdings

British and Commonwealth Holdings plc was a financial services company which used to be a constituent of the FTSE 100 Index.

British & Commonwealth Holdings
Public company
IndustryFinancial services
FateWent into administration
HeadquartersLondon, UK
Key people
John Gunn (CEO)


The Company was originally established in 1955 when Clan Line Steamers was merged with Union Castle[1] to form The British & Commonwealth Shipping Company,[2] a shipping business. Until 1987 its major shareholder was Caledonia Investments, which since 1951 has been controlled by Clan Line's founding Cayzer family.

British & Commonwealth were the ultimate owners of British United Airways (BUA), Britain's largest wholly private, independent airline of the 1960s, as well as its subsidiaries and sister companies, including British United Air Ferries and British United Island Airways (BUIA). They were also a shareholder of Bristow Helicopters, at the time the UK's biggest helicopter company as well as one of the largest in the world,[3] acquiring full control in 1985.[4]

In 1969 British and Commonwealth Shipping, Furness Withy, P&O and The Ocean Steamship Company established Overseas Containers Limited to exploit containerisation.[5]

In late 1970 British & Commonwealth sold BUA along with three new BAC One-Eleven 500 aircraft it had leased to the airline to Caledonian Airways for £12m. It continued to own BUIA, which had changed its name to British Island Airways (BIA) in July 1970.[3]

1980s boom and bust

In the 1980s, new management under John Gunn oversaw rapid expansion in financial services. This wasn't a totally new area for the company: it had established fund managers Gartmore in 1969.[6] Multiple acquisitions included Exco International, a UK money brokering business in 1986,[7] and Oppenheimer, a large American fund management company.

At its height, the company was said to be "the largest financial services company in the UK, if the 4 high-street banks are excluded". Favourable profiles in the business press culminated in John Gunn being awarded the accolade "Guardian Young Businessman Of The Year".

In 1988 it acquired Atlantic Computers plc, a computer services business for £434m, having first built up a stake in that company by way of a series of market purchases.[8] The acquisition proved ruinous – "accounting irregularities" were discovered in Atlantic's books: the company had been building up huge contingent liabilities due to its 'Extended Paperwork' practice.

Both acquiror and acquiree subsequently went into administration (the former in 1990,[8] the latter during the late 1990s[9]). Until its collapse, British & Commonwealth had also been the majority shareholder of Air UK, at the time the UK's largest regional airline and BIA's successor, and also Servisair the airline and cargo ground handling company based, at the time, in Bramhall.

See also


  1. "Cayzer family braced for Caledonia showdown". 7 June 2001. Retrieved 6 February 2011.
  2. Redhill Aerodrome History
  3. High Risk: The Politics of the Air, pp. 256/7
  4. "British & Commonwealth acquires remaining interest in Bristow Helicopter Group". 31 December 1985. Retrieved 6 February 2011.
  5. "The Ocean Steamship Company". Ocean Liner Museum. Archived from the original on 7 January 2009. Retrieved 6 February 2011.
  6. "Ian Cadby leads Liberty Ermitage MBO: Myners to chair new company". Retrieved 6 February 2011.
  7. Chairman is appointed at Exco International New York Times, 8 January 1987
  8. Law Lords Department. "Judgments – Soden and Another v. British & Commonwealth Holdings Plc. and Others". Retrieved 6 February 2011.
  9. Manners, David (4 March 2009). "''The Ten Takeovers Which Destroyed Most Shareholder Value: 10. British and Commonwealth Holdings – Atlantic Computers 1988'', ew blogs – MANNERISMS (Ruminations on the electronics industry from David Manners),". Electronics Weekly. Retrieved 6 February 2011.


  • Thomson, Adam (1999). High Risk: The Politics of the Air. London, UK: Sidgwick and Jackson. ISBN 0-283-99599-8.
  • Eglin, Roger & Ritchie, Berry (1980). Fly me, I'm Freddie. London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-77746-7.
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