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A guest post by LH Member Martin Thompson.

Sir Henry Cole (1808 – 1882), Founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Address in Hampstead: 3 Elm Row (1879 – 1880)

xmas card cole

The first commercially produced Christmas card, 1843.

Life and Times
henry coleSir Henry Cole was instrumental in the development of the Victoria and Albert Museum of which he was the first director. He introduced the world’s first commercial Christmas card in 1843 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.

He was born in Bath on 15 July, 1808 into a middle-class family, the son of Henry Robert Cole and his wife Leticia and educated at Christ’s Hospital in London. With little chance of going to university he took a job, aged 15, as a clerk in the Public Record Office. Whilst working there he met and married Marian Fairman Bond on 28th December, 1833 with whom he had nine children. Cole lost his job there in 1835. However, his criticisms of the Commission’s activities enabled him to win back his lost post and led to the eventual establishment of a new Public Record Office, of which Cole was appointed an Assistant Keeper. From there he was recruited by Rowland Hill to work as an assistant between 1837 and 1840 and with whom he helped introduce the penny post.

In 1850 he secured the backing of Queen Victoria to establish, under the Presidency of Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations which was held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October 1851. This was enormously popular and a great financial success. He was also 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 eventually becoming the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In 1843 Cole commissioned John Callcott Horsley to design a greeting card that he could send to all his friends as, at the time, it was the custom to laboriously handwrite greeting cards individually. It showed a happy family enjoying the holiday with side panels depicting the charitable side of Christmas and the Christmas card was born. One of these first Christmas cards which he had sent to his grandmother, sold at auction for £22,500.

Cole eventually retired with a knighthood bestowed upon him by Queen Victoria in 1875 and sought a home in Hampstead which he found in Elm Row. It is not exactly a busy thoroughfare, just a tiny turning off Heath Street. Yet it has a special significance at Christmas that few will appreciate – unless they take a look at the black plaque on the wall of 3 Elm Row which states: Sir Henry Cole lived here 1879-1880. He originated the custom of sending Christmas Cards and was largely responsible for the founding of the Kensington Museum. He was also a great postal reformer. Whilst living in Hampstead, the Heath became one of his new passions. He also built up a group of local friends in the area amongst them Gerard Manley Hopkins and George du Maurier. Unfortunately, Hampstead did not suit him. Cole himself wrote in his diary “the 400 feet ascent to Hampstead was a great obstacle.” As a result, he left Hampstead and moved to South Kensington, in 1880.

Cole had a known heart condition, but did not slow down as he aged. At the end of 1881, he started writing his memoir highlighting his half century of public service. On Monday, April 17, 1882 Cole sat for a portrait with the famous painter Whistler. That night his condition worsened, and he died in his home the following evening at the age of 74. He was buried in Brompton cemetery.

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