The tragic life of Thomas Cook founder whose daughter was poisoned in the bath

The tragic life of Thomas Cook founder whose daughter was poisoned in the bath

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HE was the man who spawned a multi-billion travel industry and brought the concept of holidays to the masses.

But Thomas Cook’s life was marred by personal tragedy and a family rift that meant he died a lonely and bitter man.

Thomas Cook was a preacher who became the world’s first travel agent
Hulton Archive – Getty

The UK’s first travel agent – whose business collapsed this week after 178 years of trading – lost an infant son to illness and his only daughter was found dead in her bath at the age of 34.

Even his own childhood was littered with tragic events, including the death of his own father when he was four.

But the humble Derbyshire lad – who left school at the age of ten – would become the father of modern tourism, labelled “the most famous man in the world” by the Victorian press.

And in an ironic twist the man who spent a lifetime preaching against the demon drink is the architect of the boozy package holidays that millions of Brits have taken over the years.

As Thomas Cook staff and customers pick up the pieces of the failed company, we look at the tragic life of the world’s first travel agent.

Thomas Cook’s first London office, in Ludgate Circus
Thomas Cook

Head of the family at 10 after a double tragedy

Thomas Cook was born in a tiny labourer’s cottage in Melbourne, Derbyshire in 1808 and raised in a strict Baptist household by his mum, Elizabeth, the daughter of a preacher.

After dad John’s death in 1812, Elizabeth remarried and had two more children but when her second husband died, Thomas was forced to quit school to support the family. He was just 10 years old.

His first job was helping out a gardener at local Melbourne Hall, earning 1 penny a day – the equivalent of 44p today before working for a fruit and vegetable grower and as a cabinet maker’s apprentice.

But at 18, following his baptism, Thomas “saw the light” and became a missionary, walking from village to village preaching God’s word.

In 1829 alone he covered 2,692 miles on foot, according to his diary.

An advert for one of Thomas Cook’s early excursions
Alamy
Thomas wrote a handbook for travellers that became the basis of early travel agents
Thomas Cook
Melbourne Hall was the first place Thomas worked
Alamy

Tragic loss of son

At 25, Thomas married Marianne Mason, a “very dapper” farmer’s daughter who taught at a Sunday school.

Their first son, John Mason Cook was born on 13 January 1834 but, a year later, tragedy struck when a second son, Henry, died in infancy. Daughter Annie was born ten years later.

By now, he was convinced that cheap alcohol was adding to the “poverty, crime, strife and wretchedness” of the common people and both he and Marianne joined the Temperance movement, which banned all drinking.

It was his hatred of the “demon drink” that would lead to the founding of the travel business – as a flash of inspiration led him to organise Temperance “excursions.”

“From my residence at Market Harborough I walked 15 miles to Leicester to attend a meeting and a thought flashed through my brain,” he later recalled. “What a glorious thing it would be if the newly developed powers of railways could be made subservient to the promotion of Temperance.”

He approached John Fox Bell, secretary of Midland Counties Railway, who agreed to hire out a train and Thomas set about advertising his “excursion.”

After the Great Exhibition, the company began trips abroad
Getty – Contributor
The company opened offices around the world
Alamy

‘Thomas should be thrown overboard after disastrous excursion’

On July 5, 1841, the world’s first chartered train journey took 500 teetotallers from Leicester to Loughborough for a shilling each.

The trip included a Temperance prayer meeting, a summer gala, band concert and cricket match in a park –with biscuits and ginger beer and strictly no alcohol.

A few more excursions followed, including a journey to Wales to climb Snowdon “without the stimulus of alcohol” but one early journey, to Scotland, almost killed the burgeoning travel company before it began.

The 500 tourists were unable to get off the train, which had no toilets or food aboard, with holidaymakers suffering considerable discomfort on the leg from Leicester to Fleetwood .

They were then herded on to a steamer to Ardrossan, North Ayrshire, where there were not enough cabins, and a storm lashed the unfortunate passengers forced to travel on deck.

Thomas made matters worse by constantly banging the Temperance drum, irritating the cold, sodden travellers and a subsequent article in the Leicester Chronicle warned readers against future excursions and said he deserved to be thrown overboard into his “favourite element”.

The business suffered near collapse in the wake of the trip but Thomas rallied over the next two years, arranging further, more successful trips to Scotland and taking over 5,000 visitors a year on Highland Tours.

Thomas was a preacher turned travel agent

A Thomas Cook party in the ruins of Pompeii in 1868
Rex Features
The company’s first office in Jerusalem
Hulton Archive – Getty

Bitter feud with son John

In 1851, 17-year-old John, entered the business and Thomas Cook and Son was born.

John was ambitious and forceful, wanting to maximise the return on “pleasure for profit” and ticket sales soon opened up beyond the Temperance movement.

Offices began to open up around the world but success also fuelled a feud between Thomas and his son.

The duo had radically different ideas about how the company should be run.

John wanted to plough money into hotels and cruise ships but philanthropic Thomas wanted to build houses for the poor.

Then while his dad was away on a world tour in 1872, John moved the offices from Leicester to London.

After a huge argument, Thomas retired from the business in 1878 at the age of 70.

John fell out with his father and forced him out of the business
An early travel brochure from the company
Alamy

Found daughter dead in the bath

But two years later, tragedy struck the family again.

Thomas had one of the first gas heater installed in a Leicester home but on the evening of 7 November 1880, he found Annie dead in her bath.

The 34-year-old was thought to have died from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by fumes from the heater. Four years later, Marianne also passed away.

The company continued to thrive and in 1890, the company sold 3.25 million trips.

But Thomas, now blind, was eking out a lonely existence in Thorncroft, the large house he had built outside Leicester.


In a final blow, his bid to buy Melbourne Hall – the stately home where he had once worked as a gardener’s lad – was blocked by trustees who feared he would turn it into “a pleasure ground”.

He complained that all he wanted was to “live quietly in Melbourne” then “rest eternal in my native soil”.

Thomas died following a stroke on July 18, 1892 aged 83 and received a Baptist burial at Leicester’s Welford Road Cemetery.

A statue of Thomas Cook outside Leicester Station
Alamy

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