Thomas Cook, the only child of John Cook, a labourer, was born at 9 Quick Close, Melbourne, South Derbyshire, on 22nd November, 1808. His father died in 1812, and his mother remarried James Smithard. This did not improve the family's financial circumstances and Thomas was forced to leave school at the age of ten and found work as a gardener's boy on Lord Melbourne's estate.
Cook attended the local Methodist Sunday School. However, when he reached the age of 13, his mother persuaded him to become a Baptist. Soon afterwards he started as an apprentice as a wood-turner and cabinet-maker with his uncle, John Pegg, who was also a strong Baptist.
During this period Cook was described as "an earnest, active, devoted, young Christian". He soon became a teacher at the Sunday School and eventually was appointed as its superintendent. At seventeen Thomas joined the local Temperance Society and over the next few years spent his spare-time campaigning against the consumption of alcohol.
In 1827 Cook abandoned his apprenticeship to become an itinerant village missionary, on a salary of £36 a year. His biographer, Piers Brendon, points out: "His job was to spread the Word by preaching, distributing tracts, and setting up Sunday schools throughout the south midland counties. Thus began a career in travel.... Cook, a young man with a commanding presence and black penetrating eyes in which some discerned a gleam of fanaticism... All his life he remained a strict and ardent Baptist, although he was tolerant of other protestant sects. Religion gave him a strong desire to help the downtrodden and his political inclinations were liberal."
Cook married Marianne Mason (1807–1884) on the 2nd March, 1833, and settled in Market Harborough. The Baptist church could no longer afford to pay him as a preacher and so set up in trade as a wood-turner. He also became an active member of the local Temperance Society. Cook made speeches and published pamphlets pointing out the dangers of alcohol consumption. He also arranged large group picnics where participants were, according to the Temperance Messenger, sustained with "biscuits, buns and ginger beer". In 1840 Cook decided to make a career out of his temperance beliefs and founded the Children's Temperance Magazine.
In 1841 Cook had the idea of arranging an eleven-mile rail excursion from Leicester to a Temperance Society meeting in Loughborough on the newly extended Midland Railway. Cook charged his customers one shilling and this included the cost of the rail ticket and the food on the journey. The venture was a great success and Cook decided to start his own business running rail excursions. Cook later recalled that this was "the starting point of a career of labour and pleasure which has expanded into … a mission of goodwill and benevolence on a grand scale".
Cook set up as a bookseller and printer in Leicester. He specialized in temperance literature but also produced books aimed at a local market such as the Leicester Almanack (1842) and Guide to Leicester (1843). He also opened up temperance hotels in Derby and Leicester and continued to organize excursions. The author of Thomas Cook: 150 Years of Popular Tourism (1991) has pointed out: "In 1845, having won a reputation as an entrepreneur who could obtain cheap rates from the railway companies for large parties, he undertook his first profit-making excursion - to Liverpool, Caernarfon, and Mount Snowdon. Cook wrote a handbook which resembled in essential respects the modern tour operator's brochure."
In 1846 Cook took 500 people from Leicester on a tour of Scotland that involved visits to Glasgow and Edinburgh. One of his greatest achievements was to arrange for over 165,000 people to attend the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. With the profits from his travel business Cook was able to "abandon the printing trade, give considerable sums to poor relief, promote the erection of a Temperance Hall in Leicester, and finance the rebuilding of his Commercial and Family Temperance Hotel". These were very popular and with the profits from his travel business Cook was able to "abandon the printing trade, give considerable sums to poor relief, promote the erection of a Temperance Hall in Leicester, and finance the rebuilding of his Commercial and Family Temperance Hotel".
Cook's travel business was badly damaged in 1862 when the Scottish railway companies refused to issue any more group tickets for Cook's popular tours north of the border. Cook now decided to take advantage of new rail links for the conveyance of large numbers of tourists to the continent. In his first year he arranged for 2000 visitors to travel France and 500 to Switzerland. In 1864 Cook began taking tourists to Italy.
Cook's tours of Europe, resulted in him being described as the "Napoleon of Excursions". However, he had his critics. Charles Lever, writing in Blackwood's Magazine, commented that Cook was guilty of swamping Europe with "everything that is low-bred, vulgar and ridiculous". Others complained about the bad taste of taking tourists to the battlefields of the American Civil War.
Cook moved his business to London. His son John managed the London office of the company that was now known as Thomas Cook & Son. John helped to expand the company by opening offices in Manchester, Brussels, and Cologne. In 1869 the company arranged tours of Egypt and the Holy Land, something he described as "the greatest event of my tourist life".
Thomas Cook had a difficult relationship with his son and only made him a partner in 1871. The author of Thomas Cook: 150 Years of Popular Tourism (1991) has suggested: "His reluctance was probably due to disputes between the two men, mainly over financial matters. Unlike Thomas, John believed that business should be kept separate from religion and philanthropy. He also upset his father by being more adventurous in investing money. He opened a hotel at Luxor and refurbished the Nile steamers of the khedive, from whom he obtained the passenger agency, thus helping to make Egypt a safer and more attractive destination."
By 1872 Thomas Cook & Son was able to offer a 212 day Round the World Tour for 200 guineas. The journey included a steamship across the Atlantic, a stage coach from the east to the west coast of America, a paddle steamer to Japan, and an overland journey across China and India.
Thomas continued to disagree with his son about the way the company should be run. After a serious dispute in 1878, Thomas decided to retire to Thorncroft, the large house which he had built on the outskirts of Leicester, and allow John Cook to run the business on his own.
Piers Brendon has argued: "Cook led a lonely life after the deaths of his unmarried daughter Annie (who drowned in her bath, apparently overcome by fumes from a new gas heater) in 1880 and his wife four years later. He continued to travel, however, making his final pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1888. Much of his time and money were spent, as they had been throughout his career, in work for the Baptist church, the temperance movement, and other charities. He did not attend the firm's silver jubilee celebrations in 1891; whether this was because of blindness and physical incapacity or because John did not want him there is not clear."