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Thomas Cook History

Thomas Cook is the world’s best-known name in travel, thanks to the inspiration and dedication of a single man. Thomas Cook began his international travel company in 1841, with a successful one-day rail excursion at a shilling a head from Leicester to Loughborough on 5 July. From these humble beginnings Thomas Cook launched a whole new kind of company – devoted to helping Britons see the world.

A Brief History

On 9 June 1841 a 32-year old cabinet-maker named Thomas Cook walked from his home in Market Harborough to the nearby town of Leicester to attend a temperance meeting. A former Baptist preacher, Thomas Cook was a religious man who believed that most Victorian social problems were related to alcohol and that the lives of working people would be greatly improved if they drank less and became better educated. As he walked along the road to Leicester, he later recalled, 'the thought suddenly flashed across my mind as to the practicability of employing the great powers of railways and locomotion for the furtherance of this social reform'.

At the meeting, Thomas suggested that a special train be engaged to carry the temperance supporters of Leicester to a meeting in Loughborough about four weeks later. The proposal was received with such enthusiasm that, on the following day, Thomas submitted his idea to the secretary of the Midland Railway Company. A train was subsequently arranged, and on 5 July 1841 about 500 passengers were conveyed in open carriages the enormous distance of 12 miles and back for a shilling. The day was a great success and, as Thomas later recorded, 'thus was struck the keynote of my excursions, and the social idea grew upon me'. 

Early Tours

During the next three summers Thomas arranged a succession of trips between Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Birmingham on behalf of local temperance societies and Sunday schools. Within these limits many thousands of people experienced rail travel for the first time, and Thomas was able to lay the foundations of his future business. He later described this period as one of 'enthusiastic philanthropy' since, beyond the printing of posters and handbills, he had no financial interest in any of these early excursions.

Thomas Cook's first commercial venture took place in the summer of 1845, when he organised a trip to Liverpool. This was a far more ambitious project than anything he had previously attempted, and he made his preparations with great thoroughness. Not content with simply providing tickets at low prices - 15 shillings for first-class passengers and 10 shillings for second. Thomas also investigated the route and published a handbook of the journey. This 60-page booklet was a forerunner of the modern holiday brochure.

The Great Exhibition

By the end of 1850, having already visited Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Thomas Cook began to contemplate foreign trips to Europe, the United States and the Holy Land. Such thoughts had to be postponed, however, when Sir Joseph Paxton, architect of the Crystal Palace, persuaded Thomas to devote himself to bringing workers from Yorkshire and the Midlands to London for the Great Exhibition of 1851. This he did with great enthusiasm, rarely spending a night at home between June and October, and he even produced a newspaper, Cook's Exhibition Herald and Excursion Advertiser, in order to promote his tours. By the end of the season Thomas had taken 150,000 people to London, his final trains to the Exhibition carrying 3,000 children from Leicester, Nottingham and Derby.

Across the Channel

Thomas continued to expand his business in Britain, but he was determined to develop it in Europe too. In 1855 an International Exhibition was held in Paris for the first time and Thomas seized this opportunity by trying to persuade the companies commanding the Channel traffic to allow him concessions. They refused to work with him, however, and the only route he was able to use was the one between Harwich and Antwerp. This opened up the way for a grand circular tour to include Brussels, Cologne, the Rhine, Heidelberg, Baden-Baden, Strasbourg and Paris, returning to London via Le Havre or Dieppe. By this route, during the summer of 1855, Thomas escorted his first tourists to Europe.

Switzerland and Italy

Thomas visited Switzerland for the first time in June 1863. Although this initial tour was little more than an information-gathering trip, a party of more than 60 ladies and gentlemen accompanied Thomas as far as Geneva. Among these pioneering tourists was a young woman called Jemima Morrell, who maintained a written account of each day's events. Her original diaries may be studied today in the Thomas Cook Archives. Thomas organised further trips to the Continent in 1863, and by the end of the season he had taken nearly 2000 tourists to Paris, some 500 of whom had continued to Switzerland. With the co-operation of the Paris, Lyons and Mediterranean Railway, Thomas began to issue circular tickets (in both English and French) between Paris and the Alps. He then established the first circular tours of Switzerland, which were such an immediate success that he decided to extend his arrangements across the Alps. The first Italian tours took place in the summer of 1864, when Thomas escorted two large groups, one to Florence and parts of central Italy, the other to Rome and Naples.

Hotel Coupons and Circular Notes

Thomas's travellers to Switzerland and Italy were from the growing middle classes and they expected better accommodation than his earlier working-class customers had. He therefore set out to negotiate with innkeepers and hotel proprietors to provide rooms and meals at good prices. His friendship with hoteliers, who were pleased to get his business, enabled Thomas to develop two important travel systems: one was the hotel coupon, launched in 1868, which travellers could use to pay for hotel accommodation and meals instead of using money; the other was his circular note, first issued in 1874 and a forerunner of the travellers cheque, which enabled tourists to obtain local currency in exchange for a paper note issued by Thomas Cook. [N.B. Thomas Cook did not invent the circular note; bankers had been using them since the late 18th century.] 

Beyond Europe

Building on his successes in Europe, Thomas made an exploratory trip to North America in 1865 and set up a system of tours covering 4,000 miles of railways. Four years later, in 1869, he hired two steamers and conducted his first party up the Nile. The climax of his career, however, came in September 1872 when, at the age of 63, he departed from Leicester on a tour of the world that would keep him away from home for almost eight months. It had long been his ambition to travel 'to Egypt via China', but such a trip only became practicable at the end of 1869 following the opening of the Suez Canal and the completion of a rail network linking the east and west coasts of America.
Thomas and his small party crossed the Atlantic by steamship and made their way through the United States from New York to San Francisco by rail. They travelled by Pacific steamer to Japan, then across the Inland Sea to China, and afterwards visited Singapore, Ceylon and India. Leaving Bombay, they crossed the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea to Cairo, from where most of the party travelled back to London. Thomas himself, however, set off on an extended tour of Egypt and Palestine, finally returning home via Turkey, Greece, Italy and France after an absence of 222 days. The conducted world tour quickly became an annual event, but many additional tickets were issued to independent travellers, some of whom went via Australia and New Zealand rather than China and Japan.

John Mason Cook

While Thomas was travelling round the world, his son, John Mason Cook, successfully completed the firm's move to a new head office at Ludgate Circus. However, father and son argued over certain aspects of the project and in 1878 their partnership ended. John was a better businessman than Thomas, and he set about expanding the company internationally. In an age when telegraphy was in its infancy and there were no telephones or fax machines, this was far from easy.

John created overseas editions of The Excursionist, the newspaper started by his father in 1851, to inform customers in places such as France, Germany, India, Australasia, America and the Far East about the services he offered. (This newspaper, which became known as The Traveller's Gazette in May 1902, continued to be published until 1939.) He also kept up a continuous stream of correspondence with his offices abroad, checking on their work and complaining if anything went wrong. Like many successful businessmen, John Mason Cook combined a flair for grasping business opportunities with a remarkable memory for small details.

The Gordon Relief Expedition

In 1884 John Mason Cook was asked by the British Government to organise a relief expedition up the Nile to rescue General Gordon from Khartoum. Arrangements were made for the movement of 18,000 troops, nearly 40,000 tons of supplies, 40,000 tons of coal and 800 whaleboats. To transport the coal from Tyneside to Boulac and Assiout via Alexandria, 28 large steamers and 6000 railway trucks were required. An additional 7000 railway trucks were needed for the military stores, while on the Nile 27 steamers and 650 sailing boats were used to carry the troops and supplies. John and his Egyptian managers acted as overseers of the entire operation, which relied on the labour of 5000 local men and boys, and completed their side of the contract in November 1884. Despite all the efforts, however, Khartoum fell in January 1885 and Gordon was killed.

Frank, Ernest and Bert

Thomas and John Mason Cook both died during the 1890s and the business was inherited by John's three sons: Frank Henry, Ernest Edward and Thomas Albert ('Bert'). During the first quarter of the twentieth century - a period which saw the introduction of winter sports holidays, tours by motor car and commercial air travel - the firm of Thos Cook and Son dominated the world travel scene.

The company was incorporated as Thos Cook & Son Ltd in 1924, and in 1926 the headquarters moved from Ludgate Circus to Berkeley Street, Mayfair, a once aristocratic area which was now the centre of London society. Then, in 1928, the surviving grandsons, Frank and Ernest (Bert having died in 1914), unexpectedly sold the business to the Belgian Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens, operators of most of Europe's luxury sleeping cars, including the Orient Express.

From Wagons-Lits to British Railways

Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, the Wagons-Lits headquarters in Paris was seized by occupying forces, and Cook's British assets were requisitioned by the British Government. To save the company from complete financial collapse in its centenary year, a deal was brokered and, fittingly, the organisation was sold to Britain's four mainline railway companies. Thos Cook & Son Ltd settled its affairs with Wagons-Lits (which retained a 25% share in Cook's overseas) immediately after the war, and in 1948 the firm became state-owned as part of the nationalised British Railways.

The Fifties and Sixties

Thomas Cook & Son Ltd benefited from the post-war holiday boom, which saw one million Britons travelling abroad by 1950. The company set up a Business Travel Service and refurbished its holiday camp at Prestatyn (which had opened shortly before the outbreak of war). Although Cook's remained the largest and most successful company in the industry, its pre-eminence was now being challenged by new travel firms that were able to undercut Cook's prices and offer cheap package deals. In 1965 the company's net profits exceeded £1 million for the first time, but in an increasingly cut-throat marketplace Thomas Cook began to fall behind its younger rivals

De-nationalisation and Beyond

In 1972 Thomas Cook returned to private ownership, bought by a consortium of Midland Bank, Trust House Forte and the Automobile Association. Radical reorganisation followed and a new, standardised corporate logo (the words ‘Thomas Cook’ in ‘flame’ red) was soon introduced. Thomas Cook managed to survive the recession of the 1970s – a recession that witnessed the collapse of several travel firms – and enhanced its reputation for providing excellent service by launching a Money Back Guarantee scheme in 1974.

Thomas Cook experienced many changes during the 1970s, including the sale of its holiday camp at Prestatyn and the relocation of its administrative headquarters from London to Peterborough. The firm also became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Midland Bank Group. During the 1980s Thomas Cook began to concentrate on its long-haul tours programme, purchasing Rankin Kuhn Travel in 1982 and quitting the short-haul package tours market in 1988 (a market to which Thomas Cook successfully returned in 1996 when it acquired Sunworld). Between 1985 and 1990, Thomas Cook also expanded its network of high street shops through the acquisition of the retail chains Frames, Blue Sky and Four Corners.

The company's continued success was assured in 1992 when it was purchased from Midland Bank by Westdeutsche Landesbank (WestLB), Germany’s third largest bank, and LTU Group, Germany’s leading charter airline. Thomas Cook became a wholly-owned subsidiary of WestLB in 1995. A period of expansion followed – which saw the acquisition of Sunworld, Time Off and Flying Colours in quick succession – culminating in Thomas Cook's merger with Carlson Leisure Group's UK travel interests and the subsequent formation of JMC (including JMC Airlines) in 1999.

Into the 21st Century

On 27 March 2001, Thomas Cook completed the sale of its Global and Financial Services division to Travelex. Three days later, C&N Touristic AG, one of Germany’s largest travel groups, became the sole owner of Thomas Cook and a new chapter in the company’s history began.

Within a matter of months, C&N Touristic AG had changed its name to Thomas Cook AG and launched a new logo and brand identity. 
In the UK, Thomas Cook introduced its new three-tier mass-market brand strategy – Thomas Cook, JMC and Sunset – on its Summer 2003 range of brochures and the newly-branded Thomas Cook Airlines was officially launched in March 2003. 
On 19 June 2007, Thomas Cook AG and MyTravel Group plc merged to form Thomas Cook Group plc. 
Another merger followed in October 2011, when Thomas Cook amalgamated its UK high street travel and foreign exchange businesses with those of the Co-operative Group and the Midlands Co-operative Society to create the UK’s largest retail travel network of over 1200 shops.
On 1 October 2013 Thomas Cook officially unveiled its new unified ‘Sunny Heart’ brand to the world. 

Thomas Cook Today

Today, Thomas Cook one of the world’s leading leisure travel groups, with sales of £7.8 billion and 19 million customers each year. The group is supported by around 22,000 colleagues and operates from 16 countries. 

Thomas Cook’s vision is to be the best-loved holiday company, delivering inspiring, personalised holiday experiences for all its customers. 

One reason for the company’s longevity and continued success is its commitment to consistently meet and exceed the expectations of its customers. Thomas Cook once described himself as 'the willing and devoted servant of the travelling public'. Today, more than 178 years after his pioneering excursion, he would be proud to know that the company he founded continues to follow in his footsteps.

Further Reading

W. Fraser Rae, The Business of Travel - A Fifty Years' Record of Progress (Thos Cook & Son, 1891)
John Pudney, The Thomas Cook Story (Michael Joseph, 1953)
Edmund Swinglehurst, The Romantic Journey - The story of Thomas Cook and Victorian Travel (Pica Editions, 1974)
Edmund Swinglehurst, Cook's Tours - The Story of Popular Travel (Blandford Press, 1982)
Piers Brendon, Thomas Cook - 150 Years of Popular Tourism (Secker & Warburg, 1991)
Robert Ingle, Thomas Cook of Leicester (Headstart History, 1991)
Derek Seaton, The Local Legacy of Thomas Cook (self-published, 1996)
Lynne Withey, Grand Tours and Cook's Tours - A History of Leisure Travel, 1750 to 1915 (Aurum Press, 1998)
Andrew Williamson, The Golden Age of Travel - The Romantic Years of Tourism in Images from the Thomas Cook Archives (Thomas Cook Publishing, 1998)
Paul Smith, The History of Tourism - Thomas Cook and the Origins of Leisure Travel [boxed set of four volumes] (Routledge/ Thoemmes Press, 1998)
Jill Hamilton, Thomas Cook - The Holiday Maker (Sutton, 2005)

Company Archives

Thomas Cook possesses a unique collection of archive material covering all aspects of the company's history from the founder's first excursion on 5 July 1841 to the present. This material is held in the Company Archives, which functions as a corporate 'memory', offering an information service to Thomas Cook's various departments and to interested members of the public, as well as providing research facilities for academics, journalists and picture researchers from all over the world.

Read About Our Archives

Thomas Cook Key Dates

1808 Thomas Cook is born on 22 November in the village of Melbourne in Derbyshire.
1834 John Mason Cook is born on 13 January in Market Harborough, near Leicester.
1841 Thomas Cook organises his first excursion, a rail journey from Leicester to a temperance meeting in Loughborough. On Monday 5 July a special train carries some 500 passengers a distance of 12 miles and back for one shilling. 
1845 Thomas Cook conducts his first trip for profit. It is a railway journey to Liverpool from Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. Fares are 15/- first class and 10/- second class, with a supplementary charge for travelling by special steamer to North Wales. The handbook produced to accompany this tour is Thomas Cook’s first travel-related publication.
1846 Thomas visits Scotland for the first time. A party of about 350 people travels from Leicester to Fleetwood, then to Ardrossan by steamer, and onwards by rail to Glasgow. Special trips are made to Edinburgh, Stirling and Ayr.
1851 Thomas Cook promotes trips to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. More than 150,000 people from Yorkshire and the Midlands, including a party of 3,000 children from Leicester, Derby and Nottingham, travel to London under his arrangements.
1851 The Excursionist is published for the first time as Cook’s Exhibition Herald and Excursion Advertiser.
1855 Thomas Cook’s first continental tour. He personally conducts two parties from Harwich to Antwerp, then on to Brussels, Cologne, Heidelberg, Strasbourg and, finally, to Paris for the International Exhibition. Thomas Cook offers a complete holiday “package” (comprising travel, accommodation and food) for the first time. Thomas also offers a foreign exchange service for the first time.
1863 Thomas Cook visits the Alps for the first time and helps to establish Switzerland as a summer holiday destination. A journal of his first trip, written by Miss Jemima Morrell, survives in the Thomas Cook Archives.
1864 John Mason Cook, aged 30, joins his father in business. 
1865 Thomas Cook opens his first high-street shop in Fleet Street, London, the upper floor of which is used as a Temperance Boarding House.
1866 John Mason Cook personally conducts the first American tour.
1868 Thomas Cook introduces a system of hotel coupons (which he had tested the previous year) in an attempt to get fixed prices for accommodation at selected hotels in all major cities. 
1869 Thomas Cook escorts his first party to Egypt and Palestine.
1871 Thomas Cook & Son becomes the official name of the firm.
1872/73 Thomas Cook organises and leads the first round-the-world tour. He is away from home for 222 days and covers more than 29,000 miles.  
1873 Thomas Cook & Son opens its new head office at Ludgate Circus, London.  
1873 Cook's Continental Time Tables & Tourist’s Handbook is published for the first time.
1874 Thomas Cook's version of the circular note, known simply as “Cook’s Circular Note” and a precursor of the travellers cheque, is launched in New York.
1875 Thomas Cook’s first cruise takes place in the seas around Scandinavia, when the firm develops the ‘Midnight Sun’ tour to the North Cape in collaboration with the Bergen Line.
1878 A distinct Foreign Banking and Money Exchange Department is established.
1879 John Mason Cook officially takes charge of the firm and sets about transforming the business from its barely profitable foundations into a successful global organisation. 
1884 The relief force sent to rescue General Gordon from Khartoum is conveyed up the Nile as far as Wadi Halfa by Thomas Cook & Son. 
1886 John Mason Cook launches his new fleet of luxurious Nile steamers, aboard which the cream of Victorian society are pampered.
1891 Thomas Cook celebrates its 50th anniversary.
1892 Thomas Cook dies, aged 83.
1896 Thomas Cook & Son is appointed Official Passenger Agent for the first modern Olympic Games in Athens.
1898 Kaiser Wilhelm II's tour of the Holy Land is organised by John Mason Cook and his son Frank.
1899 John Mason Cook dies suddenly at the age of 65. The company passes into the hands of his three sons: Frank, Ernest and Thomas (‘Bert’).
1902 Thomas Cook’s “Excursionist” newspaper is transformed by his grandsons into the more upmarket “Traveller’s Gazette” magazine to better reflect the company’s clientele.
1908 Thos Cook & Son issues its first winter sports brochure.
1919 Thos Cook & Son is the first travel agent in the UK to advertise pleasure trips by air.
1922 Thos Cook & Son organises the first escorted tour through Africa from Cairo to the Cape. The tour lasts five months and includes a one-month safari.
1924 Thos Cook & Son Ltd is incorporated.
1926 The head office of Thos Cook & Son Ltd moves to Berkeley Street in London’s Mayfair district.
1927 Thos Cook & Son organises the first personally-conducted air tour. A group of six people fly from New York to Chicago for the Dempsey-Tunney heavyweight boxing contest. The price of the package – including flights, hotel accommodation and ringside seats – is $575 (equivalent to more than £6000 today).
1928 Frank and Ernest Cook, the two surviving grandsons of Thomas Cook (Bert having died in 1914), retire, selling the business to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens.
1939 Holidays by air on specially chartered aircraft to the French Riviera are included in Cook’s summer brochure for the first time.
1948 Thos Cook & Son Ltd becomes state-owned under the British Transport Holding Company. 
1959 Thomas Cook introduces to business clients a new worldwide credit scheme for travel and related services.
1965 Thomas Cook’s net profits exceed £1 million for the first time.
1966 Thomas Cook celebrates its 125th anniversary.
1972 Thomas Cook is privatised and bought by a consortium of Midland Bank, Trust House Forte and the Automobile Association.
1974 Thomas Cook introduces a new worldwide corporate logo – the words “Thomas Cook” in ‘flame’ red – and launches a customer protection guarantee in UK retail shops.
1977 Thomas Cook opens its new administrative headquarters at Thorpe Wood in Peterborough. 
1977 Thomas Cook introduces uniforms for its retail staff.
1981 Thomas Cook launches “Holidaymaker”, a private viewdata platform that allows travel agents to access Thomas Cook Holidays’ reservation system.
1982 Thomas Cook purchases Rankin Kuhn Travel.
1984 The “Don’t Just Book It, Thomas Cook It!” tagline is introduced.
1986 Thomas Cook opens its first call centre in Birmingham, to cope with the number of telephone enquiries received by retail shops in the area.
1988 Thomas Cook Direct is established.
1989 The long-standing agreement with Wagons-Lits comes to an end and the development of a new worldwide network begins.
1990 Thomas Cook becomes the world's leading foreign exchange retailer when it acquires the retail foreign exchange operations of Deak International.
1991 Thomas Cook celebrates its 150th anniversary. 
1992 Westdeutsche Landesbank, Germany’s third largest bank, and the LTU Group, Germany’s leading charter airline, acquire the Thomas Cook Group from Midland Bank.
1994 Thomas Cook acquires Interpayment Services Limited, the travellers cheque subsidiary of Barclays Bank plc, to become the world's largest supplier of travellers cheques outside the United States.
1994 Following a major review of its global activities, Thomas Cook sells its travel management business to American Express.
1995 Thomas Cook launches its first corporate website.
1996 Thomas Cook acquires Sunworld, the UK and Ireland’s fourth largest short-haul tour operator, and Time Off, the specialist European city breaks tour operator.
1997 Thomas Cook On-Line is launched, making Thomas Cook the first UK retail travel agency to offer customers a way to buy holidays, foreign currency, travellers cheques and guidebooks over the Internet.
1998 Thomas Cook Direct Businesses open a new call centre in Falkirk. 
1998 Sunworld acquires the Flying Colours Leisure Group, one of the UK’s medium-sized tour operators and leisure airlines.
1999 The European Commission approves the merger of Thomas Cook and Carlson Leisure Group’s UK travel interests. 
1999 JMC is formed (by combining the former operating brands Sunworld, Sunset, Flying Colours, Inspirations and Caledonian Airways) and becomes the UK’s third largest tour operator and airline business.
2001 Thomas Cook completes the sale of its Global and Financial Services division to Travelex.
2001 Thomas Cook is acquired by the German travel company Condor & Neckermann, which changes its name to Thomas Cook AG and launches a new logo.
2003 The newly-branded Thomas Cook Airlines is officially launched in the UK.
2003 Thomas Cook becomes the new sponsor of Manchester City FC.
2004 Thomas Cook launches and
2005 Thomas Cook celebrates “150 Years of Taking Britain Abroad”.
2007 Thomas Cook AG and MyTravel Group plc merge to form Thomas Cook Group plc, bringing a stronger Nordic focus with the incorporation of Ving, Spies and Tjäreborg.
2011 Thomas Cook merges its UK retail operations with those of the Co-operative Group and the Midlands Co-operative Society, creating the UK’s largest ever chain of travel agents.
2012 Thomas Cook is an Official Supporter of the London Olympics and provides UK short breaks and trips to the Games.
2013 Thomas Cook unveils its new group logo – the “Sunny Heart” – to unify the brand identity across all markets.
2013 Thomas Cook announces that Thomas Cook Airlines in the UK, Belgium and Scandinavia, together with Condor in Germany, will be merged into a single operating division within the Thomas Cook Group.
2015 Thomas Cook Group plc announces a new strategic partnership with Chinese investment group Fosun International Limited.
2016 Thomas Cook launches Casa Cook, its sixth hotel brand.
2016 Thomas Cook Airlines introduces new routes from Manchester to Los Angeles, Boston and Cape Town.
2016 Thomas Cook celebrates its 175th anniversary.