Thomas Cook: the Inventor of the Package Tour

When the travel operator Thomas Cook sadly went bankrupt in 2019, it was the world’s longest running tour operator. It had been running for nearly 180 years. With so many years in operation, Thomas Cook, the founder of the original company and who it was named after, has been somewhat forgotten. In reality, Cook has been dubbed by scholars as the inventor of modern mass tourism as he was the first to use the idea of a package tour.[1] From humble beginnings, Thomas, and his son, John Mason, were able to transform how travel was perceived during the nineteenth century. With the company now no longer in existence, it could mean that the history of those beginnings could easily be lost. I hope that this post goes some way to stopping that origin story from being lost to the general public. Thomas Cook was born in Melbourne, Derbyshire in 1808. Even though I’m from Derbyshire, I must admit that I don’t think it’s particularly well-known that the famous travel man actually was born in the county, which is a real shame. Still hopefully this helps to tell his story.

He left school at the age of 10, which was around average for the time, so would not have necessarily hindered him. After leaving school, he managed to find employment in various jobs until he became a Baptist missionary in 1828 and later a printer.[2] It was these two roles that he particularly excelled in. Both Christianity and printing would also very much go on to influence how he conducted his famous travel business, particularly in those early years.

Photograph of Thomas Cook, c. 1880, National Library of Wales

The first tour Thomas Cook conducted had a religious theme to it. In 1841, Cook persuaded the Midland Counties Railway Company to run a special train between Leicester and Loughborough for a temperance meeting. The meeting consisted of promoting the ideas of religious temperance, which put simply meant the Christian promotion of consuming no alcohol. Cook managed to persuade the company to offer reduced fares for the excursion because the amount of people promised to use this train if it was put on was around 500.[3] Considering rail travel was still in its infancy, the very fact Cook had manage to organise such a trip was extraordinary. At the time, most people still didn’t travel by train, largely down to the expensive nature and ‘novelty’ aspect of this form of transport. To travel in such a way, as well as with a large amount of people, meant that the religious and temperance movement also gained public attention. The popularity of such trips certainly proved popular following this first excursion as Cook organised them for the next four years.[4]

The majority of these temperance trips were not run to make profit. They were simply to help those who wished to partake in the ideas around these conferences and meetings get there, although spreading the word via these excursions also helped. Eventually these trips became large enough to become economically viable. The first of these excursions for profit was an organised trip to Liverpool, with travellers from across the Midlands, mostly from Derby, Nottingham and Leicester.[5] Cook created a handbook for this trip, which would be a similar to a modern day guidebook, explaining the itinerary for the trip. These would become a staple for all of Cook’s travellers.

A later example of a handbook used by the company. Cook’s Handbook for London With Two Maps (1893), British Library

By the 1850s, the business had grown enough for Cook to finally become a full-time travel operator and leave the printing trade. This decision was also fuelled by the sad loss of his mother. Loss sometimes has the funny way of making us see what we really want or need and in this instance, Thomas Cook was no different. It also helped that one of his biggest successes in those early years came in 1851 with the Great Exhibition held at London’s Crystal Palace (and no not the football team). The exhibition featured exhibits meant to showcase the industry and ingenuity of the British Empire, but also offered people an opportunity to glimpse the world in just one exhibition. In total, it’s been estimated that Cook gave 100,000 people discounted travel to the Great Exhibition.[6]

Following on from this success, in 1855, the ambition grew to organising trips to Europe, starting with the 1855 Paris Exposition. A cynic would probably say it was money and profit that fuelled this decision. In fact it again was really fuelled by his Christian beliefs. At the time, Britain had seen France as a threat and enemy, largely down to the Napoleonic wars. Cook was a pacifist and instead thought offering tours to Paris could help promote peace. He thought it would make English people more tolerant towards foreigners and reduce the kind of “hatred and narrow-minded attitudes that led to wars”.[7] Of course the logistics of organising trips to Europe would be much more difficult than arranging ones in England. For a start different companies and currencies were involved during these trips, meaning a lot more complications. After the first trip these problems were eventually ironed out, as any business would do after starting something new.

During these early days, Thomas Cook himself personally guided the tours. He would stay at the helm for many decades, until his son, John Mason, took over primary control in the 1870s, ensuring all was well for his customers. Not only did he offer them ‘working men’s excursions’, which were mainly day trips in England, but his foreign tours were promoted to the middle classes, who now could afford the discounted rates that Cook provided. Cook was able to change the way that travel was viewed as it was now something more people outside the aristocracy could do for leisure, all thanks to Cook’s guided tour, transport, accommodation and meals now becoming a whole package.[8]

Thomas Cook Memorial Cottages, © Copyright Trevor Rickard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Cook’s business success is indicative of his drive to allow tourism to open up to wider society. His previous skills in printing press allowed him to advertise his tours, as well as create guidebooks needed by his travellers. Most importantly, his Christian values drove him to share the world that God had created. Whilst of course we may not understand that now, there is no denying that was a huge motivation to him. This motivation can still be seen in his birthplace of Melbourne, Derbyshire. A selection of pretty almshouses built at the end of Cook’s life still survive there. They were meant as a place specifically designed to house the poor and include a caretakers house and a chapel.[9]

Whilst all of the achievements of Thomas Cook are hard to put into a single post, I hope that the genuine enthusiasm and business mind of the man have been shown. I know he would have been sad if he knew how his business came to an abrupt holt in 2019, but that doesn’t detract from the peace and love of the world he wanted to share with others during his early days as a travel operator. These were what drove the company to exist not just under his son, but were what the entire company had been originally founded upon.


[1] Harry Sherrin, ‘Thomas Cook and the Invention of Mass Tourism in Victorian Britain’, History Hit, 3 March 2022, https://www.historyhit.com/thomas-cook-invention-of-tourism/

[2] Britannica, Thomas Cook, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Cook

[3] Waleed Hazbun, ‘The East as an Exhibit: Thomas Cook & Son and the Origins of the International Tourism Industry in Egypt’, in Philip Scranton and Janet F. Davidson (eds), The Business of Tourism: Place, Faith and History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), p. 9

[4] Harry Sherrin, ‘Thomas Cook and the Invention of Mass Tourism’, https://www.historyhit.com/thomas-cook-invention-of-tourism/

[5] Ibid

[6] Waleed Hazbun, ‘The East as an Exhibit’, p. 9

[7] History Press, Thomas Cook’s First Tours to the Continent, https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/thomas-cook-s-first-tours-to-the-continent/

[8] Harry Sherrin, ‘Thomas Cook and the Invention of Mass Tourism’, https://www.historyhit.com/thomas-cook-invention-of-tourism/

[9] British Listed Buildings, Thomas Cook Almshouses, Chapel and Railings, https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101096389-thomas-cook-almshouses-chapel-and-railings-melbourne#.YwX1qXbMK3B

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2 thoughts on “Thomas Cook: the Inventor of the Package Tour

  1. Melbourne remains a charming village, well worth a visit, including the church and historic Melbourne Hall. I also recommend the walk from there to Breedon on the Hill and back!

    Like

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