Archives charting the epic history of legendary package holiday pioneer Thomas Cook – who used to live in Harborough - can now be viewed online

Part of the giant archive has been catalogued and is available to see thanks to a grant from the National Archives under the Archives Revealed scheme

Monday, 4th October 2021, 9:17 am
Updated Monday, 4th October 2021, 9:18 am
A big chunk of a vast archive charting the epic history of legendary package holiday pioneer Thomas Cook – who used to live in Market Harborough - can now be viewed online.
A big chunk of a vast archive charting the epic history of legendary package holiday pioneer Thomas Cook – who used to live in Market Harborough - can now be viewed online.

A big chunk of a vast archive charting the epic history of legendary package holiday pioneer Thomas Cook – who used to live in Market Harborough - can now be viewed online.

Thousands of items in the unique Thomas Cook collection are housed at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland in Wigston.

And many of them are now much more widely accessible.

Part of the giant archive has been catalogued and is available to see thanks to a grant from the National Archives under the Archives Revealed scheme.

Items which can be searched for using an online catalogue include staff magazines, volumes of contracts and agreements and some of the historic travel brochures.

Project Archivist Jennifer Roach, who is leading the work to catalogue the entire archive, said: “The Thomas Cook archive is internationally significant as it provides a detailed historical record of the man and company which created international package travel as we know it today.

“It is a great honour for us to have been chosen as the permanent home of the Thomas Cook archive and we believe it is vital that we can make the material as accessible as possible.”

She added: “We’re aiming to keep uploading records to the catalogue throughout the course of the project, with the full catalogue online and the collection available from next April when the project concludes.

“We will then showcase some of the material in the Thomas Cook Collection, highlighting the gems we have found along the way.”

The wider collection includes minute books and staff records, posters, travel guides and timetables.

It also features 60,000 photographs and souvenirs from the company's 178-year history, including glass and china, uniforms through the ages and even a model of a River Nile steamer.

If all the boxes of photographs, diaries, letters, minutes, accounts, reports, contracts, volumes, objects, artefacts and posters were laid out in a line, it would be 820ft (250 metres) long.

That’s about 2.5 times the length of the pitch at Leicester City’s King Power Stadium.

Cllr Christine Radford, the county council’s cabinet member for heritage, leisure and arts, said: “The Thomas Cook archive collection is a vital piece of Leicestershire history.

“I am delighted that this work is being carried out to preserve it for future generations, as well as providing a valuable resource to the people of Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland.”

The entire Thomas Cook archive was acquired by the county council in 2019, following a nationwide bidding process to find a new permanent home for the collection.

The brochures make up one of the larger sections of the archive, with examples dating back to 1858 and the first continental brochures appearing from 1865.

Most of the collection dates from around 1890, with samples from nearly every year being kept, covering all varieties of destinations.

Thomas Cook dramatically collapsed in September 2019.

The company folded almost two centuries after the man himself launched his travel trailblazer in Market Harborough at the height of Victorian Britain.

The teetotal cabinet-maker had his brainwave as he walked from his home in Adam and Eve Street to Leicester to attend an anti-drink Temperance meeting in 1841.

Former Baptist preacher Cook later recalled: “From my residence at Market Harborough I walked 15 miles to Leicester to attend a meeting and a thought flashed through my brain.

“What a glorious thing it would be if the newly-developed powers of railways could be made subservient to the promotion of Temperance.”

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

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

Dynamic entrepreneur Cook moved to Leicester with his wife Marianne and young family later that year to begin carving out his new holiday empire.

And a plaque now stands marking where the travel business icon lived in Quaker’s Yard off Adam and Eve Street in Harborough.

More information on the Record Office’s catalogues can be found at http://www.recordoffice.org.uk/resources/catalogues/