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Thomas Cook and the First Rail Excursion

by Diane Parkin

Thomas Cook StatueIt was on a summer's evening in 1841 that a brilliant idea occurred to a foot traveller. He was on his way to a temperance meeting in Leicester when he thought about the railway. He realised how much time could be saved if people were able to take trains, a recent innovation, instead of walk. At the meeting he suggested that a special train might take him and his fellow temperance supporters to the next quarterly meeting in Loughborough.

The man's name was Thomas Cook. He was 32 years old.

Thomas Cook used to be a Baptist preacher. Still quite religious, he was one of many who believed that most of the social problems of his time came down to drink. The idea was to take advantage of this new power to help spread the message of social reform. Other supporters at the meeting were very enthusiastic, so Cook arranged everything with the secretary of the Midland Railway Company.

The traveller today may still take a train from Leicester to Loughborough, if she so wishes. When running on time, the trip takes only around 13 minutes. It isn't only the train that will have changed, though. Much of the landscape has been altered, with modern roads and buildings. It is still possible to see rabbits scampering in fields, wild primroses scrambling amid the scrub along the railway bank, and various animals grazing.

It is worth stopping off in both towns, if you have the time, as each has plenty to see and do. Leicester is probably the most multi-cultural city in Britain with a huge array of museums. Twycross Zoo and the Bosworth battlefield are both nearby. Loughborough has a unique war memorial in Queen's Park, and the Soar Valley and Charnwood Forest are just 'down the road' (or track).

If you want to get a feel of how Cook's first excursion might have felt, take a short walk from Loughborough Railway Station to the Great Central Railway. This is a lovingly preserved steam railway, with stations at Leicester, Rothley, Quorn & Woodhouse, and Loughborough. Passengers may join trains at any of these stations. There are steam and diesel engines that run at weekends throughout the year, and on week days during the summer months, and there are special period events throughout the year. This wasn't built until the 1890s, so it wasn't around in Cook's time. But the trains aren't as modern as those we are used to seeing today.

So, it was on a summer's evening in July 1841 that the first ever rail excursion finally took place. News soon spread and, in the end, on 5 July, there were around 500 passengers in all, each paying one shilling for the 12 mile return trip, travelling in open carriages.

Steam Engine
TrainFollowing the success of this early passenger train journey, Thomas Cook soon saw how profitable the idea could be on a much grander scale. In 1845 he organised his first ever excursion for his own profit, money clearly not something the temperance society deemed a problem. This was a trip to Liverpool, which was considered a very attractive town at the time. It was the gateway to the New World, and very close to the Welsh mountains.

Cook soon learned that people would travel if there was something of interest to see, and Wales provided plenty of castles and gorgeous scenery.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1863 Cook organised his first trip to Switzerland, and by the end of the season he was responsible for more than 500 tourists who visited the country. His circular tours covered almost every part of the countryside there, and he was soon venturing across the Alps into Italy.

Cook was joined in 1864 by his 30 year old son John, and by 1866 John had personally arranged his own American tour. Accommodation negotiations followed, passengers were steaming up the Nile in 1869, and eventually Thomas Cook & Son was formed, with trips and excursions to places as exotic and faraway as Cairo, Istanbul (via the Orient Express), and Alexandria. When the Suez Canal was opened, Thomas Cook embarked on his first world tour, for six months, on 26 September 1872.

Both Cooks died during the 1890s, but the company was inherited by John's three sons. The arrival of the aeroplane helped to make the company one of the country's forerunners in holiday travel, it being the world leader during the first quarter of the 1900s.

Today the traveller can go just about anywhere in the world with them, and with space travel now on offer, who knows where next? But it all started on a little road in 1841, when one man had an idea.

More Information:

Great Central Railway website
http://www.gcrailway.co.uk

Leicestershire Tourism website
http://www.leicestershire.gov.uk


Diane Parkin started to write short stories for magazines in 1985, and quit her "day job" to become a full-time freelancer in 1996. These days she concentrates on regular columns for Writers' News, Writing Magazine and InteracTive, while at the same time including one-offs in numerous national and trade magazines. Her work has appeared in UK magazines such as Chat, My Weekly, Antiques & Collectables, Shoot, Woman's Own, The Lady, Bird Keeper, Country, RSPB Birds, Family History Monthly, local county magazines and newspapers, and on local radio.


Article and photos © 2006 Diane Parkin

 

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