Sir Henry Cole
Published: 13 December, 2012
by GERALD ISAAMAN
ELM Row in Hampstead is not exactly a busy thoroughfare, just a tiny turning off Heath Street. Yet it has a special significance at Christmas few will appreciate – unless they take a look at the black plaque on the wall of No 3.
If you take a quick peep you will discover that this was the home, towards the end of his life, of Sir Henry Cole, the man credited with creating the first commercial Christmas card.
He is also the forgotten genius responsible for giving us the V&A Museum, as well as being the postal reformer who helped Rowland Hill, another Hampstead man, with the birth of the Penny Post.
And, of course, Christmas cards and the post are posing a real problem this year when 30 second-class stamps alone will set you back £15 – another financial headache in these times of austerity.
Indeed, a survey of 10,000 people by Saga has revealed that the average number of cards sent per person will fall by a quarter – from 38 last year to 28 this year.
“This is a reduction in Christmas cheer,” declares Ros Altmann, Saga’s director general, who believes that the elderly are less likely to adopt email as a solution.
“We mustn’t forget how important a lifeline the postal system is for people. Policy-makers must not forget how dependent ordinary people are on the postal system. For many, their lives are enriched by both sending and receiving cards.”
The reduction of Christmas cards will also hit those charities who rely on the celebration as a means of raising funds for their good causes.
Old King Cole, as he became known, would no doubt express his concern too, not to mention his shock at discovering that one of his original signed cards he sent to his grandmother fetched a £22,500 at auction more than a decade ago.
The card, designed by artist John Callcott Horsley and inspired by Cole’s fascinating with industrial design, defeated the previous record price of £14,000 paid for a card sent from the doomed Titanic transatlantic liner.
Cole’s ebullient self-made career had its own downbeat moments; in particular his investment in a crazy notion of his friend Henry Scott that you could make concrete out of sewage.
Born in 1808 in Bath into a middle-class family that included bankers and architects, Cole suffered when his father’s status as an Army officer declined to that of a coal merchant. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital but with no chance of going to university took a job, aged 15, as a clerk to Sir Francis Palgrave in the Public Record Office.
His thirst for knowledge included learning languages and even palaeography as he joined a radical group seeking change, which was started by the young John Stuart Mill. The result was that he was labelled a trouble-maker and sacked in 1835.
Yet Cole’s zeal enabled him to win back his lost post and launch a successful lobby that put the Records Act of 1838 on the statute book. From there he was recruited by Rowland Hill to help set up the Penny Post before moving into the world of the arts.
Here he established a powerful base in setting up the Society of Arts, his talents and strong circle of influential friends being responsible for the Great Exhibition of 1851, Cole becoming a dominating force as the organiser and chief adviser to Prince Albert.
The Creation of the School of Design was next on his agenda, an organisation out of which eventually came the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1857. Cole was its first director.
He eventually retired with a knighthood – and sought a home in healthy Hampstead up the hill.
The Heath became one of his new passions, along with taking an interest in transport projects. They included the new Hampstead Junction Railway at a time when hansom cab from central London cost three shillings one way while a single omnibus ticket from Hampstead High Street to Oxford Circus cost three old pence.
And he built up a coterie of local friends, among them George du Maurier and the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
But depression, poor health and the failure of the sewerage enterprise saw Cole quitting Hampstead for his more natural habitat near the V&A.
“The 400 feet ascent to Hampstead was a great physical obstacle,” Cole recorded in his diary.
And as the historian Anthony Burton revealed in a Camden History Review article: “It has to be admitted that Hampstead did not suit him.”
He died in 1882.
So spare old King Cole a kind thought as you write some joyous words on your Christmas cards.