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image Thomas Cook Excursion

It was in June, 1841, that a cabinet-maker, Thomas Cook, was walking from his home in the small English village of Market Harborough  Leicestershire, to attend a temperance meeting, the popular Victorian social movement against the consumption of alcoholic beverages, in Leicester, some 15 miles away. It was during this walk that Cook had the idea of hiring a steam train to transport the members of his temperance society on an outing, to further the cause of temperance in local towns and villages around Leicester. And so, Thomas Cook hired a train, with open carriages, to transport 500 people from Leicester to Loughborough, a total of 12 miles for one shilling, return. Tourism was born, but there were a few teething problems, especially the poor souls nearer to the steam engine at the front. Dust and coal soot would have been a major problem to early tourists and a good wash and change of clothes at the destination was probably needed.

image Thomas Cook Tours poster
In 1845, just four years and several local trips later, Thomas Cook organised his first fully commercial venture, a trip to Liverpool. This was a project carried through by a meticulous man who not only invented tourism, but also introduced first-class and second-class tickets and, at the same time, published a small booklet about what his passengers could see and experience – the world’s first holiday brochure.
Cook went from strength to strength and by the end of 1863 he had established circular tours to Switzerland. These were such a resounding success that he extended his tours across the Alps. In the summer of 1864 Thomas Cook was taking his first Italian tours to Florence, central Italy, Rome and Naples.
With Thomas Cook now well established as an international tour operator, other companies both in Britain and Europe started to get in on the act.

The rest is commercial history and Thomas Cook, tour operators, are still going today, though you’re not likely to see them guiding people on tours in open railway carriages, but rather on their own fleet of commercial airliners.

image of Thomas Cook Aircraft

By 1872 Thomas Cook had formed a business partnership with his son, John, and had renamed the travel agency to Thomas Cook & Son. The business acquired premises on Fleet Street, London.

Merchandising was seen by the business every bit as important as the actual holiday tours they sold. Their office also contained a shop selling such essential travel accessories as guide books, telescopes, luggage and of course, sensible footwear. And in a nod to his temperance beliefs that had started the business in the first place, Cook and his wife also ran a temperance hotel in the rooms above his office.

There is a delicious irony to this story. Just consider, while you are being the tourist on your holidays and you are sat on your recliner, on a beach or by a pool, sipping your cocktail, wine or beer, spare a thought for Thomas Cook. All those years ago he unwittingly did more to promote the drinking of alcohol than what he really wanted to do, to promote his temperance cause to stop people drinking alcohol.

Isn’t life a bitch sometimes?

Tom Kane © 2018


This piece was written in 2018. Today, 23rd September 2019, it was announced that Thomas Cook’s had gone bust after 178 years in business.


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