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A history of Thomas Cook & Son (1841 – 1972)

Thomas Cook & Son pioneered popular tourism, and has ranked among the largest travel agencies in the world for much of its history.

Thomas Cook
Thomas Cook (1808 – 1892) was born in modest circumstances in Melbourne, Derbyshire. He was raised as a New Connexion Baptist. Thomas Cook was just four years old when his father died.

Cook went to work as a gardener in Melbourne from the age of ten. His employer was a heavy drinker, and Cook noticed the detrimental effect this had on his business.

Cook was apprenticed to a wood turner in Market Harborough, Leicestershire from the age of 14. He would sometimes begin work at two or three o’clock in the morning so that he could finish work early and indulge in his passion of angle fishing in the River Trent.

Cook did not complete his apprenticeship, and instead went to work for a printer and publisher in Loughborough. His employer was a keen Baptist. Cook was engaged as a Baptist preacher from 1828.

Cook entered into business for himself from 1832, as a wood turner and cabinet market in Market Harborough. Cook became closely associated with the temperance movement from this time.

Cook organised an excursion from Leicester to Loughborough for 570 temperance supporters in 1841. It was the first time a British train had been chartered by a member of the public.

Cook relocated to Leicester later in 1841, where he worked as a printer and publisher.

Meanwhile, his travel agency business continued to grow. 300 people were taken to Scotland in 1846.

Statue of Thomas Cook (1808 – 1892) in Leicester

The growth of the railways had made travel more affordable, and Thomas Cook was quick to identify and exploit this potential market.

The Great Exhibition was held in London in 1851, and Cook arranged for 165,000 people to visit the capital. Profits were such that Cook was able to abandon the printing trade at this stage in order to devote himself to his travel agency business.

John Mason Cook
John Mason Cook (1834 – 1899), son of Thomas Cook, was appointed head of a new office at Fleet Street, London from 1865. An energetic man, he made an immediate impact, and the subsequent growth of the business was due as much to the son as the father.

John Mason Cook entered into full partnership with his father from 1871, and the firm became known as Thomas Cook & Son, with an invested capital of over £250,000.

Formerly the Thomas Cook head office in Leicester
The former Thomas Cook head office in Leicester

Business saw J M Cook travel an average of 50,000 miles a year between 1855 and 1873.

Thomas Cook retired in 1878, and John Mason Cook took full control of the firm.

Under the leadership of John Mason Cook, the business continued to expand until it had 84 offices and 2,962 staff (978 of them in Egypt) by 1891.

J M Cook died in 1899, and the gross value of his estate was assessed at £390,000. He was succeeded in business by his three sons; Frank Henry Cook (1862 – 1931), Ernest Edward Cook (1866 – 1955) and Thomas Albert Cook (1867 – 1914).

Conversion into a private limited company and successive owners
Thomas Cook & Son became a private limited company with a capital of £800,000 from 1924.

The head office was relocated to larger premises at Berkeley Street, Piccadilly, from 1926.

Thomas Cook & Son was sold to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits of Belgium, operators of the Orient Express, for £3.5 million in 1927. The merger created the largest travel agency in the world, and it was believed that considerable cost-savings would be made.

The sale of the business allowed Frank Henry Cook to retire as chairman in 1929. He died in 1932, with a gross estate valued at £1,054,769.

Thomas Cook & Son had operations in 300 locations, and employed over 4,000 people by 1939. The head office at Berkeley Street employed 1,500 people at peak periods.

Wagons-Lits came under German control during the Second World War, and Thomas Cook & Son assets were seized by the British government and handed to the four major railway companies.

The British railways, and Thomas Cook & Son with it, were nationalised in 1948.

Thomas Cook & Son claimed to be the largest travel company in the world in 1971. 10,000 people were employed across 420 offices.

The British government sold Thomas Cook & Son to a consortium of businesses headed by Midland Bank for £22.5 million in 1972.