Thomas Cook (1808–92)

Thomas Cook was one of several entrepreneurs who in the mid-nineteenth century popularised railway travel throughout Europe through publications and through the organisation of excursions and holidays. Cook grew up in Leicestershire in the English Midlands and was apprenticed as a wood turner before working for a printing and publishing firm at Loughborough. In religion he was a Baptist, serving as an evangelist in Rutlandshire in the late 1820s.

He became an enthusiast for the Temperance movement, and on 5 July 1841 organised an excursion from Leicester to Loughborough for 500 temperance society members who each paid a fare of one shilling for the 20 km journey. This has often been called the first railway excursion, although similar trips were organised on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway soon after its opening in 1830. In 1845 Cook organised his first commercial trip from Leicester to Liverpool, for which he produced a 60-page guidebook, and the following year he arranged a tour to Scotland.

Cook had competitors in the organisation of excursions in the 1850s, including Henry R Marcus and David Lewis, but his skills and ambition enabled him to create a brand that remains powerful in the twenty-first century. His business gained impetus in 1851 when he arranged excursions for 150,000 people from the towns of the East Midlands to the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, and when he began to publish the Excursionist magazine to advertise his tours to potential customers. The magazine continued and was re-named the Travellers’ Gazette in 1902. In 1855 he made arrangements for an escorted tour that included the International Exhibition in Paris, his first venture on the continent of Europe. His long-distance business steadily increased. In 1863 he organised his first tour to Switzerland, and his first to Italy took place the following year. In 1865 his company moved to offices in Ludgate Circus in London. He hired two steamers for an excursion on the River Nile in 1869, and in 1872 personally escorted a small party on a 222-day round-the-world tour, crossing the Atlantic to the United States, then the Pacific to Japan, returning to England through China, India and the Suez Canal. At the same time Cook provided an increasing range of services for travellers. In 1868 he offered for the first time to provide coupons covering the costs of stays in hotels, and from 1874 issued circular notes, the forerunners of travellers’ cheques. His first Continental Timetable & Tourists’ Handbook, listing all the main railway and passenger shipping routes in Europe, and some beyond, appeared in 1873.

Cook worked in partnership with his son John Mason Cook (1834-1898) until he retired in 1879. John Mason Cook, and subsequently his sons, expanded the business internationally. The company was incorporated as Thomas Cook & Sons in 1924, and four years later was sold to the Belgian Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Its assets were seized during the Nazi occupation of Belgium during the Second World War but passed to the four British railway companies which were nationalised in 1948. The Cook business returned to the private sector in 1972 and the company continued as a large-scale travel agency until 2018, when it declared bankruptcy. It gave up publishing the Continental Timetable in 2013, although publication as the European Rail Timetable, without the Cook name, resumed in 2014.