08 June 2024

Leicester Baptists and
Thomas Cook’s role
in the beginnings of
mass tourism and travel

Central Baptist Church on Charles Street is the last surviving of several Baptist churches in Leicester city centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Today, Leicester is known as multifaith city, with a diverse number of religious traditions and places of worship. But, in the 19th century, Leicester was known as the ‘Metropolis of Dissent’ with a large number of non-conformist chapels and churches and a wide variety of denominations, including Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Unitarians and Baptists.

Many ‘dissenting’ chapels were built in Leicester from the 17th century on, and many more were built in the 19th century. But the Central Baptist Church Charles Street is the last surviving of several Baptist churches in Leicester City Centre.

The Central Baptist Church, also known as the Charles Street Baptist Chapel, was designed by William Flynt, a leading local architect, and was built in 1830.

In his Guide to Leicester, Thomas Cook wrote: ‘Charles Street Chapel is a neat edifice seating about 700 people. The congregation includes several very influential families and the senior Member of Parliament of the Borough (Richard Harris) is an office-bearer in the church. The Sunday school contains about 260 scholars and 26 teachers.’

Nonconformists had considerable political and economic influence in Victorian Leicester. Baptists were one of the largest nonconformist groups in Leicester and they included influential men like Thomas Cook, the great travel pioneer and anti-alcohol campaigner, prominent manufacturers and civic dignitaries.

An image of William Carey, the pioneering Baptist missionary, at Central Baptist Church in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Baptist ministry in Leicester produced two outstanding figures: Robert Hall, a renowned preacher and social reformer whose statue stands in De Montfort Square at New Walk, and William Carey, a shoemaker who became a pioneer Christian missionary to India, social reformer and Bible translator. Both Carey and Hall had been ministers at the Harvey Lane Chapel, near Highcross.

The Central Baptist Church houses the William Carey Museum, dedicated to William Carey, who was instrumental in the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society.

Carey left Leicester to become a missionary in India, where he translated the Bible into many Indian languages. He pioneered printing in Indian languages and was the founder of the Higher Education College in Serampore, now a major university in India.

Carey was a notable social reformer, and he contributed to framing a law prohibiting sutti, the practice of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Thomas Cook was a prominent Baptist in Leicester … his statue outside London Road Railway Station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Thomas Cook, a pioneering figure in the modern travel and tourism industry, was also a leading Baptist figure in Victorian Leicester.

Cook began his international travel company in 1841, with a successful one-day rail excursion from Leicester to Loughborough on 5 July. This landmark daytrip has earned Leicester the accolade of the ‘birthplace of tourism’, and it was from these humble roots that a whole new kind of travel business developed.

Thomas Cook, originally from Derbyshire, moved to Market Harborough to work as a woodturner in 1832. There, he joined the local Baptist church and became actively involved in promoting temperance.

On 9 June 1841, Cook set out to walk the 15 miles from Market Harborough to Leicester to attend a Temperance Society meeting. On the way, an idea occurred to him. He recalled: ‘A thought flashed through my brain – what a glorious thing it would be if the newly developed powers of railways and locomotion could be made subservient to the promotion of temperance.’

He suggested hiring a train and carriages from the Midland Railway Company to take members of the Leicester Temperance Society to a temperance meeting in Loughborough the following month and the idea was received with enthusiasm.

The first railway excursion left Campbell Street Station in Leicester for Loughborough on 5 July 1841 at a cost of one shilling per passenger. The 485 passengers included Thomas Cook’s seven-year-old son John Mason Cook. The party travelled in open tub-style carriages and was accompanied by a band. After a successful day of marches, speeches, games and tea in the park, the party arrived back at Leicester station at 10:30 pm.

Two months after the first excursion to Loughborough, Cook moved to Leicester where he set up a bookselling and printing business at No 1 King Street. During the next three summers, he arranged a succession of trips between Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Birmingham on behalf of local temperance societies and Sunday schools. Although these trips helped to lay the foundations of his future business, Cook made little money from them aside from printing posters and handbills.

Cook and his family moved to 26-28 Granby Street – known as ‘Cook’s Rooms’ – in 1843. He used the building as an hotel, reading room, print works and a booking office for his excursions, and it was his home for the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, a new Baptist chapel was built in Leicester. The Belvoir Street Chapel or ‘Pork Pie Chapel’ on Belvoir Street was built in 1845 to a design by Joseph Hansom, the inventor of the horse-drawn cab.

Cook’s first commercial venture took place that summer, when he organised a trip to Liverpool. By the end of 1850, he had visited Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

In 1850, Sir Joseph Paxton, architect of the Crystal Palace, and John Ellis, chair of the Midland Railway Company, persuaded Cook to devote himself to bringing workers from Yorkshire and the Midlands to London for the Great Exhibition. By the end of the season, Cook had taken 150,000 people to London, his final trains to the Exhibition carrying 3,000 children from Leicester, Nottingham and Derby.

James Butler’s statue of Thomas Cook outside London Road Railway Station in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Cook’s Commercial and Family Temperance Hotel and the adjoining Temperance Hall in Granby Street opened in 1853. Their neighbours on either side were pubs, the Nag’s Head on one side and the Wagon and Horses on the other, and Cook frequently clashed with their landlords.

While he continued to expand his business in Britain, Cook was determined to venture into Europe too. He managed to negotiate a route between Harwich and Antwerp, opening up the way for a grand circular tour to include Brussels, Cologne, the Rhine, Heidelberg, Baden-Baden, Strasbourg and Paris, returning to London via Le Havre or Dieppe. Cook escorted his first tourists to Europe by this route in the summer of 1855.

The success of these European tours led to the development of two important travel systems: the hotel coupon of 1868, to pay for hotel accommodation and meals abroad, and the circular note of 1874, an early form of travellers’ cheque that allowed tourists to obtain local currency in exchange for a paper note issued by Cook.

Building on his successes in Europe, Cook made an exploratory trip to North America in 1865 and set up a system of tours covering 4,000 miles of railways. Four years later, in 1869, he hired two steamers for his first tour up the Nile. The first round-the-world tour took place in 1872-1873, and conducted world tours soon became annual events.

While Thomas Cook was travelling round the world, his son, John Mason Cook, was building the company back home, moving the firm to a new head office at Ludgate Circus in London. John, the more commercially minded of the two, regularly argued with his father over the direction the company should take and by 1878 their partnership had ended.

With the ending of the business partnership with his son, Thomas had more time to devote to his life in Leicester and built his retirement home ‘Thorncroft’ at 244 London Road. In 1877, he was a founder member of the Leicester Coffee and Cocoa Company Ltd, which set up 14 coffee and cocoa houses in the town to provide alternatives to pubs. Many of these buildings still survive including the Victoria Coffee House on Granby Street, East Gates Coffee and High Cross Coffee House.

Thomas Cook died in 1892 and was buried in Welford Road Cemetery with his wife and daughter. John Mason Cook continued to take the business from strength to strength, opening new offices in Leicester in 1894. The Thomas Cook Building at 5 Gallowtree Gate was intended as a celebration of the company with tiled friezes on its exterior telling the story of the first 50 years of Thomas Cook & Son.

John Mason Cook died in 1899. Many of the objects he acquired on his travels over the years were given to the Town Museum, now Leicester Museum and Art Gallery. By the beginning of the 20th century, the firm of Thomas Cook and Son dominated the world travel scene.

The congregation of the Belvoir Street Chapel united with that of Charles Street in the 1940s and it became known as the United Baptist Church. It was designated a Grade II listed building in 1973. It was named the Central Baptist Church in 1983 and is the last surviving of several Baptist churches in Leicester City Centre.

Today, a statue of Thomas Cook stands outside London Road Railway Station in Leicester in celebration of his landmark first organised return rail journey from Leicester to Loughborough. The statue is by James Butler, who is also responsible for the Seamstress Statue, outside the City Rooms, and Richard III in Castle Gardens. The statue was unveiled in 1991, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Leicester to Loughborough excursion.

Thomas Cook’s first round-the-world tour took place in 1872-1873 … a detail from his statue at London Road Railway Station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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