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The History of Holidays: Part Three

While the workers of the Lancashire mill towns were jumping on trains and speeding off to the nearest seaside, further south in Leicestershire a temperance campaigner called Thomas Cook was pioneering another type of holiday which stills flourishes today: the package holiday.

Thomas Cook seems an unlikely person to have set off the chain of events which led to Club 18-30. Born in 1808, Cook was a strict Baptist who at the age of 25 took the temperance pledge to abstain from alcohol, and soon became heavily involved in encouraging others to do the same.

The temperance movement promoted its views through meetings, processions and rallies designed as jolly social events to attract people to the teetotal lifestyle. Unlikely as it sounds, the first ‘package holiday’ organised by Thomas Cook was a day trip from Leicester to Loughborough (a distance of 11 miles) for a temperance meeting on 5 July 1841. Around 485 people paid a shilling each to travel on a train hired from the Midland Railway Company for a day of marches, speeches, games and tea. They arrived back in Leicester at 10.30pm. We can presume they were tired but happy!

Thomas Cook had realised the potential of arranging trips for others. Railway companies were willing to offer reduced rates and customised schedules for block bookings, and travellers were happy to have someone else organise everything for them. Just as the railways made seaside holidays accessible to the masses, railways also made possible day excursions to other places of interest. Although Thomas Cook’s first organised trips were between various towns in the Midlands on behalf of local temperance societies and Sunday schools, his business really took off in 1851 when he organised trips to the Great Exhibition in London for workers from the Midlands and Yorkshire. By the end of the Exhibition, 150,000 people had travelled with Thomas Cook.

A young girl crouches down while on the beach playing with the sand. Next to her is a yellow plastic spade and the sea lies in the background.

It wasn’t long before Thomas Cook had set his sights across the Channel. The spread of the railway network throughout Europe meant that destinations like Switzerland, Germany and Italy were within reach. Thanks to Thomas Cook’s company, middle-class travellers could now visit places previously accessible only to the very wealthy on the ‘Grand Tour’. In 1855 Thomas Cook led his first continental tour, taking two parties through Belgium and Germany and on to Paris. The following year he led his first ‘Grand Circular Tour of the Continent’.

Thomas Cook planned the trips carefully, personally travelling the routes and scouting out the places to be visited and then escorting the tourists himself. His company offered the traveller the full ‘package’: travel, accommodation and food were all included in the ticket price. As the company expanded, it also introduced two new concepts into the world of travel. The ‘hotel coupon’ allowed a traveller to stay in a hotel or have a meal in any hotel on ‘Cook’s list’, while his so-called ‘circular notes’ were an early form of travellers’ cheques.

Everything possible was done to make life easier for the tourist. In fact, with Thomas Cook and his uniformed employees escorting tourists to and from destinations, arranging hotels, restaurants and guided tours and generally organising every aspect of life abroad, it was possible to be away from home for weeks without interacting with a single foreigner!

By the 1860s, the well-to-do Briton could travel as far afield as Egypt and America with Cook’s Tours. Thomas Cook’s son, John Mason Cook, personally conducted the company’s first American tour in 1866 while in 1869 Thomas Cook hired two paddle steamers and began running excursions to the Pyramids. In fact, he took so many tourists to the Nile in the following decades that it was dubbed ‘Cook’s Canal’. Thomas Cook himself escorted the first round-the-world tour in 1872.

A family; Mum, Dad, Son and Daughter hold hands while standing at the edge of the sea as waves splash forward.

Thomas Cook retired in 1878 and his energetic son took over the business – he had already joined the company, now trading as Thomas Cook & Son. On John Mason Cook’s death in 1899, the company was taken over by his three sons and it remained a family concern for more than 80 years until 1928. It continued trading as the most recognised name in the British travel industry, under various owners both private and public, until its demise in 2019.

Our thanks to writer and supporter Catherine Randall @Crr1Randall for contributing these articles