The name Thomas Cook is synonymous with affordable, worldwide travel, but this hard-working English cabinet-maker did not start out to popularize tourism for the middle class. His initial goal was to boost attendance at temperance meetings. Walking in the northern English countryside in the middle of the 19th century, the 32-year-old devout Baptist had a flash of inspiration when he realized the growing railway system could be used to carry large numbers of fellow temperance advocates to a regional gathering. The success of that first outing evolved into today's worldwide travel company.
Thomas Cook was a religious man who believed alcohol was a scourge, particularly among working men and women in England, and that temperance coupled with education would benefit working people and English society. Once he saw how popular his first railway excursion--500 temperance advocates paid a shilling to make a 12-mile railway trip--he realized affordable group travel could expand their horizons.
The Birth of Middle Class Tourism
Initially, Cook used the group travel concept to move temperance advocates to mass meetings. In 1845, Cook ran his first profit-making, low-cost leisure outing to Liverpool, quickly expanding his business venture with trips to neighboring Wales and Scotland. In 1851, 150,000 Cook customers from England's industrial north rode the train to London to see the Great Exhibition. Four years later, Cook began offering overseas trips to Europe.
Cook's son, John Mason Cook, joined the family business in 1864. A year later, founder Thomas Cook was exploring and expanding his company's presence in the United States. An inveterate traveler himself, Thomas Cook also led a small group of travelers to China and the Far East, quickly establishing a new Cook innovation: the guided world tour. He also was instrumental in the introduction of the traveler's check.
The Victorian world was riveted in 1884 by a rebellion in Sudan and famed British Gen. Charles Gordon was dispatched to Africa to bring the region back under British control. The government turned to Cook to plan and execute the logistics, moving 18,000 men and 140,000 tons of supplies to the staging area. Cook fulfilled his mission, but Gordon died a year later under siege in Khartoum.
Innovation and Growth
Cook and his son died in the 1890s, but his three grandsons ran the company and continued to innovate. They embraced air travel and expanded adventure travel in Africa, including one continent-wide five-month trip that included a month-long safari. Somewhat unexpectedly, Cook's two surviving grandsons sold the company in 1928 to the Belgian Wagons-Lits travel company, which owned the famed Orient Express train. When Paris fell to the Germans in World War II, the Wagons-Lits Paris headquarters was closed and the British government assumed ownership of Cooks.
The Thomas Cook travel company revived after the war and passed to a series of private and then publicly traded companies, including American Express at one point. The company continued to innovate, buying airplanes, expanding its publishing company, operating high street agencies in England, offering travel insurance and financial services, developing a television travel channel and establishing an online presence.
The legendary company--the second largest travel company in the United Kingdom with 19,000 employees--emphasizes its worldwide presence, affordability and comprehensive travel services with its slogan: "Don't just book it ... Thomas Cook it."