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We’re All Going On A Summer Holiday: The Rise of Thomas Cook

Grounded for good: tour operator Thomas Cook has entered insolvency. Photograph by Adrian Pingstone.

This week’s news of Thomas Cook’s bankruptcy marks the end of a British business that had its origins in a radical, inclusive vision of travel for all. Founded in Leicester in the early 1840s, the firm was perhaps the nineteenth century’s greatest force for popularizing and democratizing travel. Although the firm and its clients were often criticized by conservative commentators as a vulgarizing and destructive influence, Cook’s promotion of ‘excursion’ travel allowed a huge number of ordinary British men and women to experience travel in a way that would have been unimaginable for their parents and grandparents. In doing so, Cook transformed the fields of tourism and leisure.

Founded in the early 1840s by temperance campaigner, printer, and Baptist preacher Thomas Cook, the firm quickly expanded from its origins providing day excursions to temperance meetings to become a national and then global travel agency. Propelled by Cook’s formidable organizational and entrepreneurial skills – and later by his son John Mason Cook’s even more impressive business acumen – the firm built on its early temperance excursions, offering tours of Scotland and Wales, cheap transport to London for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and then foreign excursions from the mid-1850s. Cook negotiated relatively cheap fares for his mass outings, making excursion travel affordable for a wider spectrum of society.

From the Thomas Cook archive: A Cook’s Tour, Palestine, 1870s. Photo credit: Anthony Bale

However, Cook was also the beneficiary of a range of developments in mid-Victorian society. Travel historian James Buzard points out that his enterprise was ‘fuelled by steam power’. The rapid expansion of the railway network allowed him to organise rapid, efficient group travel in a way that would have been impossible in earlier decades. As Cook himself said, ‘Railway travelling is travelling for the million; the humble may travel, the rich may travel’. Meanwhile the growth in real incomes and an increase in leisure time (including paid bank holidays from the early 1870s onwards) allowed many more ordinary people to contemplate taking holidays in the first place. The days when travel for pleasure was the prerogative of young aristocrats on the Grand Tour were already well and truly over by the time Smith started to offer his excursions.

Cook’s biographer Piers Brendon notes that ‘Cook did not invent tourism or the conducted tour’. He did, however, have the prescience to identify a vast potential market, and the determination to overcome considerable obstacles. At the time of his first excursion to Scotland, for example, the railway networks of Scotland and England were not yet linked, necessitating a train journey from Cook’s Leicester base to Fleetwood, then a steamer voyage to Ardrossan on the Ayrshire coast, before rejoining the Scottish rail system. Cook’s first Scottish trips were not a great success – in fact he briefly went bankrupt in 1846, before rapidly bouncing back to take advantage of the new rail link between Newcastle and Edinburgh, as well as offering tours of the Lake District and north Wales. By the 1860s he was regularly transporting thousands of tourists north of the border, and he later acknowledged that Scottish tourism had been a key factor in transforming his fortunes. Foreign excursions to Europe, Egypt, India and beyond soon followed (not to mention a brief foray into military adventurism, when in 1884 John Mason Cook agreed to transport the British expeditionary forces attempting to relieve the beseiged General Gordon at Khartoum) and by the latter decades of the century the name Thomas Cook had become synonymous with mass tourism.

From the Thomas Cook archive: A Cook’s tourist’s photograph album, late nineteenth century. Photo credit: Anthony Bale

Cook’s innovations included not just what would become known as the package holiday, but also the whole concept of ‘through ticketing’ – buying a single ticket which would be honoured across a whole series of railways and at numerous transport hubs – and the concept of the travellers’ cheque, in the form of Cooks Circular Notes, coupons that could be exchanged at participating hotels, banks and ticket agents. He was also relatively progressive in his attitude to women travellers, who often faced prejudice and suspicion. A first-hand account in the Thomas Cook archives by the Lincolne sisters, four middle-class women from Suffolk who joined Cook’s first foreign trip to the Rhine in 1855, recalls the objections they faced from male acquaintances, ‘the gentlemen thinking we were far too independent, and bringing up various objections’. Having Cook as guide not only silenced these objectors but also smoothed the passage through unfamiliar territory for the women: ‘We found the greatest comfort in having such a friend as Mr Cook to whom to look in every difficulty, to take from us the perplexity of selecting hotels, arranging with landlords, procuring railway tickets, exchanging money, or learning the times of trains, &c’.

It was this very ease, and the ability it gave for a new kind of traveller to experience foreign countries, that caused disquiet among some observers. If Cook was emblematic of popular tourism, for some critics his clients also represented a model of passive, mindless consumption that they regarded as at odds with their own ethos of high-minded self-improvement. Ironically, given Cook’s own Nonconformist, temperance and strictly respectable approach, and the rather genteel nature of many of his clients, the word ‘Cookite’ soon became a term of disapprobation, used to denote a thoughtless, boorish type of Briton abroad. It was often used indiscriminately to label any lower middle-class traveller, whether or not they were actually using Cook’s services.

The novelist Charles Lever’s 1865 attack on Cook for sending out ‘low-bred, vulgar, and ridiculous’ members of the lower classes to Italy (where Lever was then living and working as British consul), would set the pattern for many elite criticisms of mass tourism in the years that followed. Much of this criticism was, like Lever’s, a matter of straightforward snobbery. Minnie Thackeray, visiting Zermatt on her honeymoon with Leslie Stephen in 1867, wrote that her hotel was ‘swarming with the most alarming kind of vermin’, and that the town she had formerly regarded as a kind of ‘little heaven’ was now being ‘inundated with beings of the contemptible shopkeeper order’. This kind of social distaste was often directed at Cook’s clients, despite their generally respectable behaviour and social standing. Other criticisms were couched in the language of conservation and the preservation of wild, unspoiled natural places, but underneath they were often motivated by the same distrust of the masses. As John Ruskin put it when an extension of the railway network to the northern outpost of Keswick in the Lake District was proposed: ‘I don’t want them to see Helvellyn when they’re drunk’.

From the Thomas Cook archive: Jerusalem postcard, late nineteenth century. Photo credit: Anthony Bale

In reality, as some of the documents in the Thomas Cook archives make clear, Cook’s tourists were far more likely to be lively, engaged and curious than drunk. The archives – currently housed at the bankrupt firm’s headquarters in Peterborough but now facing an uncertain future – contain a rich selection of material from Cook’s history. It is true that some accounts tend to confirm the reputation of British tourists abroad. The Lincolne sisters, for instance, recall one member of their party whose ‘voice was heard like that of Stentor’: ‘We ladies used to be amused at our friend’s conduct to the bewildered waiters, as they flew to obey his command, he only speaking his native English, which when not understood, he thundered out afresh, calling them stupid for only speaking French and German’. Thomas William Tidmarsh of Upper Hornsey Rise, London, who travelled to Europe using Cook’s ticketing system in 1882, recalled trying to ask for directions to the post office from a local boy in Antwerp: ‘The lad, who was very stupid, took us to the post office (after some difficulty in explaining what we wanted). We had to get out a post card and threaten to put it down his throat, pretending that his mouth was the receptacle for letters and we were about to post one’, he claimed. But the overall tone of the narratives here and in other accounts by early ‘Cookites’ is of curiosity, delight, and sometimes even awe. In many cases, these tourists would have been the first people of their class able to travel abroad, or in some cases even to afford a holiday in their own country. Nor was all the traffic in one direction – as well as many narratives by clients, they include an account by one of Cook’s couriers, Frank Buckley, of an 1870 visit to Britain by the Maharaja of Kolapor, who arrived with seven ‘native’ servants ‘and 22 packages of bags, boxes, hampers, including his own spices and cooking utensils’, and was transported around Scotland using Cook’s services.

Efforts are now underway to secure a new home for the Cook archive, possibly in the county records office at Leicester, where the Thomas Cook story began. It is to be hoped that this collection can be kept together for future historians of travel and tourism.

From the Thomas Cook archive.  The Holy Land journal of Miss Rigg of Hampstead, 1869. Photo credit: Anthony Bale

Further reading

Piers Brendon, Thomas Cook: 150 Years of Popular Tourism (Secker & Warburg, 1991)

James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918 (Clarendon Press, 1993)

Jill Hamond, Thomas Cook: The Holiday-Maker (Sutton Publishing, 2005)

One Comment

  1. A very interesting and educational insight into the history of this famous organisation. Such a shame that it has failed after so many years, but let’s hope that the archive as part of its legacy can be saved.

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