On Monday 5 July 1841, a boisterous crowd gathered on the platform of Campbell Street Station, Leicester. To judge by their bright eyes and excitability, one might have assumed they were intoxicated. Nothing could have been further from the truth, at least in the conventional sense of the term; none of them had touched a drop. Indeed, along with their guide, they actively campaigned against the evils of alcohol.

Raised in a deeply religious household, Thomas Cook had learned to read from the Bible and had been a Baptist preacher before taking up a slightly more lucrative trade as a carpenter. He had also been taught the rudiments of printing by his mentor and father figure (his own father had died when he was three), the Reverend H Joseph Foulkes Winks. From Winks, Thomas learned that print, in the form of tracts and journals, was a more efficient way of spreading ‘the word' than declaiming from a pulpit. In the 19th century, his printing skills gave him the kind of advantages that somebody who can write code has today. As Jill Hamilton notes in her (2005) biography Thomas Cook: The holiday maker, he once stated: ‘Advertising is to trade what steam is to machinery.' With Cook, the holiday brochure as dream vector was born.

Both intolerant of sloth and keen to aid his fellow man, Cook had been naturally attracted to the Temperance movement, sparked in England by Joseph Livesey, who had founded the Preston Temperance Society in March 1832. Its members were required to sign a pledge: ‘We agree to abstain from all liquors of an intoxicating quality, whether Ale, Porter, Wine, or Ardent Spirits, except as Medicines.'

Alcohol was undoubtedly a problem - or a solution, depending on your point of view. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, workers put in long hours for pitiful wages. They were poor, browbeaten and exhausted. When payday came, booze offered a short cut to happiness. As Hamilton puts it: ‘For a large number of people, the only refuge from depression and misery was the bottle. A copper or two... could buy oblivion.'

Meanwhile, families went hungry and wives were struck. Thomas Cook signed the Pledge on New Year's Day 1833. From that moment on, much of his time was devoted to the Temperance movement. More tracts were printed - but he also sought ways of distracting the masses from the temptations of alcohol. One in particular occurred to him. Steam was indeed driving all kinds of machinery - including trains, a new and alluring form of transport.

Leveraging the competition for passengers among the privately-owned railway companies, Cook wrote to the secretary of the Midland Counties Railway Company and effectively asked if he could borrow a train. Ostensibly, the purpose of the return trip from Leicester to Loughborough was to attend a quarterly Temperance meeting. In fact, Cook had organized a pleasure trip.

More than 500 people responded to his notices, posters and handbills. Almost as many showed up to observe the train's departure and watch its progress from bridges and embankments. A brass band tooted the train off - another parped it into its destination. Cook wrote: ‘All went off in the best style... and thus was struck the keynote of my excursions, and the social idea grew on me.'

Thomas had divined that travel was as effective as alcohol at blotting out the anxieties of daily life. As more Temperance trips were organized, he refined his formula: an educational or exciting journey, promoted via extensive advertising, for a low fare delivered by the negotiation of a group booking. He soon abandoned carpentry for a dual career as printer and ‘excursion agent'. According to Hamilton, Cook revelled in the details of these voyages, fretting over what he called the ‘arrangements'. ‘For him "arrangements" was a cherished word - arrangements for banners, arrangements for bands, arrangements for posters and arrangements for dignitaries.'

He transported travellers in their hundreds to Liverpool, North Wales and distant Scotland. The last nearly cost him his reputation, as passengers who had booked a steamship excursion were under the impression that their ticket included a cabin. Unfortunately, overbooking meant that many were forced to spent the night on the chilly and rain-swept deck. They were perhaps the first package tourists to discover that the reality of a trip does not always live up to the description in the brochure.

There were more tours to come, but in a sense they were all rehearsals for Cook's ultimate destination - the Holy Land.

En route for the Orient

For the time being his eastward progress was delayed by another opportunity. In 1850, in London, work began on the structures that would house the Great Exhibition, a spectacular showcase of ‘Britain's domination in arts, sciences, industry, commerce, armaments and medicine'. The highlight of this manifestation of Victorian power was a huge pavilion of iron and glass, a ‘crystal palace' 108 feet high and more than a third of a mile long.

Cook was one of the operators charged with transporting visitors to the exhibition, receiving a cut of ticket sales as well as the accommodation he had pre-booked in London. When the Great Exhibition opened in May 1851, the ringing of a metaphorical cash register could almost be heard above the brass band.

It was for the exhibition that Cook launched his magazine, Cook's Exhibition Herald and Excursion Advertiser, which later became simply The Excursionist. Still rolling off the presses at the start of the Second World War under the name The Travellers' Gazette, ‘it provided page after page of itineraries, fares, lists of hotels, testimonial letters, articles about tours, advertisements and editorial comment'.

The Escape Industry: How Iconic and Innovative Brands Built the Travel Business by Mark Tungate, is out now, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99.