Sir Henry Cole

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Sir Henry Cole (15 July 1808 – 18 April 1882) was an English civil servant and inventor who facilitated many innovations in commerce and education in 19th century Britain. Cole is credited with devising the concept of sending greetings cards at Christmas time, introducing the world's first commercial Christmas card in 1843.[1]


Henry Cole was born in Bath, and educated at Christ's Hospital in London. He began his career at the age of 15 at the Public Record Office, where he became Assistant Keeper and was instrumental in reforming the organisation and preservation of the British national archives.

From 1837 to 1840, he worked as an assistant to Rowland Hill and played a key role in the introduction of the Penny Post. He is sometimes credited with the design of the world's first postage stamp, the Penny Black.[2]

In 1843, Cole introduced the world's first commercial Christmas card,[3] commissioning artist John Callcott Horsley to make the artwork.[4]

Felix Summerly pseudonym

Cole was personally interested in industrial design, and under the pseudonym Felix Summerly designed a number of items which went into production, including a prize-winning teapot manufactured by Minton. As Felix Summerly, he also wrote a series of children's books, including A book of stories from The home treasury; A hand-book for the architecture, sculpture, tombs, and decorations of Westminster Abbey (1859); An Alphabet of Quadrupeds (1844); and The most delectable history of Reynard the Fox (illustrated with twenty-four coloured pictures by Aldert van Everdingen) (1846).

Cole and the exhibitions

Through his membership of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, Cole lobbied government for support for his campaign to improve standards in industrial design. The backing of Prince Albert was secured, and in 1847 a royal charter was granted to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). Under the patronage of Prince Albert, Cole organised a successful Exhibition of Art Manufactures in 1847, with enlarged exhibitions following in 1848 and 1849.

Cole visited the 1849 11th Quinquennial Paris Exhibition and noticed the lack of an exhibition open to international participants. He saw that the RSA's planned exhibitions for 1850 and 1851 could be adapted into a larger international exhibition, and he secured the backing of Queen Victoria to establish in 1850 the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 to manage the new exhibition, under the Presidency of Prince Albert.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October 1851, and was an enormous popular and financial success, partially due to the astute management of Henry Cole.


As one of the Commissioners, Cole was instrumental in the decision that the £186,000 surplus from the Great Exhibition would be used for improving science and art education in the United Kingdom. Land was purchased in the South Kensington area and developed as the centre for a number of educational and cultural institutions, known half-jokingly as "Albertopolis". Henry Cole was appointed the first General Superintendent of the Department of Practical Art, set up by the government to improve standards of art and design education in Britain with reference to their applicability to industry. In this capacity he was instrumental in the development of the Victoria and Albert Museum which had begun as the Museum of Ornamental Art in Marlborough House. Cole oversaw its move to its current site, and became first director of what was initially called South Kensington Museum from 1857 to 1873. In 1974 a part of the museum that was once known as the Huxley Building was renamed the Henry Cole Building; today it forms the Henry Cole Wing of the V&A.[5]

Honours and legacy

Cole was instrumental in the development of the Royal College of Art as a postgraduate design school and played a part in the establishment of many other South Kensington institutions, such as the Royal College of Music and Imperial College London. In fact, the Imperial College Mathematics Department was formerly based in the Henry Cole Wing on Exhibition Road, before the premises were donated to the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Cole was awarded the CB for his work on the Great Exhibition and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1875.[6] Often referred to in the press as "Old King" Cole, he was known to have the closest personal backing of the Queen and especially of the Prince Consort, who when he needed a facilitator for one of his pet projects, was heard to remark: "We must have steam, get Cole".[7]

An English heritage blue plaque commemorates where Cole lived and worked at 33 Thurloe Square, South Kensington, London, opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum.[8]

In 2001, one of Cole's first Christmas cards, which was sent to his grandmother in 1843, sold at auction for £22,500.[1][9]


Further reading

  • Bonython, Elizabeth and Anthony Burton The Great Exhibitor: The Life and Work of Henry Cole, London: V & A, 2003.
  • Bonython, Elizabeth King Cole: A Picture Portrait of Sir Henry Cole, London, 1985.
  • Cole, Henry Fifty years of public work of Sir Henry Cole accounted for in his deeds, speeches and writings, (in two volumes) London, Bell and Sons, 1884 (Completed by Henrietta and Alan S. Cole after Henry Cole's death).
  • Design Council Archive – University of Brighton Design Archives (Journal of Design and Manufactures is still not digitised, but is open to researchers)
  • Journal of Design and Manufactures

External links

  • the UK National Archives
  • Sir Henry Cole and the first Christmas Card
  • Obituary of Sir Henry Cole The Times, 20 April 1882, from the Victoria and Albert Museum

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