Thomas Cook guided tour. Illustrated by George du Maurier (1834-1896) (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

Holidays take a pounding

An entertaining new history of British tourism is well timed

As the economy shakes, a long-standing British tradition faces a financial dilemma. Globetrotting does not quite have the rosy glow it has long enjoyed.

Since around the 17th century, Brits have been partial to overseas getaways — the growing wealth of the country producing an indulgent new class of leisure traveller. At first these jaunts were termed “Grand Tours”, taken almost exclusively by grand people: young aristocrats (mainly men) seeking enlightenment, a finishing touch to classical educations and, of course, a good time.

Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves, Lucy Lethbridge (Bloomsbury, £14.00)

Make a beeline for Florence and Rome and make the most of it — glory in the old masterpieces, and perhaps take a few back. Horizons soon expanded, the antiquities of Greece sought out with a similar attitude to souvenirs. Piled high with cases transported by lackeys, the great and the good would set forth, an eye on the prize along the way.

It was a glorious time to be a wealthy young traveller, journeying as far as the Middle East and absorbing the great sights in splendid solitude — carving initials in the steps of the pyramids and the walls of the Acropolis and coming home with exotic stories to tell.

Then in the early 19th century something disquietening happened: the middle-classes began to get in on the act, prompting Samuel Taylor Coleridge to remark on a new breed of “delinquent travellers” a cut below the classical tourist of before: gawpers, gadabouts and voyeurs. After the fall of Napoleon, with Britain flush with victory and the money-tree of the empire bearing much fruit, all sorts began to head for the Continent. “Peace has set John Bull a-gadding” was Coleridge’s take.

With the coming of railways and the emergence of Thomas Cook and early package holidays in the 1840s and 50s, mass tourism was off on its merry way, organised trips springing up and guidebooks selling like hotcakes. A fresh bout of snobbery was directed at this hoi-polloi heading for the continent, clutching their Murray and Baedeker handbooks like pilgrims with bibles as newfangled railways made getting about easier than ever (third class, perfectly fine). Cook himself was prompted to defend his very own package holidaymakers by the Nile on one occasion: “By what right does he [a critical commentator] assume them [Cook’s tourists] incapable of properly enjoying and intelligently appreciating the wonders of nature, and the treasures of art, brought before them by travel?”

By the mid-20th century, mass tourism was well established, the 1938 Holidays With Pay Act having legally mandated time off from work (a week a year), jet planes opening up the southern reaches of the Med for a song, and the post war years of austerity having come to an end. A new breed of fun-in-the-sun package companies from Horizon Holidays onwards introduced beach breaks. As plane fares plummeted, with lower and lower-cost airlines culminating with the 1p-each way Easyjets and Ryanairs of the 1990s, a frenzy-like stampede to the bucket-and-spade sands began not just to Europe, but as far away as the Asia, America and Australia.

Yet key to it all, from the days of the Grand Tourists onwards, as the budget airline revolution of the past few decades has shown: we could afford it.

Has the golden period of budget flights come to an end?

The timing of Lucy Lethbridge’s Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves, a history of tourism in Britain, could not be better.

During the Covid lockdowns, travel was restricted because it was illegal to do so. Now, it appears we may be about to enter an era during which many of us will simply not have the money to go holidaymaking. Or, at least, we will have to go a lot less often.

Has the golden period of dirt-cheap budget flights come to an end, as no less than the chief executive of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, recently said, whilst at the same time Britain’s economic doldrums hit us all? A double blow to getaway dreams?

Lethbridge’s well-researched history draws on first-hand accounts of British tourism from its early days. It is laced with humour, lampooning the snobs of yesteryear and poking fun at various pretensions and quirks. Mass tourists heading out in the late 19th century, fearful of “eels messed up, some kind of little birds, beef messed up … [and] no pudding at all”, as one such holidaymaker put it, would take their own provisions in suitcases for month-long trips, with stashes of tea and even kettles, too.

Foreign food was generally considered problematic. Macaroni, Letherbridge observes, was not to be trusted by many and “had given its name in the mid-18th century to an effete and dandified type with continental affectations”. Pizza appeared to be less troublesome, more like a “kind of Yorkshire pudding eaten either with cheese or anchovies and tomatoes flavoured with thyme”, according to a British visitor in 1903.

There were prejudices aplenty, of course. One diarist, Mary Browne, travelling in the mid-19th century, wrote of her arrival in France: “About Calais was the ugliest country without exception I ever beheld”. The French people she encountered “seemed to be creeping along and looking like oysters”.

Those fearful of funny foreign ways were derided as “continental excursionists” by some, even if such holidaymakers had the cash to pay their way. The history of British tourism often reads as much as a history of British snobbery over the past 250 years (as well as the history of simply having a bit of a laugh at Brits as they head off on their hols) whether at home or abroad.

Thomas Cook led a 222-day round-the-world trip in 1872

William Coombe’s early The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1812) took great joy in describing a poor parson clambering about in the Lake District. At the time, Claude glasses — plano-convex mirrors named after their inventor Claude Lorrain — were being widely used to view scenery in the most “picturesque” manner. This approach to capturing the beauty of a scene had been coined by the 18th century clergyman, William Gilpin, who also believed that use of the imagination could “plant hills; can form rivers, and lakes in valleys, can build castles and abbeys”. Coombe had a field day.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 acted as a major breakthrough to international tourism, allowing the riffraff to travel even further afield. Thomas Cook led a 222-day round-the-world trip in 1872, covering America, China, India and Egypt. Such tours were soon part of his mainstay of holidays — though perhaps pitched at the upper end of the mass market.

The 1870s had been a key period for mass tourism, with the introduction of the Bank Holiday Act of 1871, although The Times said snootily that there had been “an increasing tendency of late years among all classes to find excuses for Holy Days”. Lethbridge notes that “the mid-Victorian British worker would not easily have understood the idea of ‘leisure’: it was an entitlement which the rich and aristocratic took for granted but which in anyone else was thought to be an absence of purposeful activity”. Idleness, in other words.

By the mid-1950s, two million of us were holidaying abroad, many travelling with Lunn Poly, Cosmos and (still going strong) Thomas Cook. This figure shot up to 19 million by 2019. Where you go on your holidays is still a “defining feature of social mobility”, says Lethbridge — holidays, how they are taken and “class” are never seemingly far apart, just as back in the days of Anthony Trollope, who considered the new crowds visiting the Alps “vulgarians” in the mid-19th century. That said, the Labour politician Roy Hattersley once commented that continental holidays had helped to “blur the boundaries of class struggle”, so things have moved somewhat on from that.

What it all might mean, though, if many of us cannot afford them anymore one day soon … only time will tell.

Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves by Lucy Lethbridge is published by Bloomsbury.



In 1841, Thomas Cook, a Baptist missionary and cabinet maker, arranged a group tour by train on the new Midland Counties Railway 11 miles from Leicester to Loughborough for a day trip to a teetotal rally. The price was one shilling, including tea, ham sandwiches and a brass band.


Soon, Cook was branching out to Wales and Scotland, producing handbooks, considered the first holiday brochures. “The prejudices which ignorance has engendered are broken by the roar of a train, and the whistle of the engine awakens thousands from the slumber of ages,” he wrote in his Handbook to Scotland (1846).


The early days of the package tour were dominated by Thomas Cook, who enjoyed a breakthrough in 1851 when he sent 150,000 people to the Great Exhibition. Tickets were offered from York to London for a crown.

By 1855, with his name now well-established, Cook personally led a tour from Harwich to Antwerp, continuing to Brussels, Cologne, Heidelberg, Strasbourg and Paris for an International Exhibition. Swiss mountain climbing trips and to Italy were soon to follow.

During this period, “reps” were introduced wearing blue jackets and gold buttons to help with foreign languages.


By the 1860s Cook was a household name. He opened his first high street shop in Fleet Street in 1865 and began hotel coupons for rooms and meals in 1868.

In 1869, Cook broadened his horizons with trips to Egypt and the Holy Land; thirty-two customers were transported by ship to Alexandria and train to Cairo. Two Nile steamers were booked for the passage to Luxor. Cook, the tour leader, went for a swim and was almost swept away: “My first and last attempt at bathing in the Nile.”


In 1872 the ever-busy Cook arranged an extraordinary 222-day round-the-world tour. After steamship to New York, customers took the Pacific express to San Francisco followed by ships to China, India and Egypt on the way home. Long-haul package holidays had arrived.

Also of note, in 1874: an early form of travellers’ cheques was created so people did not have to carry too much cash.


The first package ski holiday was to Chamonix in France in the winter of 1898-99 organised by Dr Henry Lunn, a former Methodist minister who had previously arranged religious trips to Grindelwald in Switzerland.

Lunn had become a rival to Thomas Cook, or rather his descendants (Thomas having died in 1892), also organising trips to Rome and the Holy Land. He believed in large groups to keep prices down, and some consider him the first budget tour operator.

1920s: UP IN THE AIR

Thomas Cook had started selling flights on Imperial Airways from Cricklewood in north-west London to the Continent in 1919, but in 1927 the company went a step further by chartering a Fokker Universal plane with wicker seats between New York and Chicago to watch Jack Dempsey fight Gene Tunney in a world heavyweight boxing match. Participants had to travel by ship to New York.


Seaside holiday camps sprang up, thus avoiding notoriously fussy guest house landladies. The first Butlins opened in Skegness, Lincolnshire in 1936 for 35 shillings a week full board (about £100 today).

This was just ahead of the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938, ensuring one week’s paid holiday a year and meaning the working classes could get away for the first time.

Meanwhile, the upper and middle classes were catching Thomas Cook charter flights to the French Riviera by 1939 — and the ski companies Inghams and Erna Low were also established with journeys on Snow Sports Specials trains to the Alps.


Package holidays in Spain boomed on the back of rapid hotel construction under Franco. Flight times had been cut with the first jet aircraft, Boeing 707s, already flying from 1958. The journey to Palma in Majorca was reduced to two hours when jets were chartered in the mid-1960s.

In 1965, Thomson Holidays was established after the Thomson Organisation, a Canadian business, bought Universal Sky Tours, Gaytours and Riviera Holidays; the latter set up by a wheeler-dealer London taxi driver named Aubrey Morris. Newer Boeing 737s were chartered.

Alicante Airport opened in 1967 accelerating development in Benidorm, where more than 100 hotels were built in ten years. The term “Costa Blanca” was coined to promote tourism.


Package holiday sales soared as price wars between Thomson and Intasun raged. Travel agencies sprang up on high streets. 


Most operators prospered during the new decade, with 15m Britons taking package trips in 1994, 56 per cent of the holiday market. Club 18-30, which had been offering cheap holidays for singles since the 1960s, courted controversy with “Beaver Espana” and “Girls, can we interest you in a package holiday?” adverts — the latter accompanied by a picture of a man wearing boxer shorts. Sales soared.

In 1995 Easyjet began Luton-Gatwick flights “for the price of a pair of Levi’s” (then £29.99), bought on the internet during its early days. This was the prelude to a new era.


No-frills airlines with streamlined costs such as Easyjet and Ryanair undercut traditional carriers such as British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa — sometimes with flights for a little as one pence (plus tax). Holidaymakers realised they could book their own trips easily over the internet, taking advantage of cheap online accommodation.


Tour operators increasingly felt the pinch. Ryanair was Europe’s biggest airline in 2018–2019 carrying 152m annual passengers (up from 2m in 1995). The same year, Easyjet had 96m passengers. and became major players for hotels and apartments.

In September 2019 — 178 years after the first Leicester-Loughborough trip — Thomas Cook went bust despite an annual turnover of £9bn and 22,000 staff operating in 16 countries.


Roughly 19m people went on package holidays in 2019 out of a total of 58.7 million overseas holidays — 34 per cent, way down on the 56 per cent of 1994. Could a revival of fortunes be round the corner? Or will the financial crisis confine us to our shores?

Somewhere up above, a former Baptist missionary may be looking down with a keen eye on what happens next.

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