The renowned travel company marked 175 years in the business on Monday. Juliet Dennis and Amie Keeley track how Thomas Cook evolved from a train journey to Loughborough in 1841 to be the UK’s number-two operator today.
Some of Thomas Cook’s longest‑serving agents were this week among those who helped recreate the company’s first excursion – a steam train ride from Leicester to Loughborough – exactly 175 years on.
Local schoolchildren and customers were also invited to board the specially chartered steam train on a journey that cost one shilling a head back in 1841.
The event is one of many planned in July and August and follows an anniversary bike ride from the company’s HQ in Peterborough to Paris, which raised £100,000 for its Children’s Charity.
“There are not many businesses that have been going as long as Thomas Cook,” says Kathryn Darbandi, Cook’s director of retail and customer experience.
“The anniversary is a great opportunity to educate customers and staff. What is most relevant to me is that 175 years ago we invented the package holiday and we are still doing it 175 years on.”
Cook opened its first shop in 1865. By 1965 it had 93 stores, and today it has 796.
Darbandi says the company’s heritage helps attract and retain staff and bolsters its brand on the high street. Cook has eight shop staff who have been with the company more than 40 years.
“Our longstanding staff are very proud of the heritage and new starters are inspired by it,” says Darbandi. “Thomas Cook is still well known globally. It was built on retail and there is a perception that it has been around the longest.”
Darbandi says the values that were at the heart of the business 175 years ago – customers, service and knowledge – remain core today.
On August 25, the company will hold charity events in its shops, from cake bakes to sponsored Monopoly board games. All shop windows will feature the 175 logo. Senior retail staff will also take part in a 12-mile sponsored walk from Leicester to Loughborough.
Mr Thomas Cook: the social idealist
When Thomas Cook created a travel company, his goal was to improve society.
Described as an idealist, Cook organised his first train excursion on July 5, 1841, from Leicester to Loughborough, for supporters of the teetotal Temperance Movement, and by 1855 he had started to organise trips overseas.
Thomas Cook archivist Paul Smith says: “For Thomas Cook, travel was about social improvement. If people drank less, became better educated and did more with their time and money, society would benefit. Travel was a catalyst for improving society.
“If he could persuade trains to offer cheaper fares, he could promote them and enable more people from a lower class, the middle classes, to travel. In those days people did not travel for leisure; only those who were very wealthy. He was trying to make travel easier, cheaper and safer.”
Not only did Cook produce what was to be the forerunner of the modern brochure in 1851 – a publication called The Excursionist, which included rail fares – he also established what is now the UK’s oldest travel agency chain.
He opened his first shop, Thomas Cook & Son, at 98 Fleet Street, London, in 1865, by which time he claimed to have booked one million passengers on his trips.
Famous customers include Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill.
The shop sold railway tickets, tours, including to Paris, Italy and Switzerland, as well as luggage, guidebooks and telescopes.
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