After its inception in the mid-19th century, the travel agency Thomas Cook pioneered the development of mass tourism, launching the world’s first travel guidebooks, package holidays and round-the-world tours.
Thomas Cook grew from humble beginnings, carrying temperance activists to meetings by train in the English Midlands, into a vast multinational company. In the 19th century, its tours catered to increasingly wealthy Victorians during the height of the British Empire, successfully championing a travel revolution.
But in 2019, Thomas Cook declared bankruptcy. It was the world’s oldest and longest-serving tour operator at the time, having existed for more than a century and a half and endured world wars, economic crises and the rise of the internet.
Here’s the story of Thomas Cook and the advent of global mass tourism.
Thomas Cook (1808-1892), a devout Christian and advocate of the temperance movement, organised a one-day rail excursion for a temperance meeting in 1841. The trip, on 5 July, involved a train journey between Leicester and Loughborough, courtesy of an arrangement with the Midland Counties Railway Company.
Cook continued this practice over the following years, organising railway journeys for temperance activist groups around the Midlands of England. In 1845, he organised his first for-profit excursion, in the form of a trip to Liverpool for passengers from three locations – Derby, Nottingham and Leicester.
For this tour, Cook crafted a passengers’ handbook, now widely considered a precursor to the popular travel guidebook that would be produced to accompany travel excursions for decades to follow.
Branching out to Europe
By the 1850s, Cook had his sights set further afield than England. For the Paris Exposition of 1855, for example, he organised guided trips from Leicester to Calais.
That same year, he also oversaw international ‘package’ tours, carrying parties from England to various cities in Europe, including Brussels, Strasbourg, Cologne and Paris. These excursions offered passengers everything needed to sustain them on their journeys, including transport, accommodation and meals.
By the 1860s, Cook’s sporadic temperance trips had grown into a profitable mass tourism operation – thought to be the first in global history. In response to his newfound success, Cook opened his first high-street store in London’s Fleet Street in 1865.
That same year, the London Underground opened as the first subterranean railway in the world. London was the most populous city on the planet at the time, and the enterprises of the British Empire saw wealth pouring into mainland Britain. With this came disposable income and, by extension, more Britons willing to spend large sums on international holidays.
For Cook, business was booming.
After tackling Europe, Thomas Cook went global. Now a father-son business comprising Thomas Cook and his son, John Mason Cook, the tour agency launched its first US tour in 1866. John Mason guided it personally.
A few years later, Thomas Cook escorted passengers on the company’s first trip to North Africa and the Middle East, stopping in Egypt and Palestine.
Tourism for Britons at the time was intimately tied to the endeavours of the British Empire. As British armies entered Egypt and Sudan in the late 19th century, so too did tourists, traders, teachers and missionaries, eager to capitalise on the newfound accessibility of far-flung nations and the relative safety offered by the presence of British forces there.
Thomas Cook and Son was even responsible for delivering military personnel and mail to British Egypt in the late 19th century.
1872 marked a huge moment in the history of Thomas Cook and indeed global tourism. That year, Thomas Cook escorted the first known round-the-world tour. The lengthy excursion, which lasted more than 200 days and covered nearly 30,000 miles, was targeted at wealthy Victorians – those with the time, funds and proclivity to see the world’s many cultures.
In that decade, Thomas Cook also helped invent the traveler’s cheque: the company offered a ‘Circular Note’ to its passengers which could be exchanged for currency around the world.
In the 1920s, Thomas Cook and Son launched the first-known tour through Africa. The excursion lasted some 5 months and took passengers from Cairo in Egypt down to the Cape of Good Hope.
Conquering air and sea
John Mason Cook took over primary leadership of the company in the 1870s, overseeing its continued expansion and the opening of various new offices around the world.
With this expansion came the launching of Thomas Cook’s company-owned steamers in the late 19th century. In 1886, a fleet of luxury steamers opened to passengers, offering cruises along the Nile.
Thomas Cook eventually took to the skies in the 1920s, overseeing its first guided tour involving air travel in 1927. The trip carried 6 passengers from New York to Chicago, and also included accommodation and tickets for a Chicago boxing fight.
Into the modern era
During World War Two, Thomas Cook was briefly enlisted to assist with the ‘enemy mail service’, essentially the covert delivery of post from Allied regions to occupied territories.
The company went on to change hands several times during the 20th century, yet it managed to stay afloat despite various buyouts, economic crises and the rise of online travel agents.
In 2019, Thomas Cook was handed a bill of some £200 million by the Royal Bank of Scotland and other financial institutions. Unable to source the funds, the company declared bankruptcy.
At the time, Thomas Cook was responsible for more than 150,000 holiday-goers abroad. When the company collapsed, new arrangements had to be made to return every stranded customer home. The UK Civil Aviation Authority, which assisted with the repatriation efforts, called it the largest-ever peacetime repatriation in British history.