By the end of the 19th Century, Britain had coloured a quarter of the globe red and girdled it with railways, steamship lines, posts and telegraphs like a giant parcel tied up with string. On the magic carpet of modern travel, British tourists set out to admire the world and their own special birthright, the Empire.
“Oh follow the man from Cooks”, ran a song of 1898, “the wonderful man from Cooks”. To many people at that time, he really was wonderful. Railways and steamships had breached the ancient barriers of time and space.
Thomas Cook had come a long way by 1869, from the Midlands of England to the Nile, to be precise. Since his first excursion in 1841 - a temperance outing from Leicester to Loughborough and back - he had extended his operations through Europe, “over the classic waters of the Adriatic and Mediterranean” round by “the eastern lands of the Bible” to the blazing heat of north Africa. In 1869, he hired two paddle steamers and ran a pioneering cruise up the Nile.
In another sense too, he had come a long way; from mere Brother Cook the Baptist temperance campaigner, to “Field Marshall Cook”, as a Scottish journalist called him, manouverer of large bodies of men. The change had not been easy, but he became so “thoroughly imbued with the Tourist spirit” that he conquered the world of mass travel and became a quasi-imperial figure.
By his death in 1892, he had his own fleet cruising on the Nile, his own shipyard at Boulac, his own luxury hotels at Luxor and an army of Arab employees.
Along the Nile, Egyptian peasants grew produce to feed tourists from Tunbridge Wells or Cheltenham, who devoured country-house breakfasts on board Cook’s paddle-steamers. Battalions of Arabs waited ashore, ready to convey Cook’s sedan-borne expeditions into the desert.; aboard more Arabs in white robes served Huntley and Palmers biscuits for tea under awnings. Whole towns of Egyptians aspired to “good Cook shop all the time” as they called a permanent post with Cook’s. “You see the back of a native turban”, recounted Blackwood’s Magazine ”long blue gown, red girdle, bare brown legs; How truly oriental! You say. Then he turns round and you see ‘Cook’s Porter’ emblazoned across his breast.
“The nominal governor of Egypt is the Khedive” concluded the article; “its real governor ”, for a final touch of comic opera, “is Thomas Cook and Son”. In fact it was not comic: several times “Field Marshall Cook” had played a vital military role. In 1884, for example, he helped transport Wolseley’s expeditions to the Sudan. And as “Paymaster-General” he was one of the most influential men in Egypt.
The French have a notion that, go where you may, to the top of a pyramid or to the top of Mont Blanc, you are sure to meet a Britisher reading a newspaper“, quipped the British M.P. and journalist Henry Labouchere. In 1871.
One cannot help sympathising with the French. Newspaper-reading was a very British habit and Thomas Cook made it possible to re-enact British habits almost anywhere. In the reading rooms of the Nile paddle-steamers, the newspapers arrived with the faultless regularity expected at a Pall Mall club.
Cook’s pilgrims processed through the Middle East with enough tents, horses, and servants for royalty. Every morning the whole moveable hotel- iron bedsteads, wool mattresses, carpeted floors - was struck, transported on baggage animals and at sundown pitched again, so expertly that each person found his own numbered napkin from breakfast laid beside his dinner-plate. ‘Grand Hotel Service’ all over the world - that was what the British enjoyed, and other nations understandably marvelled at it.
“You press the button, we do the rest”, ran the advertisement for the first box camera. It was a fine piece of advertising copy and helped add a new dimension to tourism: amateur photography. Behind it was the shrewd, commercial mind of an American photographer: George Eastman the ‘Kodak King’.
Eastman recognised that photography in the early 1880‘s was far too complicated. To take picture by the wet-plate colloidal process, you had to carry a dark-tent, a camera the size of a soap box, a strong tripod, heavy glass plates, a nitrate bath and a water container. Very few people took photographs.
In 1888 Eastman introduced a small black box, measuring 6.5 x 3.75 x 3.25 inches and weighing 22 ounces
Which could take pictures while being held in the hand. He invented a simple name for it , the Kodak. Suddenly, large numbers of people - especially the globe-trotting British tourists - were taking photographs. And in Victorian gothic homes, holiday albums began to fill with pictures of exotic, far-away places.
There was splendour and pageantry at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, as befitted the unlocking of the gateway to the fabled East. Many British tourists were at the ceremony. Appropriately, Thomas Cook was there too, honoured guest of the canal’s engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps. It was Cook who pioneered tours through the new passage to the Orient, to India and beyond.
In 1880, Cook opened offices in Bombay and Calcutta, and soon sightseers were bowling across the sub continent in first class railway carriages or the earliest motor cars, with the 19th Century tourist guide Murray’s Handbook on their knees and plenty of Whisky and soda in their tiffin baskets. Politicians officially encouraged these developments; Gladstone praised Cook for advancing “intercommunication between countries”, Salisbury spoke of his “imperial work”. With the opening up of the Far East - there was a Cook’s office in Japan in 1908 - Cook’s could claim world importance as a link between East and west.
Globetrotters in Australia
“The globe-trotter is only a recently developed species of the genus ”traveller“, The Australasian Sketcher archly informed its readers on April 9th 1884. An editorial comment on the sketch seen opposite describes the evolution of the species since the Suez Canal opened in 1869, and continued: ”It is only since the days of big Orient steamers, and of weekly mail communication with Britain, that the globe-trotter has extended its peregrinations to Australia. Now he is to be found wherever there is anything to be seen or wherever anything is going on, gazing calmly at men and their manners through his inscrutable eyeglass. The globe-trotter as a rule, is pleasant in manner, conversably, imperturbable as befits one who has surveyed mankind from China to Peru, good tempered.
Clearly these tweedy tourists greatly amused the Australians. They are shown here half satirically, half sympathetically politely enduring the inevitable speech of welcome, meeting King Billy the last Tasmanian Aborigine,
In 1935, a “Romantic History of the Canadian Pacific” was published. Its grandiose title “Steel of Empire”, suggested a giant steel skewer holding the Empire together like a joint of beef. Similar ideas had been around since 1885, the year the railway opened. For not only did “The Queen’s Highway” unite British Canada; it also provided a fast “all red” route from Britain to the Pacific, a short cut to her colonies in the Far East. It was an intensely romantic railway. At an average speed of 28 m.p.h. Including stops, it took a week to cross the continent. For the leisurely frock-coated tourist of the 1890‘s it was delightful to saunter through carriages beautifully inlaid with rare woods.
When the Beatrices and Mabels, the Alberts, Edwards, Emilies and Maudes of the 1890‘s went abroad, they found it all to easy to keep in touch with home. For Britain’s overseas mail service had reached an apogee of speed and frequency that severely taxed Victorian correspondents’ imaginations. No wonder then, that the picture-postcard enjoyed an immediate success when it was introduced in 1894. The pictures often made up for lack of news, as this card clearly shows, and the age of the vacuous holiday message had arrived.
In the 1890‘s, when the ocean wave as very much a British prerogative, shipboard tourism assumed a ponderous grandeur. Even incongruous schoolboy games on deck were played with genteel formality. With the silk tea gowns, evening dress at dinner and organ playing in the picture gallery, the atmosphere was decidedly smug.
This was understandable for everywhere they went, ship borne travellers saw British vessels. Over half the world’s merchant shipping flew the British flag; British ships were carrying 200,000 passengers and as many seamen at any one time.; and of every 1,000 tons of shipping using the Suez Canal 700 were British.
But there was nothing eternal about this. Between 1890 and 1910, Britain’s share of world tonnage was falling and her inordinately proud ship owners resting on the laurels of the past, were investing too much in passenger liners at the expense of tramp shipping. Late Victorian smugness had shaky foundations.
By the early 1930‘s, British passenger lines were in trouble. Not only had the gloom of the Depression settled; foreign countries were subsidising quite uneconomic degrees of comfort for prestige on the high seas. So began the luxury war. British ship owners fought back with jingoistic propaganda and glossy advertising . To fill empty cabins they stimulated the craze for cruises that became a hallmark of late inter-war tourism. Along traditional shipping lanes, modified to take in exotic ports of call, palatial elegance came into its own as Empire-minded tourists languidly enjoyed the last age of British dominance at sea.
When Thomas Cook wrote in his early days “We must have railways for the million”, he was thinking of day trippers and working-men’s holidays. On the principle of the greatest pleasure for the greatest number he saw railways as a social force. And so did the astonished inhabitants of Brighton when the first holiday special steamed in from London in 1844. From 57 carriages drawn by no less than 6 engines, the train disgorged no less than 2,000 passengers. By the standards of the time this was a very large social force indeed. Not until 1945 did the workers catch up with international tourism and by that time Empire and imperial pride were shadows in the past.
Since his father, the founder of the company, had died in 1892, Thomas Cook had taken into his hands the reins of an astonishing power. From his office in the grandiose building in Ludgate Circus he could direct the movement of travellers throughout the world. He could accommodate 1,000 tourists in Victorian luxury under canvas in the Holy Land, or convey Eastern princes across oceans and continents with all their panoply of servants, elephants and tame tigers. This magnificent age of world tourism had its roots in the beginning of Empire itself, when the British became an outward looking nation in the second half of the 16th Century.
At the same time as the Elizabethan explorers sailed out into the unknown in search of Eastern riches, new worlds and national glory, the nobility began to cross the Channel in search of the latest and best in European culture. So was invented a new form of travel, that peculiarly English institution, the Grand Tour. The first tourists were at large.
The early practitioners of the - Grand Tour - from which the word “tourism” derives, went with the entirely serious intent of completing their education by acquiring a gloss of Renaissance culture from Italy, and the international language of diplomacy from France. They were concerned with art, science and politics, and regarded the Continent very much as a finishing school. But the serious minded are few, and as larger numbers of aristocrats went abroad, the Continent came to be regarded much more as a playground. By the 18th Century, when aristocrats on tour at any one time were numbered not in tens but in hundreds, spending was lavish, pleasure extravagant. A duke could spend as much as £25,000 in 5 years.
This kind of tour was for long the privilege of a tiny elite. By the late 18th Century the social and economic changes that were overtaking Britain enabled a few successful merchants and professional men to creep in at the bottom. The newcomers to travel paid £100 or £150 for a shortened, less grand tour lasting for a season, perhaps a year. But far more radical change was required before tourism of any sort could come within the reach of ordinary men.
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Gym equipment on deck of Titanic
Douglas I.O.M. Beach 1890
Cheap travel abroad suddenly became a possibility for the rising middle classes of industrial Britain. Thomas Cook and Son made it an exciting reality, and to tourists in strange lands the man from Cook’s became the symbol of British safety and comfort all over the world.
But, as Thomas Cook rightly presumed, it gave a tourist half way up the Nile a good feeling to find the morning post on his breakfast table and to know that the outgoing mail was cleared every night. It was evidence that the whole organisation by which Britain led the world in posts and communications was at his service - the fast packets of the P & O to India, the double engined mail trains across Europe, the horses, runners, wagons and coaches to remotest Rhodesia. For the tourist abroad, wherever he was, writing a picture-postcard home was an expression of imperial pride.
And it was bracing to feel imperial pride in “this Canada of ours”, as one British traveller put it, in those mighty steel tracks “ beneath our Northern skies”.
To recline in a cloud of cigar smoke in the smoking room or sip iced water in the state room as the prairies and mountains of virgin Canada slipped by the window. It was gently titillating to prepare for bed in the sleeping-cars, where girls and men had to undress in the hugger-mugger, curtained proximity of bunks.
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