Thomas Cook & Son

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Thomas Cook & Son, Ltd.
Former type Private, 1841–1948; 1972-2002
Government-owned (British Transport Commission) 1948–72
Industry Hospitality, Tourism
Fate Acquired
Successors Thomas Cook AG
Founded 1841
Founders Thomas Cook
Defunct 2002
Headquarters London, England, UK
Area served Global

Thomas Cook & Son, originally simply Thomas Cook, was a company founded by Thomas Cook, a cabinet-maker, in 1841 to carry temperance supporters by railway between the cities of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Birmingham.[1] It was succeeded by Thomas Cook AG after being sold to a German company in 2002, but since 2007 the descendant company is Thomas Cook Group plc.


One of the dahabeahs of Thomas Cook & Son, (Egypt) Ltd. Berlin: Cosmos art publishing Co., 1893. Brooklyn Museum Archives

In 1851, the founder arranged transport to the Great Exhibition of 1851.[1] He organised his first tours to Europe in 1855 and to the United States in 1865.[1] In 1865, the founder's son John Mason Cook began working for the company full-time. In 1871, he became a partner, and the name of the company was changed to Thomas Cook & Son.[2][3]

Thomas Cook had acquired business premises on Fleet Street, London, in 1865.[3] By this time, Cook had stopped personal tours and became an agent for foreign or domestic travel. The office also contained a shop which sold travel accessories, including guide books, luggage, telescopes and footwear. Thomas saw his venture as both religious and social service; his son provided the commercial expertise that allowed the company to expand. In accordance with his beliefs, he and his wife also ran a small temperance hotel above the office. Their business model was refined by the introduction of the 'hotel coupon' in 1866. Detachable coupons in a counterfoil book were issued to the traveller. These were valid for either a restaurant meal or an overnight hotel stay, provided they were on Cook's list.

Panels from the Thomas Cook Building in Leicester, displaying excursions offered by Thomas Cook

In 1865, the agency organised tours of the United States, picking up passengers from several departure points. John Mason Cook led the excursion which included tours of several Civil War battlefields. A brief but bitter partnership was formed with an American businessman in 1871, called Cook, Son and Jenkins; however, after an acrimonious split the agency reverted to its original name. A round-the-world tour started in 1872, which for 200 guineas, included a steamship across the Atlantic, a stage coach across America, a paddle steamer to Japan, and an overland journey across China and India, lasting 222 days.

In 1873, publication of the quarterly (monthly from 1883) Cook's Continental Timetable began. It continues to be published in 2014, but no longer by Thomas Cook Publishing, which was wound up by its the parent company in 2013; the timetable was relaunched in 2014 by an independent company, under the title European Rail Timetable, no longer affiliated with Thomas Cook Group.

In 1874, Thomas Cook introduced 'circular notes', a product that later became better known by American Express's brand, 'traveller's cheques'.[4]

In 1884, John Mason Cook attempted to relieve General Gordon from Khartoum.[1]

Conflicts of interest between father and son were resolved when the son persuaded his father, Thomas Cook, to retire in 1879. He moved back to Leicestershire and lived quietly until his death. The firm's growth was consolidated by John Mason Cook and his two sons, especially by its involvement with military transport and postal services for Britain and Egypt during the 1880s when Cook began organising tours to the Middle East. By 1888, the company had established offices around the world, including three in Australia and one in Auckland, New Zealand, and in 1890, the company sold over 3.25 million tickets.[5] A husband and wife might, for example, pay £85 for a Thomas Cook tour of Germany, Switzerland, and France over six weeks. While expensive enough that the trip would likely be the only one in their lifetime, the company would arrange for a variety of activities new to the middle class including museum visits, the opera, and mountain climbing.[6] John Mason Cook promoted, and even led, excursions to, for example, the Middle East where he was described as "the second-greatest man in Egypt".[5] However, while arranging for the German Emperor Wilhelm II to visit Palestine in 1898, he contracted dysentery and died the following year.

In 1924, the company was renamed to Thomas Cook & Son Ltd., after acquiring a limited liability status.[2] In 1928, the business was sold to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grandes Express Européens, operator of the Orient Express.

Non-family ownership[edit]

John Mason Cook's sons, Frank Henry, Thomas Albert and Ernest Edward, were not nearly as successful as their father and grandfather at running the business.

Despite opening a new headquarters in Berkeley Street, London in 1926, ownership of Thomas Cook & Son only remained with the family until 1928, when it was sold to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. During the 1930s the travel agency changed its focus from tours to Egypt and Palestine. Indeed the company was a principal employer in Egypt, involved in shipping, transport and touring operations. After the outbreak of World War II the Paris headquarters of the Wagons-Lits company was seized by the occupying forces, and the British assets requisitioned by the British government. In 1941, the centenary of the company, Thomas Cook & Son Ltd. was sold to the four major railway companies with the aim of expanding it further. The company was nationalised along with the railways in 1948, becoming part of the British Transport Commission.[1]

In the early 1950s the company began promoting 'foreign holidays' (particularly Italy, Spain and Switzerland) by showing information films at town halls throughout Britain. However they did not sell cheap package holidays, which included transport and accommodation, a decision costly to the company. The company went further into decline, and was rescued by a consortium of Trust House Forte, Midland Bank and the Automobile Association that bought the company from the British Government on 26 May 1972.[7] Midland Bank acquired sole control in 1977. U.S. banking laws prohibited any national banks from owning travel agencies, so the U.S. operations were sold to Dun & Bradstreet in 1975.

The company's name was altered from Thomas Cook & Son, Ltd, to Thomas Cook Ltd around 1974, and the company's Publishing Office was moved from London to Peterborough in July 1974.

After restructuring the company and re-entering the traveller's cheque business the company prospered again. During the 1980s Thomas Cook had its most visible business presence in the U.S., including robust traveller's cheque sales to regional U.S. banks. The company had enough business critical mass to set up a computer centre near Princeton, New Jersey. Robert Gaffney and Samuel Malek were two of the notable decision-makers in that era. Robert Maxwell bought substantial holdings in the company in 1988. He was expected to sell his holdings quickly as he was a publisher rather than a travel agent. However, when Crimson/Heritage purchased the U.S. division of Thomas Cook for US$1.3 billion in 1989,[8] he still maintained a substantial interest in the company until his death.

In June 1992, following the acquisition of Midland Bank by HSBC, Thomas Cook was sold to the German bank Westdeutsche Landesbank (WestLB) and the charter airline LTU Group for £200 million.

In September 1994 American Express (Amex) bought the corporate travel interests of Thomas Cook Travel Inc. which represented about ten percent of the British company's total revenue. However Amex was not able to buy the venerable Thomas Cook name; an American Express affiliate, Cook Travel Inc., had been operating under that name since 1991 in the United States.

A modern Thomas Cook travel agency in Leeds.

Due to contractual difficulties LTU Group sold its 10% shares to WestLB in May 1995. During 1996 the company bought short-haul operator Sunworld and European city-breaks tour group Time Off. Within three years the company had combined Sunworld, Sunset, Inspirations, Flying Colours and Caledonian Airways into the JMC (for John Mason Cook) brand.

On 2 February 1999 the Carlson Leisure Group merged with Thomas Cook into a holding company owned by West LB, Carlson Inc and Preussag Aktiengesellschaft ("Preussag").[9] However, in mid-2000 Preussag acquired Thomas Cook's rival Thomson Travel and was forced to sell its majority 50.1% stake in Thomas Cook by regulatory authorities.

In 2000, the company announced its intention to sell its Financial Services division, to concentrate on tours and holidays.[10] In March 2001 the Financial Services division was sold to Travelex, who retained the right to use the Thomas Cook brand on Traveller's Cheques for 5 years.

After the market depression, particularly following the 2001 September 11 attacks, the company started a disinvestment programme, disposing of subsidiaries and business ventures.

In 2002 Thomas Cook was acquired by the German company C&N Touristic AG, which later changed its name to Thomas Cook AG.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Thomas Cook History
  2. ^ a b Andrew Williamson (2001). The Golden Age of Travel (Travel Heritage). Thomas Cook. ISBN 978-1-900341-33-2. 
  3. ^ a b "Thomas Cook History: Key Dates". Thomas Cook Group. Retrieved 19 April 2013. 
  4. ^ Competition Commission Report 1995
  5. ^ a b Anthony Coleman (1999). Millennium. Transworld Publishers. pp. 231–233. ISBN 0-593-04478-9. 
  6. ^ Draznin, Yaffa Claire (2001). Victorian London's Middle-Class Housewife: What She Did All Day (#179). Contributions in Women's Studies. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 138. ISBN 0-313-31399-7. 
  7. ^ "Thomas Cook packaged and sold". BBC. 26 May 1972. 
  8. ^ "Thomas Cook joins forces with Crimson; $1.3 billion agency created". Travel Weekly. December 18, 1989. 
  9. ^ "Westdeutsche Landesbank-Carlson-Thomas Cook (Merger)". Commission of the European Communities. 26 May 1999. 
  10. ^ UK Business Park

Further reading[edit]

  • J. Pudney, The Thomas Cook Story. 1953
  • Edmund S. Swinglehurst, Cook's Tours: The Story of Popular Travel. Poole, Dorset: Blandford, 1982
  • Piers Brendon, Thomas Cook: 150 Years of Popular Travel. London, 1991
  • The History of tourism: Thomas Cook and the origins of leisure travel. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Benedikt Bock (2010). Baedeker & Cook: Tourismus am Mittelrhein 1756 bis ca. 1914 [Baedeker and Cook: Tourism in the Middle Rhine 1756 to about 1914]. Mainzer Studien zur Neueren Geschichte (in German). Frankfurt: Peter Lang. ISBN 3631595816. 
  • F. Robert Hunter (2004). "Tourism and Empire: The Thomas Cook & Son Enterprise on the Nile, 1868-1914". Middle Eastern Studies 40. JSTOR 4289940. 

External links[edit]

Media related to Thomas Cook and Son at Wikimedia Commons