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)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
30, 8 June 2024

Ely Cathedral and its towers rise above the low-lying wetlands of the Fens, so that it has long been known as the ‘Ship of the Fens’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the First Sunday after Trinity, and tomorrow is the Second Sunday after Trinity (Trinity II, 9 June 2024). The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today remembers the life and ministry of Thomas Ken (1711), Bishop of Bath and Wells, Nonjuror and Hymn Writer.

In the week after Trinity Sunday, I illustrated my prayers and reflections with images and memories of six churches, chapels and monasteries in Greece I know that are dedicated to the Holy Trinity. I have continued that theme this week with images from churches, chapels or cathedral in England that are dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

StonyLive!, a celebration of the cultural talent in and around Stony Stratford, began on Saturday and continues until tomorrow (9 June). The StonyLive! Programme continues today with a number of creative events at venues throughout Stony Stratford.

We have been in Dublin and Bray for the last few days, and we are catching a flight back to Birmingham later today. But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The unique Octagon or Lantern Tower is the glory of Ely Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 12: 35-37 (NRSVUE):

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41 He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Inside Ely Cathedral … the nave is the fourth longest cathedral nave in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Ely:

My photographs this morning (8 June 2024) are from Ely Cathedral, whose formal title is the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Last year, Ely Cathedral marked 1,350 years since Saint Etheldreda first established a monastery in Ely in the year 673.

Ely Cathedral and its towers rise above the low-lying wetlands of the Fens, so that it has long been known as the ‘Ship of the Fens.’ It is said the cathedral can be seen from almost every parish in the Diocese of Ely, which includes most of Cambridgeshire, parts of Norfolk and Essex, and one parish in Bedfordshire.

Ely, with about 15,000 people, is the third smallest city in England and was only recognised as a city in a royal charter 50 years ago in 1974. The Isle of Ely remained a separate county until 1965. Saint Ethelreda (Audrey), an Anglo-Saxon princess and Fenland queen, founded an abbey on the Isle of Ely in the year 673. The Diocese of Ely was formed in 1108 out of the See of Lincoln, and the monastery became a cathedral in 1109.

Ely Cathedral is cruciform in shape and for its time was a model of symmetry. The nave, at 165.5 metres (537 ft) is the fourth longest cathedral nave in England. The Octagon or ‘Lantern Tower,’ which replaced the central tower, is a unique structure and the glory of Ely Cathedral.

The main transepts were built at an early stage, crossing the nave below a central tower, and are the oldest surviving parts of the cathedral. Building work continued throughout the 12th century, when the western transepts and tower were completed under Bishop Geoffrey Ridel (1174-1189) in an exuberant Romanesque style with a rich decoration of intersecting arches and complex mouldings.

The Galilee or entrance porch was added under Bishop Eustace (1198-1215) in the Early English Gothic style. Under Bishop Hugh of Northwold, a new east end was begun in 1234, with a grand 10-bay structure. His chancel was completed around 1252.

The free-standing Lady Chapel was built in 1321-1349 in an exuberant Decorated Gothic style. The niches were once filled with an extensive sculpted cycle illustrating the life-story of the Virgin Mary, but they were damaged during the Reformation and the Lady Chapel was stripped of all decoration.

The great Norman crossing tower collapsed in 1322, damaging the first four bays of the Early Gothic choir. These bays were rebuilt, and the tower was replaced by the Octagonal Lantern. Although it is supported on eight massive masonry piers, the lantern is built from oak timbers. When it was completed in 1340, the Octagon was the largest crossing span in northern Europe and it remains Ely Cathedral’s most distinctive feature, visible for miles across the Fens.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the cathedral suffered only minor damage, but Saint Etheldreda’s shrine was destroyed, many of the statues in the Lady Chapel were severely damaged, and Bishop Thomas Goodrich ordered the destruction of all the mediaeval statues, painting and stained glass.

Ely Cathedral has undergone several major restorations: under James Essex in the 18th century; under George Peacock in 1839; under George Gilbert Scott, when the painted wooden ceiling of the nave was decorated by Henry Styleman le Strange and Thomas Gambier Parry; and in 1986-2000.

The Victorian Gothic architect AWN Pugin was once found weeping in the Lady Chapel, disturbed by the destruction of its beauty. But he was inspired by the Octagonal Lantern Tower later when he was designing the chapel for the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Dublin.

Modern works of art in the cathedral include Jonathan Clarke’s sculpture, ‘The Way of Life’, Hans Feibusch’s ‘Christus’ (1981), and David Wynne’s sculpture (1967) capturing the moment when the distraught Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ on Easter Morning. But Ely’s most controversial modern work is David Wynne’s statue of the Virgin Mary in the Lady Chapel. Robed in stark blue, she is rejoicing in the news that she is to be the mother of the Christ Child.

The Bishops of Ely include the Caroline divine Lancelot Andrewes (1609-1619), who oversaw the translation of the Authorised Version of the Bible, and Matthew Wren (1638-1667), uncle of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Stephen Sykes (1990-2000), one of the most eminent Anglican ecclesiologists, was Dean of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, Professor of Divinity at Durham and the Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge before becoming Bishop of Ely.

Many of the early monastic buildings survive to the south of Ely Cathedral, so that Ely has Europe’s largest collection of mediaeval monastic buildings still in domestic use. They include the Porta or great gateway to the monastery that now houses the library of the King’s School.

The nave ceiling in Ely Cathedral was painted during the Victorian restoration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 8 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been ‘Volunteers Week.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Carol Miller, Church Engagement Manager, USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (8 June 2024) invites us to pray:

Lord, accept these gifts, our labour for your kingdom. Let them bring glory and honour to you.

The Collect:

O God, from whom all blessings flow,
by whose providence we are kept
and by whose grace we are directed:
help us, through the example of your servant Thomas Ken,
faithfully to keep your word,
humbly to accept adversity
and steadfastly to worship you;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God, shepherd of your people,
whose servant Thomas Ken revealed the loving service of Christ
in his ministry as a pastor of your people:
by this eucharist in which we share
awaken within us the love of Christ
and keep us faithful to our Christian calling;
through him who laid down his life for us,
but is alive and reigns with you, now and for ever.

Collect on the eve of Trinity II:

Lord, you have taught us
that all our doings without love are nothing worth:
send your Holy Spirit
and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues,
without which whoever lives is counted dead before you.
Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

William of Kilkenny, Bishop of Ely from 1254 to 1256, had previously been appointed Bishop of Ossory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.