One of the world’s most well-known tour operators, Thomas Cook offered low-cost package holidays to dozens of destinations worldwide, making it a popular option for travelers in search of an affordable getaway.
But the Sunday collapse of this 178-year-old UK brand marks the end for one of the oldest travel firms on the planet, a company that’s credited with changing the global tourism landscape.
Launched by cabinet-maker Thomas Cook in Leicestershire in 1841, the business originally focused on one-day rail excursions. Cook believed alcohol was to blame for social problems, and organized a special train to carry temperance supporters to a meeting 12 miles away, according to the Thomas Cook website.
In the following years, Cook continued to arrange railway trips for temperance societies and Sunday schools until the summer of 1845, when he organized his first commercial venture – a trip to Liverpool.
He eventually moved beyond the UK into Europe and then further afield. Over the many decades to follow, the company expanded into hotels, resorts, cruises and airlines, to name just a few of its endeavors, targeting Britain’s middle class.
The brand became a household name, along with its tagline: “Don’t just book it – Thomas Cook it!”
Here’s a timeline highlighting a few key moments in its history:
1841: Thomas Cook organizes his first excursion, a return rail journey from Leicester to a temperance (anti-alchohol) meeting in Loughborough, 12 miles away. The cost? One shilling.
1845: Thomas Cook organizes his first for-profit trip – a rail journey to Liverpool from Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. A handbook – essentially an early version of a travel guide – is produced to accompany this tour.
1855: Thomas Cook conducts his first continental tour, taking two parties from Harwich to Antwerp, then on to Brussels, Cologne, Heidelberg, Strasbourg and, finally, to Paris for the International Exhibition. The company offers a complete holiday “package” – the fare including travel, accommodation and food – for the first time.
1864: Cook welcomes his son, John Mason Cook, aged 30, to the business.
1865: Thomas Cook opens his first high-street shop in Fleet Street, London.
1866: John Mason Cook personally conducts the company’s first American tour.
1869: Thomas Cook escorts his first party to Egypt and Palestine.
1871: The official name of the company becomes Thomas Cook & Son.
1872/73: Thomas Cook organizes and leads the world’s first round-the-world tour. The journey takes 222 days and covers more than 29,000 miles.
1874: A precursor of the travelers check, “Cook’s Circular Note” is launched by the company in New York.
1875: Thomas Cook’s first cruise sails the seas around Scandinavia, when the firm develops the ‘Midnight Sun’ tour to Norway’s North Cape in collaboration with the Bergen Line.
1886: John Mason Cook, now in charge of the company, launches a new fleet of luxurious Nile steamers to cater to the cream of Victorian society.
1892: Thomas Cook dies, aged 83.
1896: Thomas Cook & Son is appointed Official Passenger Agent for the first modern Olympic Games in Athens.
1899: John Mason Cook dies suddenly at the age of 65. The company passes into the hands of his three sons: Frank, Ernest and Thomas (‘Bert’).
1922: Thos Cook & Son (as the firm is referred to for the next few decades) organizes the first escorted tour through Africa, from Cairo to the Cape, a five-month tour that lincludes a one-month safari.
1927: The company organizes its first air tour. A group of six people fly from New York to Chicago for the Dempsey-Tunney heavyweight boxing contest. The price of the package – including flights, hotel accommodation and ringside seats – is $575.
1928: Frank and Ernest Cook, the two surviving grandsons, sell the business to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens.
1948: Thos Cook & Son Ltd becomes state-owned under the British Transport Holding Company.
1965: Thomas Cook’s net profits exceed £1 million for the first time.
1972: The company is privatized and bought by a consortium made up of Midland Bank, Trust House Forte and the Automobile Association.
1984: The “Don’t Just Book It, Thomas Cook It!” tagline is introduced.
1989: Thomas Cook’s long-standing agreement with Wagons-Lits comes to an end. The development of a new worldwide network begins.
1990: Thomas Cook acquires the retail foreign exchange operations of Deak International, in effect becoming the world’s leading foreign exchange retailer.
1992: Westdeutsche Landesbank, Germany’s third largest bank, and the LTU Group, Germany’s leading charter airline, acquire the Thomas Cook Group from Midland Bank.
1994: Thomas Cook acquires a travelers check subsidiary of Barclays Bank plc, to become the world’s largest supplier of travelers checks outside the United States. That same year, following a major review of its global activities, Thomas Cook sells its travel management business to American Express.
1997: Thomas Cook On-Line is launched. It’s the first UK retail travel agency to offer customers a way to buy holidays, foreign currency, travelers checks and guidebooks online.
1999: The European Commission approves the merger of Thomas Cook and Carlson Leisure Group’s UK travel interests.
2001: Thomas Cook completes the sale of its Global and Financial Services division to Travelex. That same year, Thomas Cook is acquired by the German travel company Condor & Neckermann. Its name is changed to Thomas Cook AG.
2003: The newly branded Thomas Cook Airlines is officially launched in the UK.
2007: Thomas Cook AG and MyTravel Group plc merge to form Thomas Cook Group plc, bringing a stronger Nordic focus with the incorporation of Ving, Spies and Tjäreborg.
2011: Thomas Cook merges its UK retail operations with those of the Co-operative Group and the Midlands Co-operative Society, creating the UK’s largest ever chain of travel agents..
2013: Thomas Cook announces that Thomas Cook Airlines in the UK, Belgium and Scandinavia, together with Condor in Germany, will be merged into a single operating division within the Thomas Cook Group.
2015: Thomas Cook Group plc announces a new partnership with Chinese investment group Fosun International Limited.
2019: Royal Bank of Scotland and a range of other banks demand that Thomas Cook Group PLC find £200 million ($250 million) in funding. The company announces in a statement that “it had no choice but to take steps to enter into compulsory liquidation with immediate effect.” The move triggers the largest ever peacetime repatriation in the history of the United Kingdom. In a statement, the UK Civil Aviation Authority says there are “more than 150,000 Thomas Cook customers abroad.”