In a recent article on Great Britain's Prime Minister Edward Heath, Writer Anthony Lewis tried to clinch his claim that Conservative Heath was a radical at heart by citing his cold-blooded decision to let the Rolls-Royce company go bankrupt rather than pour public money into it when it might have been saved. And, to be sure, Rolls-Royce does represent the British Empire to a lot of people.
But if the author were looking for a move that really stamped the current British government as something other than traditionalist, he might have mentioned the decision to put Thos. Cook & Son Ltd., the Greatest Name in Travel, on the auction block. For if the venerable travel service is not a sacrosanct corner of Britannia, then the stiff upper lip must be a Hungarian invention.
What worries a lot of people, most of them Britons, is the danger that the 130-year-old Cook's firm might—good heavens!—be sold to an American outfit. And at least one rumor has it that it will. On the other hand, the likeliest purchaser appears to be a consortium of British tour operators who hope to raise the $20 million to $25 million estimated to buy the firm—lock, stock and Baedecker—and keep it safely on that side of the Atlantic.
Whoever buys Cook's will probably toss a cocktail party to observe the occasion, which will be the unkindest—and most ironic—cut of all, for founder Thomas Cook (1808-1892) was a lifelong enemy of demon rum, and the first tour he organized was an 1841 journey of 11 miles from Leicester to Loughborough by 570 delegates to a temperance convention.
Thus was the business of organized travel launched. Thomas Cook, cabinetmaker turned evangelist, was out to prove that there were healthier pursuits than drinking. He saw the newly invented train as a way of providing cheap excursions to promote the cause of temperance. It is not the first time in history that an idea got lost in the unexpected success of its byproduct. These first tourists, on reaching their destination, "played cricket and drank tea," their journey a sober success.
But just four years later the as-yet-unsuspecting father of tourism arranged his first nontemperance tours (to Liverpool and Scotland) and set himself up as an "excursion agent" in addition to his principal activity, that of writing and publishing The Monthly Temperance Messenger, a penny monthly called The Anti-Smoker and Progressive Temperance Reformer. Between efforts to dry out a thirsty population, Cook decided there was virtue in traveling "solely for pleasure," and in 1851 he arranged for 165,000 visitors to visit the first world's fair in London, providing transportation and housing. He began to publish a travel paper, The Excursionist, which recorded the company's activities for the next 90 years.
The mid-1800s were difficult times for many Englishmen, and the idealistic Cook rushed into print with yet another paper bearing the inspired title of The Cheap Bread Herald. He also gave openhanded support to soup kitchens, provided potatoes to victims of a famine in Leicester and deplored the easy access to cheap gin with which the workingman consoled himself. He tried to stem the "rising tide of demoralization" by dreaming up inexpensive tours poor people could afford. He and his wife even opened a temperance boarding-house on the upper floors of his first London travel office at 98 Fleet Street. By 1864 Cook claimed to have signed up a million clients.
One of his most popular items was a Grand Circular Tour of Antwerp, Brussels, Waterloo, Cologne, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Baden-Baden, Strasbourg and Paris. John Mason Cook, Thomas' only son and, as his father always pointed out, "an abstainer from birth," accompanied a group of 35 Europeans to America in 1866, returned with glowing tales of New York, Washington, recent Civil War battlefields and the visual splendors of Mammoth Cave. Papa probably wished he had gone himself, but he was busy with a scheme called the hotel coupon, to which more than 1,000 hotels courageously subscribed, thus sowing the seed for what was to become, for better or worse, the package tour. The cost of a round trip from London to Paris was 20 shillings, and for an extra 16 shillings Cook's excursionist might spend four days in the City of Light and Sin. Tourism—particularly tourism in France—delighted Napoleon III, whose secretary gave Cook the Emperor's assurance of cooperation.
Though Cook prided himself on providing economical tours for the multitudes, it wasn't long before the titled and wealthy began to ask for private tours, which the indefatigable agent happily arranged. The Archbishop of Canterbury (Campbell Tait) and party were escorted to the Riviera in spite of the Franco-Prussian War. Lord and Lady Muncaster, with their retinue, were attacked by bandits in Greece. After that embarrassment, Cook refused to take parties into trouble spots without military escort.
Now Cook began to look East, eyeing first the Holy Land, which was Turkish-controlled and had for centuries been forbidden to foreigners. Governments could not bring the wily Turks to heel, so Thomas Cook concluded private treaties with the ruling sheiks and marched his adventurous tourists into Jerusalem and other Biblical cities, an operation that required sleeping tents, dining tents, kitchens, horses, mules, innumerable servants and several watchdogs—the latter, no doubt, in case the sheiks should have second thoughts about the development of tourism in the Middle East. The Khedive of Egypt, impressed by Cook's efficiency, offered him the Nile, which was opportune, for when rebellion broke out in the Sudan in 1884, Cook was commissioned by Parliament by order of Her Majesty Queen Victoria to transport General Gordon with 11,000 English troops, 7,000 Egyptian soldiers, 130,000 tons of stores, 8,000 whaleboats and 70,000 tons of coal into the trouble spot, followed later by Wolseley relief force. It may have been the only time in history a travel agency delivered a war.
Early steamers provided by the Khedive before the fracas were not up to Cook's standards, so Cook had his own deluxe ships built, a business that thrived, taking tourists up and down the Nile for the next 80 years. The transport of Her Majesty's army was not Cook's first assignment from his Queen. In 1873, his company a little over 30 years old, he had delivered several head of royal prize cattle to an exhibition in Vienna. Other celebrities turned to Cook's. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany made a triumphal visit to Jerusalem and Ulysses S. Grant, on being retired from the U.S. presidency, took a Cook's tour. (That term, incidentally, was already well-known by that time.)
The high spot of the founder's career was undoubtedly his first round-the-world tour, for it gave old Thomas, 66 at the time, a chance to revive one of his early loves, journalism. As he and nine hardy tourists traveled the globe, he mailed reports of their adventures to the London Times. Traveling across America on the new transcontinental railroad, he gave a lively account of an encounter with Indians:
"Prairie fires on all sides: antelopes, wolves and Indians kept us in a state of almost constant excitement. The Sioux tribe were evidently on the move to southern quarters, as they were mounted in great force on both sides of the line. They were supposed to be 500 at least, all mounted on very fine horses, gaudily dressed and armed to the teeth. Had they been hostile they might have troubled us by closing in their extended lines: but they gave evidence of friendship by cheers and actions, waving of caps and other signs of mirth." Cook's merry Indians, however, impressed him less than the Mormons of Salt Lake City and their teetotaling ways.
Two years later (1874) Jules Verne, perhaps inspired by Cook, published a whimsical account of a trip around the world in 80 days, though it had taken Cook's group 222 days. During that period W. J. Wood satirized Cookites in Punch, an attack to which Thomas Cook wrathfully replied in print. Meanwhile, the old man was back at his drawing board, pioneering "circular notes," which later came to be universally admired as traveler's checks.
A reporter (sent by Charles Dickens) had once carelessly referred to Cook as a contractor and received a testy correction—"I am not a contractor, I am an excursion agent"—and Dickens called his resultant story My Excursion Agent. The semantic error was understandable, for Cook was up to his navel in contracts with railroads, steamship lines and foreign governments. He was used to complexity and probably scarcely lifted an eyebrow when in 1887 an Indian prince traveling to the Jubilee brought along 200 servants, 50 family attendants, 20 chefs, 10 elephants, 33 tigers, 1,000 packing cases and a small howitzer.
Cook was meanwhile busy with the Arabs, arranging safe transport for 12.000 Moslem pilgrims who wanted to go to Mecca. There were always irascible governments to be dealt with, and when the funicular rail line up the world's most popular volcano was closed down, Cook simply bought the Vesuvius Railroad and sent his tourists on their way to the top.
Thomas Cook set off on his last permanent tour in 1892 at the age of 84. His son survived him by only seven years, leaving the company to his three able sons, who continued Cook's history of "firsts"—including a first tour by air in 1927, which flew fight fans in a special plane from New York to Chicago for the Tunney-Dempsey bout.
Thomas' grandsons—Frank, Ernest and Thomas—left no male heirs, and in 1927 the firm was sold to the Belgian-based Wagon-Lits sleeping car company. When Belgium was invaded by Germany in World War II, Cook's was seized by the British government as enemy property and turned over to the major British railroads to manage. Finally, in 1948, along with the railways, the travel agency was nationalized and has since been governed by the laws of Parliament.
Now the For Sale sign has gone up again. Whatever happens next, Queen Victoria would not be amused.