The collapse of Thomas Cook and Sons seems a good opportunity to remember the founder of the company and the age of excursions which he helped initiate. When he founded the business in Leicestershire in 1841 it was for local visits only. Package tours which included whole UK itineraries, including steamer travel, and trips abroad came later. A cabinet maker and Baptist preacher, he wanted to offer working class people a harmless and healthy alternative to drinking, which he saw as at the root of most social ills. He used the newly built railway to offer his first 12-mile trip from Leicester to Loughborough, at the cost of a shilling per head. The visit was such a success that Cook repeated it over several summers on behalf of Sunday schools, thus laying the foundations for the business which survived until this year. He was not the only ‘excursion agent’ of the period. Others were active – and successful – but what secured Cook’s fame was his association with the Great Exhibition of 1851. He not only organised the trains; he also found accommodation for visitors to the Exhibition. I have written in an earlier blog about the part he played in setting up Harrison’s Hostel in Pimlico. Here is an extract from Mr Blackwood’s Fabularium:
Now for those of you for whom that summer of 1851 is a faded memory or perhaps not even a memory at all, let me say a little about our destination. In order to prevent landlords from taking advantage of their guests, the great excursionist Mr Thomas Cook had persuaded Mr Thomas Harrison of Pimlico to turn his furniture depository into a hostel where visitors might be cheaply and decently lodged. For one and threepence per night up to a thousand residents were to be provided with bed and bedding, soap and towel. A decent breakfast was to be had for 4d, a good dinner for 8d, and for a further penny per item, the visitor might have his boots blacked, his chin shaved and his infirmities treated by a surgeon who attended every morning at nine. The dormitories were partitioned into cubicles, and, in order to prevent pilfering or drunkenness, janitors patrolled the gas-lit corridors day and night. If the necessities of life had been provided for, the luxuries were not neglected either: there was a large smoking room in which a band played every evening, gratis, and on top of the building an observation platform from which visitors might enjoy uninterrupted views of the river and the city.
In my next blog I shall look at the work of some of the other Victorian excursion agents.