The destination for history

Thomas Cook’s first tours to the continent


Soon after the emotional blow of his mother’s death, Thomas Cook took a brave step. He gave up his printing business so he could become a full-time tourist operator, having already been in travel commercially for ten years. Liverpool and Wales were augmented by more destinations and more trips to seaside resorts like Scarborough, with its steamboat trips, the town near Melbourne, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, with its baths, castle and pleasure grounds, the Lake District, the Isle of Man and Ireland.

Next, in 1855, with some trepidation Thomas decided to extend his business to non-English-speaking countries and he went off to France and Belgium to make advance preliminary arrangements. The highlight of the trip was to take visitors to the Universal Exhibition in the Champs-Élysées. Napoleon III, not to be outdone by the English, was putting on an equivalent show to the Great Exhibition on a site of twenty-four acres with 20,000 exhibitors. Much to the surprise of many critics, Victoria and Albert accepted the invitation from the self-styled emperor and would make the first visit of a British monarch to France since 1431. This contrasted with the government of Victoria’s grandfather, George III, who had ignored post-revolutionary French titles, and referred to the emperor as ‘General Bonaparte’. So, as with his second Scottish trip, Thomas yet again followed the route of the Queen.

The Excursionist carried a proposal that ‘on or about 7 August we will start an excursion to the Continent for a fortnight, on condition that we have guaranteed by a deposit of 20s each person before the 9th of July, not less than 50 passengers’. Thomas was again in an only too familiar role, fighting reluctant companies for group concessions. This time his struggle was with the controllers of the cross-Channel traffic. Eventually, unable to make bookings on direct trains from England, he planned a circuitous route on the Great Eastern Railway.

His first party set off on 4 July with much gaiety and expectation, not on the Calais to Dover route, but via Antwerp, Brussels, Aix-la-Chapelle, Cologne, up the Rhine to Mayence, Mannheim, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Baden-Baden, Strasbourg, Paris, Le Havre, Southampton, London and back to the Midland district. Apart from education and enjoyment one of the aims of the trip was to cement a new era of peace. Travel, said Thomas, made people more tolerant of foreigners, and reduced hatred and narrow-minded attitudes that led to wars.

Unfamiliar with either the languages or customs, he wrote:

the difficulties…were neither few nor small. In making arrangements we had a hard fight with Continental Companies; and it required unceasing vigilance to keep on the good side of hotel keepers, money changers, booking clerks, and others with whom we had pecuniary transactions. The fluctuating rates of currencies; the wretched and uneven appearance of coins and notes; the conglomeration of francs, centimes, thalers, gold and silver groschen, pfennigs, florin and kreutzers; the loss inevitable on every transaction; and the still more vexatious loss occasioned by the advantage taken of John Bull’s ignorance of the amounts and comparative value of ‘small change’; all these monetary perplexities caused continued annoyance to most of the Parties…

Thomas warned his men of the temptations of Paris: ‘The can-can is danced by paid performers, and is altogether an unnatural and forced abandon.’ The women in the party were cautioned not to ‘enter the cafes on the north side of the Boulevards, between the Grand Opera and the Rue St. Denis’. Meanwhile the French came from far and wide to welcome Queen Victoria, who caused a stir by going to Napoleon’s marble tomb.

After doing everything from exploring the Louvre to floating on a barge down the Seine, for two days Thomas’s tourists became part of the excited throng jostling the exhibition hall in Paris to see the latest in inventions, design and art - even a collection of watercolours by the Scottish artist David Roberts, who had visited Egypt, Syria and Palestine in February 1839. With some new friends Roberts had trudged across the Sinai to the legendary ruins of Petra, arriving in Jerusalem for Easter. On his return, a publisher had paid him 3,000 pounds sterling for the lithographs, which became the three volumes of The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Egypt, Nubia, published in 1842 and 1849 and did much to stimulate interest in the Holy Land.

The next destination on Thomas’s itinerary, Waterloo, was unexpected. Like many Baptists and followers of the Anti-Corn Law movement, he promoted pacifism and opposed the annual celebrations of the anniversary of Wellington’s victory. But he could not hide his fascination for battles and battlefields. By charging tourists a supplement to accompany him to Waterloo, he again showed that he was compromising. It was already a place of pilgrimage. The frequently described relics of the battlefield - the bones of horses, hats, rags and scraps of leather and uniforms, account books, prayer books and papers - had long gone, but tourists were given graphic re-enactments. Sir Walter Scott had been followed by Victor Hugo, who also came there, immortalising the place in Les Misérables.

Already a competitor, Henry Gaze, who had escorted tours to Boulogne and Paris seven years before Thomas, had beaten Thomas to Waterloo. Gaze never conducted such large numbers as Thomas, but he accused him of copying his ideas and produced a pamphlet claiming that certain companies were apt to monopolise powers which are the property of all tourist agents. Rivalry between them persisted until the end of the century when Gaze and his business vanished.

Thomas’s second party to Paris which set off on 16 August was easier to organise. ‘In the former trip we had to keep re-booking the passengers at every stopping place but we have now provided a ticket which will take the tourist upwards of 1,000 miles without further trouble.’ He added that by the close of the second excursion ‘we had gained a pretty ready acquaintance with these varieties in currencies, coins, prices, &c; and this knowledge, though dearly purchased, we felt to be very essential’. The second trip also had the option of a trip which included Aix-la-Chapelle, Cologne, where they sailed on the Rhine to Coblenz, Mayence, Frankfurt and Heidelberg.

Although these trips were a financial loss, Thomas stored up knowledge from them for later years, when he would send clients abroad with bilingual nanny-like tour leaders. Reluctantly he admitted that these ‘were charming Tours, but denuded of much of their enjoyment by pecuniary losses’. A third trip failed to materialise, as did any further excursions to the continent for the following year. With resignation he wrote that ‘we have abandoned all thoughts of invading France on a Tourist Campaign.’

Extracted from Thomas Cook: The Holiday-Maker by Jill Hamilton

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