Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 1013/7 posted by hidden europe on

By the end of February 1873, Thomas Cook had encircled most of the northern hemisphere. Cook and his party of circumnavigators had sailed from Liverpool in September 1872. The travellers discovered iced water, Pullman cars and Sioux warriors in the United States. They found the crossing of the Pacific happily pacific and enjoyed "a perfect bewilderment" of landscape in Japan. Christmas was celebrated on a steamer in the Bay of Bengal. After a brief stop in Ceylon, Cook's party arrived in Madras on New Year's Day 1873. After touring India, the travellers boarded one of P&O's liners for the journey to the Red Sea. The Dumbarton-built SS Hydaspes was a magnificent vessel. She had left Southampton for India on her maiden sailing in the same week that Cook and his party had departed from England in September 1872.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

By the end of February 1873, Thomas Cook had encircled most of the northern hemisphere. Cook and his party of circumnavigators had sailed from Liverpool in September 1872. The travellers discovered iced water, Pullman cars and Sioux warriors in the United States. They found the crossing of the Pacific happily pacific and enjoyed "a perfect bewilderment" of landscape in Japan. China was less engaging and the visitors were disquieted by the sight of so many "festering beggars in every shape of hideous deformity."

Christmas was celebrated on a steamer in the Bay of Bengal. After a brief stop in Ceylon, Cook's party arrived in Madras on New Year's Day 1873. After touring India, the travellers boarded one of P&O's liners for the journey to the Red Sea. The Dumbarton-built SS Hydaspes was a magnificent vessel. She had left Southampton for India on her maiden sailing in the same week that Cook and his party had departed from England in September 1872. So the spell on the SS Hydaspes was a chance to reflect and write. Cook filed one of his regular reports for The Times from Suez in the first few days of March. The newspaper had tracked Cook on his travels, reporting regularly on this first-ever circumnavigation of the world by tourists.

Jules Verne's book Around the World in Eighty Days had been serialised in the Paris newspaper Le Temps in the run-up to Christmas 1872 and the entire text was published in English in January 1873. Verne's book was almost certainly inspired by media advertisements in early 1872 promoting Thomas Cook's upcoming first-ever round the world tour. Verne's book was an instant success (in France, in Britain, and more widely), so the Europe of 140 years ago was eager for news of travellers circumnavigating the planet.

Cook could not totally relax during the voyage of the SS Hydaspes. He had to catch up with correspondence with his London office - the centre of Cook's rapidly expanding empire. Thomas' son John Mason Cook had a firm hold on affairs there, and the latter was in truth probably grateful that his father was well out of the way. Relations between the two men were often strained.

But both Thomas and John saw eye to eye on one key project that came to fruition in early March 1873. One of the company's employees, John Bredall (who later became Company Secretary) had suggested producing a compact timetable of the principal public transport services across Europe. The first edition of Cooks Continental Timetable appeared in March 1873.

The timing was perfect. Vienna was about to host a World Fair, giving Thomas Cook and his company the chance to replicate on a larger stage the successes they had enjoyed in Britain during the Great Exhibition of 1851. The company offered travellers from Britain a choice of over seventy different itineraries for journeys to Vienna, each supported by Cook's ingenious system of railway tickets and hotel coupons. But without a pocket timetable, the wonderful flexibility in Cook's system could not be exploited. The Continental Timetable is still going strong 140 years later. For many travellers across Europe, it has long been and remains the defining product of Thomas Cook. This is a company that played a key role in shaping the development of rail travel in Europe. Nowadays the monthly volume is called the European Rail Timetable and it remains a mainstay of the traveller's armamentarium.

This month's anniversary edition of the timetable includes a retrospect on the history of the book. And, in conjunction with hidden europe, Thomas Cook this month launches a new feature of the European Rail Timetable. Starting with the March 2013 edition, each monthly issue will showcase a Route of the Month. The series starts with a look at the railway from Salzburg to Vienna.

It is a route that many of Thomas Cook's clients followed in 1873 as they travelled to the World Fair in Vienna. An article published today in European Rail News looks a little closer at the extraordinary history of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.