Cook's Tours: The Achievement of Thomas Cook

Danny Wells, our October speaker, travelled from his home near Ashbourne in Derbyshire to present an absorbing fact-packed talk about Thomas Cook, the founder Cook's Tours. Born in Melbourne, Derbyshire on 22nd November 1808, his early life betrayed little indication of the direction he would later take. Leaving school aged 10 years, he found employment as a gardener and then as a seller of vegetables on Derby Market. In 1824, he moved to Market Harborough where he established a business as a cabinet maker. Whilst living there he married Marianne Mason, a farmer's daughter from Rutland. Always deeply religious, he had been a local Baptist preacher since his late teens and by 1828 he was swept up in the rapidly developing temperance movement. This movement arose as a consequence of the passing of the Beer Act in 1830. Designed to promote beer drinking as a more benign substitute for the scourge of gin, it had the opposite effect by encouraging the opening of so-called "public houses" (that is, homes with a room for the sale of beer). Not surprisingly, there was a consequent increase in drunkenness. The temperance movement was a reaction, which sought to tackle this problem by diverting the public from leisure drinking to more fruitful pastimes, or "rational recreation" as it was called. Thomas enthusiastically set up the Midland Temperance Press in Leicester to broadcast "The Word" and provide acceptable reading material for leisure times.

Danny told the story that Thomas, walking the fourteen miles to Leicester one day, realised that he could utilise the new-fangled railway to transport large groups of people on temperance excursions. Thus arose his first excursion from Leicester to Loughborough at a third class price of one shilling. This package was keenly snapped up by the local populace, who by now had a little disposable income from factory work to spend on their Sunday days-off. Over 500 travelled in open carriages on 9th June 1841, a date that must surely go down in history as the beginning of the package tour industry.

Thomas was in the right place at the right time. Not only was there growing disposable income, but there had arisen a new middle class of relatively wealthy entrepreneurs with money to spend. Hill walking, visiting the seaside for its healthy climate and taking the waters at fashionable spas was now all the rage. Mobility was on the increase. The written word, through books and newspapers, coupled with increased literacy meant that horizons were widening. So did Thomas's ambitions. He moved his touring operations to larger headquarters in Leicester. He promoted an ever-widening range of tours to country houses and historic cities. Visiting "romantic Scotland" became all the rage. Popularised by Sir Walter Scott's novels and patronised by Queen Victoria, Scotland took off as the destination to visit. His travel business had a big boost in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition. For Thomas, it ticked all the boxes. Strictly teetotal, it was educational and paraded the power and prestige of the Empire. His trains took 165,000 people to London in the 146 days of the Exhibition, thus exposing even more potential future customers to his services. However, Thomas did not neglect his support for the temperance movement. The imposing Temperance Hall in Leicester was erected by him at this time.

Soon after he married, a son, John Mason Cook, was born. Thomas's relationship with his son was not always amicable. John was however, cast in his own father's image and, by the 1860s, had virtually sidelined him; pressing on with even more innovative and far flung tours. The popular European destinations of Italy and Switzerland came first and then in the late 1860s the Middle East, especially the Holy Land, joined the list of itineraries. By the 1880s there were few areas in the world that had not heard of Cook's Tours. In 1872, the company had relocated to grand new offices in Ludgate Circus, London, where they were to remain for the next 50 years.

The company continued to grow under John's stewardship. Thomas retired, to die in 1892, aged 83. His fortune of 250,000 was left to his three grandsons; John, of course now owned the Company. By now it was a force to be reckoned with. During the relief of General Gordon's forces in Khartoum, the company's monopoly of steamers on the River Nile led to the British Government hiring them to transport the expeditionary relief force down the river. However, the Company's tours of battlefields, where many British subjects had perished, and the subsequent profits from them, did not go down well with everyone and seemed to conflict with the Cooks's moral principles.

Danny's talk left John and the Company at the turn of the twentieth century. It is worth reflecting, however that when father Thomas was born the terms "tourist" and "sightseeing" were unknown. Whilst it would be easy to explain the Company's success as simply being in the right place at the right time, we must appreciate that Thomas was a bold visionary; no one had ever contemplated the concept of mass tourism which he developed single-handedly. As his contemporaries commented, "he conquered distance". His grave and that of his wife Marianne lies in Welford Road Cemetery, Leicester and his statute stands outside Leicester Railway Station.

Roger Hockney
October, 2018