Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882)
‘King Cole’, the most influential man in South Kensington.
Henry Cole’s grave is surprisingly modest for such a remarkable man. We have him to thank for everything from Christmas cards and children’s stories to the postal system and national museums. He was passionate about his work, but still found time to paint, write, design beautiful and practical household objects – and bring up eight children.
Among many other things, Cole was instrumental in sorting out the Public Record Office, and helped introduce the ‘Penny Post’, a national pre-paid postage system. One of his greatest successes was managing the international Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, which celebrated ‘the works of industry of all nations’.
The Exhibition made a significant profit, and Cole ensured the money was invested in art and science in Britain. Land was bought in South Kensington, where he helped set up the V&A Museum, the Albert Hall, Imperial College and the Royal Colleges of Music and Art. His nickname was well earned, ‘King Cole’ of Kensington, and he was knighted in 1875.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Cole followed up his reforms of the postal system with the idea of commercial Christmas cards.
Cole wanted to send greetings to friends and family at Christmas, but letter-writing was a time-consuming business. So he asked his friend, the artist John Callcott Horsley, to illustrate a card that could be printed cheaply. Cole had 1,000 cards made for Christmas 1843. He used some himself, and put the rest up for sale at a shilling each. They didn’t sell terribly well.
It took a few more years before Cole’s idea really caught on. Today, in the UK alone, we send about a billion Christmas cards each year.