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Cook, Thomasfree

  • Piers Brendon

Thomas Cook (1808–1892)

by unknown photographer

Cook, Thomas (1808–1892), travel agent, was born on 22 November 1808 at 9 Quick Close, Melbourne, Derbyshire. He was the only child of John Cook (1785–1812), labourer, and his wife, Elizabeth (d. 1854), daughter of Thomas Perkins, a New Connexion Baptist pastor. The family was poor and their circumstances did not improve when Elizabeth married James Smithard soon after the death of her first husband in 1812. Thomas went to school until he was ten, when he began work as a gardener's boy on Lord Melbourne's estate. He received some further education at Sunday school, attending that of the Methodists until he was thirteen or fourteen, after which, as his mother wished, he joined that of the Baptists. At about the same time he started as an apprentice cabinet-maker with his uncle, John Pegg, who was also a strong Baptist. Described at this time as 'an earnest, active, devoted, young Christian' (General Baptist Magazine, 185), Thomas advanced quickly in the Sunday school to become a teacher and then the superintendent. On 26 February 1826 he was baptized by Joseph Foulks Winks, the New Connexion pastor at Melbourne, who influenced him considerably during this stage of his life.

Itinerant village missionary

Just before his twentieth birthday Cook abandoned his apprenticeship to become an itinerant village missionary, on a salary of £36 a year (which was later reduced to £26 because he received so much hospitality from the faithful). His job was to spread the Word by preaching, distributing tracts, and setting up Sunday schools throughout the south midland counties. Thus began a career in travel. In 1829 Cook, a young man with a commanding presence and black penetrating eyes in which some discerned a gleam of fanaticism, met Marianne Mason (1807–1884). She was a 'very dapper' and sensible farmer's daughter who taught at the Baptist Sunday school at Barrowden in Rutland (Thomas Cook Archive, Bishop reminiscences). After a long courtship they married at Barrowden on 2 March 1833. The couple went to live at Market Harborough, near Leicester, where Cook had now set up in trade as a wood-turner, since the Baptist church could no longer afford to pay him as a preacher. All his life he remained a strict and ardent Baptist, although he was tolerant of other protestant sects. Religion gave him a strong desire to help the downtrodden and his political inclinations were liberal.

During the 1830s the burgeoning temperance movement gradually persuaded Cook that cheap strong liquor exacerbated the 'poverty, crime, strife and wretchedness' of the people (Temperance Messenger, 50). In 1836 both he and Marianne signed the pledge and decided that their workmen too should be denied alcohol on the premises. For the next few years Cook's own temperance crusade took precedence over both his business and his family, which now included a son, John Mason Cook [see below], born on 13 January 1834. (A second son, Henry, died as an infant in September 1835 and, after an interval of ten years, a daughter, Annie, was born.) Cook made speeches and published tracts inveighing against the demon drink. More significantly, he also arranged alternatives: wholesome forms of 'rational recreation' such as picnics at which revellers were sustained with 'biscuits, buns and ginger beer' (Temperance Messenger, 132). In 1840 he founded the Children's Temperance Magazine, the first English publication of its kind. On 5 July 1841 Cook organized and personally conducted a railway excursion from Leicester to Loughborough for some 500 temperance supporters, who paid a shilling each. The journey was a great success and Cook afterwards looked back on it as 'the starting point of a career of labour and pleasure which has expanded into … a mission of goodwill and benevolence on a grand scale' (Cook's Excursionist, 13 Sept 1856).

Early tours

Later in 1841 Cook moved to Leicester, which offered the advantages of good communications, a large Baptist community, and a radical corporation. It also provided a challenge in the shape of 700 beershops and public houses. Cook set up as a bookseller and printer, specializing in temperance literature but also producing such useful publications as his own Leicester Almanack (1842) and Guide to Leicester (1843). In addition he opened temperance hotels in Derby and Leicester (run by his mother and his wife respectively) and continued to organize excursions. In 1845, having won a reputation as an entrepreneur who could obtain cheap rates from the railway companies for large parties, he undertook his first profit-making excursion—to Liverpool, Caernarfon, and Mount Snowdon. Cook wrote a handbook which resembled in essential respects the modern tour operator's brochure. He also gave the 350 tourists his 'personal superintendence' (Handbook of the Trip to Liverpool), while taking the opportunity to encourage them to climb Snowdon without 'the stimulus of alcohol' (Cook's Excursionist, 4 June 1856). The success of this tour made him determined to reach that bourn of contemporary romance, Scotland.

Cook's first Scottish tour in the summer of 1846, although meticulously planned, was dogged by problems. Against expectations, the 500 tourists were unable to get off the train, which lacked a restaurant car and lavatories, at intervening stations; so they arrived at Fleetwood starving and bursting. There were not enough cabins on the steamer to Ardrossan and a storm soaked the deck passengers. Cook irritated them further by banging the temperance drum. A subsequent article in the Leicester Chronicle warned readers against future excursions arranged by the teetotal projector, who deserved a toss overboard into his 'favourite element'. Cook was damaged by this attack but the collapse of his business in August 1846 was probably due more to competition from another temperance publisher. However, by 1848, for reasons which remain obscure, he had recovered sufficiently to be running three successful operations in Leicester: the temperance hotel, a bookselling business, and what can now be called a travel agency.

Railway excursions

In the middle years of the century, as the country prospered and the railway system grew, Thomas Cook's tourist enterprise developed. In 1851 Cook arranged for 165,000 people to visit London for the Great Exhibition, which he described as 'a great School of Science, of Art, of Industry, of Peace and Universal Brotherhood' (Cook's Excursionist, 3 May 1851). This was followed by expeditions on which thousands of tourists viewed the cities, resorts, and beauty spots of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. For these groups Cook provided cheap tickets, mapped out routes, supplied handbooks. He also chaperoned 'unprotected females', for whom tourism became a step towards emancipation (Cook's Excursionist, 18 July 1860). Cook accompanied many parties himself, organizing them in such a peremptory fashion that he was nicknamed 'the General' (Cook's Excursionist, 3 Sept 1853). His clients were expected to find their own food and accommodation since Cook was reluctant to provide for the 'stomachs of Tourists' (Cook's Excursionist, 23 Aug 1858). As he often explained in his monthly journal the Excursionist, begun in 1851 and written in vigorous, self-revelatory prose, his main aim was to inculcate 'great moral and social lessons' (Thomas Cook Archive). Although his firm's profits were modest at this stage, Cook was able to abandon the printing trade, give considerable sums to poor relief, promote the erection of a Temperance Hall in Leicester, and finance the rebuilding of his Commercial and Family Temperance Hotel.

Cook's foreign tours

The travel business could have been ruined in 1862, however, when the Scottish railway companies refused to issue any more group tickets for Cook's popular tours north of the border. With characteristic vision and 'wonderful strength of will' (Barton Church Magazine), Cook looked towards Europe, though his few previous forays across the channel had been financial failures. Now, with the help and encouragement of Joseph Paxton, he decided to exploit new rail links for the conveyance of large numbers of tourists to the continent. He set up an office in London and by September 1863 he had conducted 2000 visitors to France and 500 to Switzerland. Cook's continental tourists were provided not only with rail travel and a channel crossing via Newhaven and Dieppe (a route which he popularized), but also with accommodation in 'first-class establishments' and food acceptable to the 'thorough roast-beef-and-pudding-eating Englishman' (Cook's Excursionist, 28 Aug 1863).

The ‘Cook's tour’ rapidly became a byword and its originator was hailed as the 'Napoleon of Excursions' (Civil Service Gazette)—though critics like Charles Lever accused Cook of swamping Europe with 'everything that is low-bred, vulgar and ridiculous' (Blackwood's Magazine, Feb 1865, 231). During the 1860s alpine journeys became increasingly popular and in 1864 parties began to venture into the newly united Italy. In 1866 the first Cook's tourists to America witnessed scenes of the recent civil war. At the end of the decade Cook took clients to even more exciting destinations: Egypt and the Holy Land, 'the greatest event of my tourist life' (Cook's Excursionist, 3 May 1869). He achieved a further ambition in 1872–3 when he conducted the first organized tourist party ever to go round the world. Cook hoped to 'pioneer the way for the golden age when nations shall learn war no more' (Cook's Excursionist, 29 July 1873). Certainly he blazed a trail which twenty further groups had followed by the time of his death.

Final years

On the world tour, as on all others, Thomas Cook mixed 'Missions with business'. In a letter to his wife he explained that the practice 'has sweetened my journey and … improved my heart without prejudice to the mercenary object of my tour' (T. Cook to M. Cook, 24 March 1873, Thomas Cook Archive). In fact the firm's profits remained small. But the business began to change when John Mason Cook started full-time work with his father in 1865—to become a partner in what was subsequently known as Thomas Cook & Son in 1871. By then there were three English offices, manned by a growing staff and served by four ‘travelling assistants’. While Thomas was away on his world tour the firm moved to grand new headquarters in Ludgate Circus. In 1873 Thomas Cook & Son entered into a short-lived and ill-fated partnership with an American, E. M. Jenkins, to encourage the transatlantic side of the undertaking, in which Thomas became increasingly involved. By this time there had been frequent serious disagreements between father and son arising from their radically different approaches to the business. In 1878 a full-scale quarrel occurred, as a result of which Thomas retired to Thorncroft, the large house which he had built on the outskirts of Leicester, while John took charge of the firm.

Cook led a lonely life after the deaths of his unmarried daughter Annie (who drowned in her bath, apparently overcome by fumes from a new gas heater) in 1880 and his wife four years later. He continued to travel, however, making his final pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1888. Much of his time and money were spent, as they had been throughout his career, in work for the Baptist church, the temperance movement, and other charities. He did not attend the firm's silver jubilee celebrations in 1891; whether this was because of blindness and physical incapacity or because John did not want him there is not clear. After suffering a stroke, Thomas Cook died at Thorncroft, Knighton, Leicester, on 18 July 1892, aged eighty-three. He was given a Baptist burial on 22 July in Leicester, where the flags (including that on the temperance hall) flew at half-mast.

Thomas Cook & Son

John Mason Cook (1834–1899), travel agent, was born on 13 January 1834 at Quaker's Yard, Market Harborough, the first of two surviving children of Thomas Cook and his wife, Marianne. He was brought up with Baptist, teetotal beliefs which he never changed. Since both his parents were wholly preoccupied by the temperance movement he may have had, as some allege, a ‘pathetic’ childhood. Certainly he was, as a mere boy, 'broken to the harness' of tourism by being required to officiate on his father's juvenile excursions (Blackwood's Magazine, Aug 1899, 211). But he received a basic education at a dame-school in Market Harborough and at a preparatory school in Leicester. In 1848 he left to work as a printer in Derby.

After a few months of hard labour and low pay Cook returned to Leicester to serve in his father's printing office. He also arranged and conducted more tours. Father and son did not work well together and in 1856 John Cook took up a post as superintendent of the Midland Railway's excursion traffic. Three years later he set up on his own as a printer in Leicester. He married a local girl, Emma Hodges, on 29 December 1861 and their first son, Frank, was born in 1862. Perhaps because of his growing financial responsibilities, John Cook agreed to rejoin his father's firm in 1865. He was put in charge of its new office at 98 Fleet Street, where he made an immediate impact.

Farther afield

John Cook pioneered Cook's tours to America, personally conducting his first party across the Atlantic in 1866. It was on his initiative that new offices were opened in Manchester, Brussels, and Cologne. He also introduced the popular system of hotel coupons, which tourists bought from Cook and exchanged for bed and board, thus preventing hoteliers from overcharging. It was to his incessant, painstaking toil that the firm largely owed its increased efficiency and profitability during the late 1860s. Yet only after much persuasion from his father did John consent to become a full partner in 1871. His reluctance was probably due to disputes between the two men, mainly over financial matters. Unlike Thomas, John believed that business should be kept separate from religion and philanthropy. He also upset his father by being more adventurous in investing money. He opened a hotel at Luxor and refurbished the Nile steamers of the khedive, from whom he obtained the passenger agency, thus helping to make Egypt a safer and more attractive destination. In 1872 he took advantage of Thomas Cook's prolonged absence to arrange the expensive move to large new premises, which soon proved to be indispensable. John Cook, a tall, thickset, heavily bearded man with an intimidating manner, imposed on his staff strict rules of dress, work, and conduct. But he was also a fair and benevolent employer.

During the 1870s Cook untiringly arranged new enterprises, nearly all of which proved to be profitable. The most lucrative was his creation, in 1878, of a foreign banking and money exchange department. Its business, especially through the improvement of credit notes, which he helped to develop into travellers' cheques, soon began to flourish. Railway coupons were another important facility, enabling passengers to book and pay for an entire international train journey in advance. Since railway companies accepted payments on a monthly basis, the firm as well as the customers benefited from this innovation. Meanwhile an angry correspondence raged between father and son which led to John's bringing about Thomas Cook's retirement. After taking charge in 1879 he paid his father a pension (probably £1000 a year) and rigorously excluded him from the business. Relations between them remained correct but distant.

A passage from India …

John Cook's first success as sole director was to build up the American side of Thomas Cook & Son after the dissolution of the partnership with E. M. Jenkins in 1878. During the 1880s he opened up new tourist destinations, among them India, which was not very popular, and Australia and New Zealand, which proved lucrative. He experimented with novel schemes such as improving the Mount Vesuvius funicular railway, which he purchased in 1887. Although the travel business became more competitive, Cook expanded the scope and increased the profits of his own firm. He concentrated on ‘select’ tours for a more exclusive clientele than that favoured by his father. He also sought out government patronage and was happy to accept official commissions like transporting the expedition to relieve General Gordon in 1884. The firm took the army from Cairo to Wadi Halfa, though he himself made a hazardous trip as far south as Dongola. With pardonable hyperbole some admirers said that if Cook had conducted the relief force all the way to Khartoum, Gordon would have been saved (Daily Telegraph; Royle, 554).

In 1887, at the behest of the India Office, which wanted to stop the exploitation of Muslim pilgrims, the firm took on the equally challenging task of transporting them between the subcontinent and Mecca. But the service was abandoned in 1893 when Cook's prices proved too high. There was no such problem about Cook's lavish arrangements for conducting Indian princes to London for Queen Victoria's silver and golden jubilees. Such public undertakings brought the firm prestige as well as profit—though the financial dispute with the war ministry which followed the death of Gordon may have cost Cook the knighthood he craved. Nevertheless at the firm's own golden jubilee in 1891 it was much praised for its services to the empire.

A revolution in popular tourism

On this occasion John Cook enumerated the assets of his business: 84 offices, 85 agencies, 2692 staff (978 of them in Egypt), and 45 bank accounts. He rightly claimed to be personally responsible for its spectacular growth. But when he went on to speak of his belief 'that the world would be a pleasanter place of habitation if all the dwellers on its surface were brought closer together, and that international travel was one of the best preservatives against international wars' (Cook's Excursionist, 8 Aug 1891), Cook was echoing the ideals of his father. Although often at odds, the two men were complementary, Thomas providing the creative vision, John the executive drive. Between them, Thomas Cook & Son contributed signally to a revolution in popular tourism that changed the world.

John Cook also announced in 1891 that he wanted to hand over management of the business to his three sons, Frank, Ernest, and Thomas Albert (Bert), all of whom were already involved in it. Actually he could not bear to relinquish control. But because of deteriorating health he spent the winters in Egypt, where the firm enjoyed such a large share of the flourishing tourist trade that John Cook was often hailed as uncrowned king. There he supervised the construction of a fleet of splendid new Nile paddle-steamers, in which wealthy passengers enjoyed a sybaritic existence and were almost entirely insulated from Egyptian life. Cook showed the more charitable side of his nature, though, when in 1891 he built the first hospital for Egyptians at Luxor.

After going round the world to inspect the company's work in 1893, Cook gave much of his attention to special events and was particularly pleased to carry out royal commissions. His devotion to royalty—as well as to duty—may well have hastened his end. In 1898 he personally conducted Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Holy Land. The tour was arranged with the usual military precision but both men were affected by the ‘excessive heat’. John Cook contracted dysentery and never really recovered. He died on 6 March 1899, aged sixty-five, at Mount Felix, his new residence in Walton-on-Thames. Like his father he was given a Baptist funeral in Leicester and buried in the family vault. He was survived by his wife.

The three grandsons of Thomas Cook carried on the business; and Ernest Edward Cook was responsible for the banking and exchange department. Although the firm continued to prosper under their direction it was sold, quite unexpectedly, on 8 February 1928 to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits of Belgium for £3.5 million.


  • Cook's Excursionist (1851–99)
  • P. Brendon, Thomas Cook: 150 years of popular tourism (1991)
  • J. Pudney, The Thomas Cook story (1953)
  • W. F. Rae, The business of travel (1891)
  • E. Swinglehurst, Cook's tours: the story of popular travel (1982)
  • A. Griffiths, ‘John Cook’, Blackwood's Magazine, 166 (Aug 1899)
  • J. A. R. Pimlott, The Englishman's holiday (1976)
  • E. Swinglehurst, The romantic journey (1974)
  • Thomas Cook Archive, Berkeley Street, London
  • ‘The jubilee of Mr Thomas Cook’, General Baptist Magazine, 78 (1876) [reprinted from Derby Reporter], 185
  • Temperance Messenger, 2 (1841), 50, 132
  • T. Cook, Handbook of the trip to Liverpool (1845)
  • Leicester Chronicle (4 July 1846)
  • Barton Church Magazine (Oct 1892)
  • Civil Service Gazette (14 May 1846)
  • ‘Continental excursionists’, Blackwood, 97 (1865), 230–33
  • ‘John Cook’, Blackwood, 166 (1899), 211–23
  • Daily Telegraph (4 March 1899)
  • C. Royle, The Egyptian campaigns, 1882 to 1885, rev. edn (1900), 554


  • Thomas Cook Archive, Berkeley Street, London, letters to his wife
  • TNA: PRO, Colonel Ardagh MSS
  • TNA: PRO, Lord Cromer MSS
  • TNA: PRO, H. H. Kitchener MSS


  • group portrait, photograph (at Pompeii), Thomas Cook Archive, Berkeley Street, London
  • photograph, Thomas Cook Archive, Berkeley Street, London
  • photograph (John Cook), Thomas Cook Archive, Berkeley Street, London
  • photograph (John Cook; with his wife and eldest son), Thomas Cook Archive, Berkeley Street, London
  • photograph (John Cook; in old age), Thomas Cook Archive, Berkeley Street, London
  • photograph, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • wood-engravings, NPG; repro. in ILN (July 1891–July 1892)

Wealth at Death

£2731 7s. 2d.: probate, 8 Oct 1892, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£622,534 3s. 4d.—John Cook: resworn probate, Feb 1900, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1899)

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Blackwood's [Edinburgh] Magazine