Thomas Cook (1808-1892)

With Christmas almost here again this is the time of year when – before the tree and decorations have even been removed – we start to look forward to the summer months, no doubt encouraged by the plethora of package holiday advertisements with seductive scenes of sun and sand which appear on our television screens between one festive movie and the next.

Such trips seem ‘of our time’ but their origins go back centuries – often being organised for mass religious pilgrimages. And, in the Victorian era, when Thomas Cook founded a company to provide arrangements for travel that were ‘simple, easy and a pleasure’ and in which he was ‘the willing and devoted servant of the travelling public’ – he was also inspired by religion.

An illustration of Thomas Cook's First Trip, organised in 1841

The grandson of a Baptist minister, Cook was born in 1808 in the Derbyshire market town of Melbourne. There he was trained as a wood-turner and cabinet-maker but on reaching the age of twenty he preferred to follow his heart - and soul - becoming a wandering preacher. He clearly had a yearning for adventure and discovery and his first publicly organised excursion in 1841 was a 12 mile railway journey which originated in Leicester and ended up in Loughborough to celebrate a temperance gala.

Such an outing was only made possible by the dawn of the railway era which had revolutionised the means and speed of travel. In the case of Cook’s first venture some 500 passengers paid a shilling each for their bookings, and that trip was such a success that Thomas Cook was soon being asked to organise more.

A Tour Party in 1868

By 1855, the business was turning a profit with regular railway excursions to cities such as Liverpool or Nottingham, and with European  ‘packages’ where tourists embarked on  a ‘grand circular tour’ which included visits to Brussels, Cologne, the Rhine, Heidelberg, Strasbourg and Paris where hotels and meals, even the exchange of foreign currency (by 1874 he had even devised an early form of travellers’ cheques) would all be organised by Cook.

There was such an interest in travelling that by 1865 a shop was set up in London’s Fleet Street, followed in1873 by an imposing head office that stood in Ludgate Circus, and all of this success was left in the capable hands of Thomas’ son John Mason Cook when, at the age of 63, Thomas indulged more personally in his enduring passion and set off on a trip of his own - a grand tour during which he travelled for 222 days and covered more than 25,000 miles when visiting Egypt and China via the Suez Canal, such a journey only being possible after its opening in 1863.

A Thomas Cook brochure cover from 1891

Sadly, there has been some recent news that the business, still in existence today, has been suffering from severe financial losses. But for almost 200 years Thomas Cook has been a thriving company that people felt they could trust in - as demonstrated by this short heritage advertisement –

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1 comment:

  1. I am not overly fond of Baptist ministers normally, but Thomas Cook is one of my very favourite Victorians.

    Great idea to indulge in his enduring passion and set off on a grand tour of his own, after a lifetime of providing great trips for everyone else :)

    222 days visiting Egypt and China etc suggests that by that time in his life, he had enough time and money to indulge himself.