The remarkable Mr. Thomas Cook

When you walk into a travel agent’s showroom you’re inevitably confronted by racks of glossy colour brochures, presenting the world as your oyster.

Despite the economy, this industry continues to flourish, and there’s no doubt that putting your itinerary in the hands of a good travel agent can save many headaches and disappointments. So let’s spare a thought for the guy who started it all, more than 170 years ago.

Thomas Cook was a Baptist preacher and secretary of a temperance society in Leicester, England in the 1830s, and his living was precarious.

So he was fertile ground for the idea that struck him, fully formed, while walking to a meeting of the faithful one day. Steam-driven trains were still in their infancy, but he later recalled, "What a glorious thing I thought it would be, if steam locomotion could be made subservient to the promotion of temperance!" He couldn’t help noticing that the industrial revolution, cramming people into the cities, had built up enormous social stresses. Perhaps travel, he reasoned, as a safety valve to relieve the tension of their brutal daily lives, was an idea whose time

had come. And Cook was on the lookout for some sound enterprise that might supplement his meagre funds. So why not use temperance zeal to attract society members to a mammoth gala of celebration? And he would provide the railway tickets for everybody and take a percentage of the price.

He knew that the fledgling railway companies were having trouble finding passengers, so off Cook trotted to present the idea to the local management. He soft-pedalled the temperance angle and simply offered to fill a whole train with people, if they would charter it to him for the

day. Those hard-faced railwaymen were impressed with the notion and quickly struck up an arrangement to Cook’s liking.

He worked day and night, hiring help, organizing brass bands, making sure that the day would be a credit to the whole temperance movement. Cook printed thousands of leaflets and distributed them to all and sundry, especially on Sundays. He was the embodiment of the puritanical Protestant work ethic – and it all paid off.

On the big day, 2,000 people showed up for that first Cook excursion, but there were only sufficient wagons to transport less than 600 passengers, squashed together in contraptions that were open to the elements. The day was a roaring success.

The irony of this high-minded initiative is that towards dusk, many of the excursionists had suspiciously red faces, unsteady legs and loud voices, caused it was later admitted, by rum, the very demon which the outing had been designed to attack! The rest of Cook’s career is a testament to family enterprise, because his son John became the driving force.

But it shows what can be built from a novel idea in a good cause, which quickly became a very profitable service to the travelling world. And the Brits still love their railway outings, particularly if there’s a big steam engine up front.

I’ve been on a couple of memorable ones myself, years ago. Non-temperance of course.

(Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.)