• Designed by Leicester architects Goddard, Paget and Goddard
  • Terracotta panels on the exterior chart the history of Cook's business
  • When opened it contained a travel agents, shipping office and foreign currency exchange

A travel pioneer

Thomas Cook was the pioneer of popular tourism and founder of the international travel company Thomas Cook and Son. This Grade II listed building in Gallowtree Gate was commissioned by his son, John Mason Cook, and opened in 1894 next to the company’s existing offices. It was both a memorial to Cook himself, who died two years earlier, and a more suitable base for the business, which had grown from modest beginnings to employ over 2,000 people worldwide. The architects were the local firm of Goddard, Paget and Goddard, and it was built by Hardington and Elliott of Leicester.

The building housed Cook’s Excursion, Tourist and Shipping Office, ‘handsomely furnished in teak’, along with the Foreign Banking and Exchange Department, which had ‘lately assumed greatly increased proportions’. It also held the parcels office of the Midland Railway. The building had a number of tenants, including the Leicester Medical Society and the Leicester and Leicestershire Society of Architects, both with their professional libraries.

The exterior was designed in Renaissance style with buff terracotta and glazed faience decoration. There were emblems of Europe, Asia, Africa and America on the rectangular columns, along with the names of major towns across the world in which Cook’s had established agencies – over 80 by that time. A central panel carried the inscription: ‘Erected A.D., 1894, by John M. Cook, to commemorate the origin of the Excursion System of the World by Thomas Cook’s special train from Leicester to Loughborough, July 5th, 1841’. Above the second floor windows is a frieze inscribed ‘1841 T. Cook and Son 1891’, marking the company’s 50th anniversary.

The Thomas Cook Building c.1900. English Heritage

History in teracotta

The most striking features of the building are the four terracotta relief panels above the first floor windows, identifying aspects of the development of the business.

The first panel, dated 1841, represents Cook’s first excursion to Loughborough showing the small four-wheeled engine that pulled the open-tub third class passenger carriages of the time. Like many of Thomas Cook’s business and charitable activities, the inspiration for this journey came from his involvement in the Victorian Temperance movement  and his lifelong belief that alcohol was the cause of much ‘poverty, crime, strife, and wretchedness’.   The idea came to him at Kibworth, he recalled, while walking from Market Harborough to Leicester to attend a meeting: ‘a thought suddenly flashed upon me to the effect that it would be a capital thing if we could make railways subservient to the interests of temperance’.  

Almost 500 people paid one shilling for a return ticket, ‘and at both Leicester and Loughborough there were from two to three thousand spectators assembled to witness their arrival and departure’.

The success of this venture inspired more Temperance excursions and others for the general public, among them visits to the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London for the Great Exhibition of 1851. This is shown in the background of the second panel. Cook conveyed more than 160,000 passengers to the Exhibition, this time in covered third class carriages which were a welcome improvement in passenger comfort.  

The third panel, dated 1884, marks the role of the company during the Nile Expedition of that year, when its steamers were used to render ‘signal aid to the British Army then serving in Egypt’ in the relief of General Gordon’s forces in Khartoum.  As the railway system expanded, Cook’s tours had already extended into other areas of Britain, Europe and further afield. These pioneering ventures inevitably encountered some problems, despite being conducted by Cook or his son in person. Due to a lack of restaurant facilities and lavatories on the train, for example, the 500 passengers on his first Scottish tour in the mid-1840s arrived at their first stop in Lancashire ‘starving and bursting’. 

The final panel is dated 1891 and shows two major advances in railway technology: a modern ‘express’ engine of the Midland Railway, and the Forth Bridge, ‘typical of modern railway construction’.

Thomas Cook was buried in Welford Road Cemetery, and is also commemorated by a Blue Plaque on his former home, Thorncroft, on London Road. After the death of John Mason Cook the business was carried on by Thomas Cook’s three grandsons.

Gallery

Roman Leicester

(47- 500) A military fort was erected, attracting traders and a growing civilian community to Leicester (known as Ratae Corieltauvorum to the Romans). The town steadily grew throughout the reign of the Romans.

Medieval Leicester

(500 – 1500) The early years of this period was one of unrest with Saxon, Danes and Norman invaders having their influences over the town. Later, of course, came Richard III and the final battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought on Leicester’s doorstep.

Tudor & Stuart Leicester

(1500 – 1700) The wool trade flourished in Leicester with one local, a former mayor named William Wigston, making his fortune. During the English Civil War a bloody battle was fought as the forces of King Charles I laid siege to the town.

Georgian Leicester

(1700 – 1837) The knitting industry had really stared to take hold and Leicester was fast becoming the main centre of hosiery manufacture in Britain. This new prosperity was reflected throughout the town with broader, paved streets lined with elegant brick buildings and genteel residences.

Edwardian Leicester

(1901 – 1910) Electric trams came to the streets of Leicester and increased literacy among the citizens led to many becoming politicised. The famous 1905 ‘March of the Unemployed to London’ left from Leicester market when 30,000 people came to witness the historic event.

Early 20th Century Leicester

(1910 – 1973) The diverse industrial base meant Leicester was able to cope with the economic challenges of the 1920s and 1930s. New light engineering businesses, such as typewriter and scientific instrument making, complemented the more traditional industries of hosiery and footwear manufacturing.

Modern Leicester

(1973 – present day) Industry was still thriving in the city during the 1970s, with the work opportunities attracting many immigrants from all over the world. While industry has declined in recent years, excellent transport links have made Leicester an attractive centre for many businesses. The City now has much to be proud of including its sporting achievements and the richness of its cultural heritage and diversity.

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