The following comes from the Internet Archive web version of a copy of The Dictionary of National Biography (Clater—Condell, 1887) in the University of Toronto Library. Unlike the neighboring biographies, it is not followed by the initials of the author. — George P. Landow]

Illuminated initial S

ir Henry Cole (1808-1882) was born at Bath 15 July 1808. He was the son of Captain Henry Robert Cole, then of the 1st dragoon guards, by his wife Laetitia Dormer. He was sent in 1817 to Christ's Hospital, and upon leaving school in 1823 became clerk to Francis (afterwards Sir Francis) Palgrave, and then a sub-commissioner under the record commission. Cole was employed in transcribing records,, but found time to study water-colour painting under David Cox, and exhibited sketches at the Royal Academy. He lived with his father in a house belonging to Thomas Love Peacock, who retained two rooms in it, and became a friend of young Cole. Cole drew for him, helped him in writing critiques of musical performances, and was introduced by him to J. S. Mill, Charles Buller, and George Grote. The friends used to meet at Grote's house in Threadneedle Street for discussions twice a week. A new record commission was issued in 1831, and in 1833 Cole was appointed a sub-commissioner. The secretary, Charles Purton Cooper, quarrelled with the commission, and with Cole, who applied to Charles Buller for protection. A committee of the House of Commons was appointed upon Buller's motion in 1836, which reported against the existing system, and the commission lapsed on the death of William IV, 20 June 1837. Cole wrote many articles in support of Buller. He was appointed by Lord Langdale, who, as master of the rolls, administered the affairs of the commission, to take charge of the records of the exchequer of pleas. The record office was constituted in 1838, and Cole became one of the four senior assistant-keepers. He arranged a large mass of records in the Carlton House Riding School, where he was placed for the purpose 2 Nov. 1841. His reports upon the unsuitability of this place contributed to bring about the erection of the building in Fetter Lane (begun in 1851). Cole's duties at the record office did not absorb his whole energy. In 1838, with the leave of his superiors, he became secretary to a committee for promoting postal reform. He edited their organ, the Post Circular, suggested by himself, of which the first number appeared 14 March 1838. He got up petitions and meetings with such energy that Richard Cobden offered to him in 1839 the secretaryship of the Anti-Cornlaw League. Parliament granted power to carry out the new postal scheme in August 1839, and the treasury offered premiums for the best proposals as to stamps. Cole gained one of the premiums; he attended the treasury to discuss details, and was employed there till the beginning of 1842 in working out the scheme.

Cole's labours in the record office had led him to take an interest in various works of medieval art. His taste had been stimulated by his acquaintance with the antiquary, Francis Douce, whom he had known through Palgrave. He studied engraving, and in later life learned to etch, exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1866. In 1841 he began the issue of Felix Summerly's Home Treasury, a series of children's stories illustrated by woodcuts after famous pictures. Mulready, the Linnells, and other eminent artists cooperated. Illustrated handbooks to Westminster Abbey, Hampton Court, and other places by 'Felix Summerly' were also issued. In 1845 he competed successfully for a prize offered by the Society of Arts for a tea service. Many hundred thousands of the so-called 'Summerly tea cup and saucer and milk jug' have since been sold by Messrs. Minton; and an organisation was started in 1847 for producing a series of 'Summerly's Art Manufactures.'

The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 by Henry Windham Philips.

In 1846 Cole became a member of the Society of Arts. He was elected to the council, of which he was afterwards chairman in 1851 and 1852. In 1847-8-9 the society held exhibitions of 'Art Manufactures,' and in 1850 an exhibition of ' Ancient and Mediteval Decorative Art.' These led the way to the Great Exhibition of 1851. An 'executive committee' was appointed in 1849 to carry out the scheme, Cole obtaining leave of absence from the record office in order to serve upon it. It was confirmed by a royal commission on 3 Jan. 1850, Cole's chief colleagues being Mr. (afterwards Sir) C. W. Dilke, Robert Stephenson, and Digby Wyatt. Cole was a most energetic member and was brought into close connection with the prince consort, president of the royal commission. He was made C.B. in recognition of his services, at the conclusion. A balance of £213,305 was the result of the success of the exhibition. Cole was afterwards 'general adviser' to the exhibition of 1862, with a fee of £1,500; he had the chief share in managing the unsuccessful exhibitions of 1871-74; and he was acting commissioner and secretary to the royal commission for Great Britain at Paris in 1855 and 1867.

On 31 Oct. 1851 the secretaryship of the school of design, which had languished in a very precarious state since its foundation in 1840, was offered to Cole by Lord Granville. Cole had proposed various reforms, and a committee of the House of Commons had examined the question in 1849. The disposal of the surplus from the exhibition of 1851 brought the subject forward. The nucleus of a museum was formed by purchases from the exhibition with a grant of £5,000. from the treasury. This was exhibited at Marlborough House. Other purchases followed, especially that of the Soulages collection, secured by Cole in 1855. Lord Palmerston refusing to sanction the acquisition, Cole induced the trustees of the Manchester Fine Arts Exhibition to purchase it. They afterwards lent it to South Kensington, at a rental, and Cole induced the government to make annual purchases from it, until in twelve years it became the property of the nation. Cole meanwhile had been appointed (January 1852) secretary of the department of practical art, which was a remodelled version of the school of design. There were thirty-six subordinate schools of design in 1852, which in 1864 had developed into ninety-one schools of art. Other subordinate classes were formed throughout the country. In 1853 the department of practical art became a department of science and art by the annexation of various minor institutions. Dr. Playfair was joint secretary with Cole until 1858, when upon his resignation Cole became sole secretary to the department.


Portrait of Sir Henry Cole c. 1867. Victoria and Albert Museum. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

The funds arising from the exhibition of 1851, with an advance from government, had been invested in the purchase of the estate at South Kensington, now occupied by a number of different bodies. Many suggestions were made for rebuilding different institutions upon the land. In 1855 an iron building, popularly known as the 'Brompton boilers' (the design of which was unjustly attributed to Cole), was erected upon part of the estate, to give shelter to various collections. In 1858 this land became the property of government, who dissolved their previous partnership with the exhibition commissioners. The collections from Marlborough House had already been moved into them. A new gallery, built for the pictures presented by Mr. Sheepshanks, was opened by the 20 June 1857. The erection of the buildings on this land, the formation of various collections, and the development of the department of science and art were Cole's great occupations until his final resignation in April 1873. His activity was always conspicuous; and his belief in the advantages of publicity occasionally led him to steps which made him the object of much (and often very unfair) ridicule in the press. His imperturbable good temper was never ruffled, and he generally succeeded in getting his own way. The great development of the system was chiefly due to his unremitting energy.

In 1858 he had proposed to build a great hall to be opened on occasion of the exhibition of 1862. Financial difficulties caused the abandonment of the scheme, but it was revived as part of the national memorial to the prince consort. The subscriptions being insufficient, Cole exerted himself to raise the funds by 'perpetual or freehold admissions.' The scheme was finally launched in 1865, the first stone laid in 1867, and the Royal Albert Hall finally opened 29 March 1871. Cole was also very active in starting the National Training School for Music, which was opened 17 May 1876, and formed the basis of the Royal College of Music, with its similar but wider scheme of open scholarships, founded in 1882.

Left: Royal Albert Hall. Right: Royal College of Music. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

After retiring from office, Cole continued to take an interest in many schemes of social and educational reform. He helped in organising the school for cookery during 1873-6. From 1876 to 1879 he lived at Birmingham and Manchester, and was director of a company formed to carry out General Scott's processes for the utilisation of sewage. He returned to London in 1880, and died there 18 April 1882.

He was made K.C.B. in March 1875; was nominated to the Legion of Honour in 1855; promoted to the higher grade in 1867; and received the Iron Cross of Austria in 1863. Cole was a most amiable man in private life, and a friend of many distinguished contemporaries, especially of Thackeray, who contributed caricatures at his suggestion to the 'Anti-Cornlaw Circular.' His official papers and writings in periodicals of various kinds were numerous; he edited a cheap newspaper called the Guide during his struggle with the record commission, Buller and Molesworth being co-proprietors with him, and from 1849 to 1852 edited a Journal of Design. In 1875 he edited a collected edition of Peacock's works, to which Lord Houghton contributed a preface.

He was married, 28 Dec. 1833, to Marian Fairman, third daughter of William Andrew Bond of Ashford, Kent. She survives with a family of three sons and five daughters.

[Fifty Years of Public Work of Sir Henry Cole. 2 vols. 1884 (the second volume gives a selection from Cole's reports and papers); information from Mr. Alan S. Cole.]

Related Material


The Dictionary of National Biography (Clater—Condell, 1887). Ed. Sydney Lee. New York: Macmillan; London: Smith, Elder, 1887. Internet Archive web version of a copy in the University of Toronto Library. Web. 6 October 2014.

Last modified 6 October 2014