The Holidaymaker: Who was Thomas Cook?

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A Thomas Cook magazine advert from the 1890s. Image via Alamy

When British tour operator and airline Thomas Cook collapsed at the end of September, it signaled the end of an era in leisure travel, but the history of the brand with humble roots lives on.

By the time family-owned Thomas Cook & Son was sold to Wagons-Lits in 1928, the British travel firm was already acting as a tour operator, guidebook publisher, money and exchange outfit and travel agency. Its foray into air travel came much later, of course – over 150 years after the company’s paterfamilias, Thomas Cook, led his first rail excursion for supporters of the British temperance movement in 1841. Though that trip was modest in nature – from Leicester, in England’s East Midlands where Cook was born, to Loughborough – the Thomas Cook brand of the late 19th and early 20th centuries went on to shepherd the middle classes, aristocracy and even royalty to far-flung places such as India, Australia and America.

Its growth into a commercial giant was largely due to the efforts of Thomas Cook’s son, John Mason Cook, who joined the family firm in 1864. Though Thomas Cook had tried to turn a profit, his goals until then were primarily spiritual, says Piers Brendon, historian and author of Thomas Cook: 150 Years of Popular Tourism.

A devout Baptist, Cook saw travel as a recreational alternative to the alehouse, which he and his fellow temperance adherents believed to be at the root of society’s ills. “He thought travel was uplifting, educational and good for international relations; it was integral to his mission to improve the lot of humanity,” explains Brendon.

However, Cook didn’t grow up traveling: He grew up poor, and at the age of 10 left school to work as a gardener’s helper. In his mid-teens, he apprenticed as a cabinetmaker and taught Sunday school, where he rose through the ranks to become superintendent. Just before his twentieth birthday, he abandoned cabinetry to pursue his religious calling as an itinerant missionary in the South Midlands, distributing religious literature, preaching and setting up Sunday schools. It was his first experience with travel, says Brendon. Cook also tried his hand at printing and journalism; he was a bookseller and opened a temperance hotel in Leicester.

A devout Baptist, Cook saw travel as a recreational alternative to the alehouse.

Cook understood that his role in brokering travel was not simply to procure cheap tickets for his patrons. For his early railway expeditions, which took people all over England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, he mapped out routes, provided handbooks and chaperoned women traveling alone. He personally accompanied many of his guests on these trips, where his dictatorial style earned him the nickname “the General.”

When Cook expanded his excursions to the European continent, he began to arrange meals and accommodation for his travelers – a kind of predecessor to the all-inclusive package the 21st-century Thomas Cook was known for. This style of trip came to be known as a “Cook’s tour.” “So popular was the excursion movement that many non-temperance people joined them. Indeed, some of them resented his beating the teetotal drum,” Brendon explains.

Though Brendon cannot be sure what Cook would have made of the company’s evolution, he does say that Cook would have been disappointed to hear that corporate greed or managerial incompetence may have had a hand in bringing the enterprise to its end.

“The Holidaymaker” was originally published in the 10.1 February/March issue of APEX Experience magazine.

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