Thomas Cook & Son

Thomas Cook & Son Limited
Private, 1841–1948; 1972-2002
Government-owned (British Transport Commission) 1948–72
Industry Hospitality, Tourism
Fate Acquired
Successor Thomas Cook AG
Founded 1841
Founder Thomas Cook
Defunct 2002
Headquarters London, England, UK
Area served

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 2001, 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 organized his first tours to Europe in 1855 and to the United States in 1866.[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] 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 1868. 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 1866, the agency organized the first escorted tours of the United States for British travellers, picking up passengers from several departure points. John Mason Cook led the excursion which included tours of several Civil War battlefields. In 1871 a brief but bitter partnership called Cook, Son and Jenkins was formed in the United States with an American businessman. The first escorted round-the-world tour departed from London in September 1872. It included a steamship across the Atlantic, a stage coach across America, a paddle steamer to Japan, and an overland journey across China and India. The tour cost around £300 and lasted 222 days.

In 1873, publication of the quarterly (monthly from 1883) Cook's Continental Timetable began. It continues to be published in 2016, but no longer by Thomas Cook Publishing, which was wound up by its 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 his 'circular notes', a product that was originally devised by a London banker in the 1770s and was later superseded by American Express's 'traveller's cheques'.[4]

In 1884, the British Government attempted to relieve General Gordon from Khartoum.[1] The British army was transported up the Nile by Thomas Cook & Son.

Conflicts of interest between father and son were resolved when the son persuaded his father, Thomas Cook, to retire at the end of 1878. He moved back to Leicester and lived quietly until his death. The firm's growth was consolidated by John Mason Cook and his three 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 Thomas Cook & Son Ltd., after acquiring 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

With the boom in travel in the Edwardian era, John Mason Cook's sons, Frank Henry, Thomas Albert and Ernest Edward, were even more successful than their father and grandfather at running the business. Frank and Ernest opened a new headquarters in Berkeley Street, London in 1926, but unexpectedly sold the business two years later to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits.

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 taken over by the Custodian of Enemy Property. In 1942, Thomas Cook & Son Ltd. was sold to the proprietors of Hay's Wharf, the four major British railway companies at this time, with the aim of preventing its bankruptcy. The company was nationalised along with the railways in 1948, becoming part of the British Transport Commission.[1]

In the late 1950s the company began showing information films at town halls throughout Britain to promote 'foreign holidays' (particularly France, Italy, Switzerland and Spain). The company sold "inclusive tours" (package holidays) using scheduled airlines but refused to sell cheap package holidays which compromised on quality and service. As a result, the company began to lose market share during the 1950s and 1960s, although its operating profits exceeded £1 million for the first time in 1965. The company was denationalised in 1972, when it was acquired from the British Government by a consortium of Trust House Forte, Midland Bank and the Automobile Association.[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 Group Ltd in 1974, and the company began to relocate most of its administrative functions from London to Peterborough.

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 2001 Thomas Cook was acquired by the German company C&N Touristic AG, which changed its name to Thomas Cook AG.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Thomas Cook History
  2. 1 2 Andrew Williamson (2001). The Golden Age of Travel (Travel Heritage). Thomas Cook. ISBN 978-1-900341-33-2.
  3. 1 2 "Thomas Cook History: Key Dates". Thomas Cook Group. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  4. Competition Commission Report 1995
  5. 1 2 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

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