“Thomas Cook don’t run trains,” I hear you utter. You would be correct that they do not nowadays, but the company owe their very existence to the age of steam trains.
Thomas Cook the travel company was born 175 years ago in July 1841 and started life out by organising UK train trips starting in the East Midlands. The story goes that Thomas, a deeply religious man, was walking from his home in Market Harborough to a temperance meeting in nearby Leicester.
Along the route he had an idea that trains should carry believers to future gatherings, an idea that met with enthusiasm from other temperance society members, so he set about negotiating a discount with the Midland Train Company.
After some frantic arranging, the following month he organised a train trip from Leicester to the temperance meeting in Loughborough. The fare was a shilling and due to Cook’s negotiation skills he turned a very small profit thanks to the 500 temperance devotees who made the twenty-four mile return journey. Organised group UK travel was born.
Cook had the bug and organised further such group train journeys throughout the East Midlands before the ‘big one’ in the Summer of 1845 – Cook’s first commercial venture was a train trip all the way from Leicester to Liverpool costing 15 shillings first class and 10 shillings second class.
Not only that, but forward thinking Tom designed a 60-page booklet describing the significant things that people would see on the journey and more in the destination itself. Printed initially to drum up interest, it then became passenger’s travel guide – both the holiday brochure and the guidebook had made their debut.
Further successful trips were run throughout the UK and a motivated Thomas Cook then started to plan overseas journeys to Europe and beyond.
Cook’s next big train excursion however was to the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. He had been requested to organise journeys for people from the Midlands & North by Sir Joseph Paxton, architect of the Crystal Palace.
150,000 people took advantage of his organised transportation, setting good old Thomas up for his even more ambitious plans.
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.
Cook was able to organise a grand circular tour to include Brussels, Cologne, the Rhine, Heidelberg, Baden-Baden, Strasbourg and Paris, returning to London via Le Havre or Dieppe. Thomas escorted his first tourists to Europe on this route in the Summer of 1855.
These tours continued in the ensuing years and in 1863 were extended to Switzerland for the first time after reaching agreement with the Paris, Lyons and Mediterranean Railway. This naturally continued with circular Swiss Alpine tours and later to Italy too.
Building on his successes in Europe, Thomas made an exploratory trip to North America 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 (the first ever cruise?), 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.
Perhaps Cook’s tours were the inspiration for Jules Verne who published around the world in 80 days in 1873.
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.Train Tours around Europe.
Wow, that’s pioneering for you – wouldn’t it be great to repeat that way of travel today?
Thomas died in 1892 at the grand old-age of 83, but by that time the company was being run by his son and grandsons. The Thomas Cook company had launched foreign exchange services, traveller’s cheques, all-inclusive packages, flight sales and detailed country guidebooks by then as they continued to set the standards for others to follow.
In 1927 they organised the first ever personally conducted air tour from New York to Chicago for the famous Dempsey-Tunney heavyweight boxing contest.
A year later we had the next train connection as the family business was sold to the French Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Europeens. That must have been some business card!
The new owners ran such iconic steam trains as the Orient Express,Golden Arrow, Bombay Express, Etoile du Nord and the Peninsular & Oriental Express. A full list of their star performers can be viewed on this link.
After WWII comes the next train link. Thomas Cook was nationalised by Clement Atlee’s Labour Government and became part of the newly formed British Transport Holding Company, the pre-cursor to British Rail. Other companies run included Great Western, Southern, London & North Eastern and London, Midland & Scottish railway.
This continued until 1972 when Thomas Cook was privatised once more.
My first ever Thomas Cook train connection came along in 1987 when I made my first inter-rail trip around Europe. I bought my first ever Thomas Cook European Train Timetable (forever after affectionally known as TC). This remains my second favourite book ever (after a world atlas) as it not only contained train journey details across Europe, but also further afield, together with details of ferry journeys too.
In realilty it contained dreams, possibilities, wonder & excitement for my 22 year-old self, sentiments I am sure that resonate with many others. How do you get from Paris to Athens by train? Consult the TC and then picture yourself stopping off in Strasbourg and Berlin and Prague and Sofia along the way. Or how about a train to Milan, on to Rome, across to Brindisi, then a ferry across to Patras and onto the Greek capital, crossing the iconic Corinth Canal along the way. Sound exciting?
TC published the timetable from 1873 to 2013 with only a break for WWII. After 140 years they sadly stopped producing their book of dreams after more than 1,500 editions, but happily a company run by a former member of TC Publishing management took up the mantle from March 2014.
So there you have it. Thomas Cook as we know it today was inextricably connected to the railways throughout much of its 175 year history.