Cook, the son of a labourer, left school at 10 years old and worked as a gardener’s assistant and cabinet maker’s apprentice for a while. He was a religious young man who had been brought up as a strict Baptist. In 1828 he became an itinerant village preacher who was totally opposed to alcohol.
Many people believed that drink was the scourge of the working classes and his temperance message was warmly received by like-minded Christians in the English Midlands. Cook and his friends walked long distances to attend meetings and in 1841 he persuaded the local railway company to organise a special train to transport 500 teetotallers a distance of 19km - the first advertised train excursion in Britain. The fare for the journey in open carriages was a shilling return, and more temperance day trips followed.
The idea of arranging longer conducted tours for his own profit germinated slowly. In 1845 Cook took a party to Liverpool and Wales, followed by a less successful tour to Scotland. In 1851 he organised the travel arrangements for 150000 people who visited the Great Exhibition in London.
His first excursion abroad involved a grand circular tour of Belgium, Germany and France, culminating in a stopover in Paris for the 1855 International Exhibition. A decade later he ventured to Switzerland, Italy, Egypt and the US, and mass inter-continental tourism was born. Ever innovative and meticulous, Cook introduced travel brochures, circular tickets and hotel coupons.
This paved the way for the first round-the-world tour in 1872/3. Cook and his small party covered more than 46670km by ship and rail and were away for 222 days. This excursion was far beyond the reach of the working classes and cost 200 guineas. The travellers crossed the Atlantic to the US and proceeded westwards to Japan, China, Malaya, Ceylon, India, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France.
Another pioneering venture was the first escorted tour from Cairo to the Cape in 1922. It lasted five months and included a one-month safari.
In 1886, after the near-sinking of a pilgrim ship, the Indian government asked the firm to broaden its scope to help Muslims travel to Mecca for the annual Hajj, a task it performed for seven years.
In his book The Cape Hajj Tradition, Past and Present, Mogamat Hoosain Ebrahim writes that local pilgrims often booked their sea passages or flights through Thomas Cook’s Cape Town office, which appointed a Muslim sub-agent, Hajji Muhammad Ebrahim Peerbhai, in the 1930s.
* Jackie Loos' "The Way We Were" column is published in the Cape Argus every week.
*** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.