Treasures of London – The first (commercial) Christmas card…

Christmas cards have been a staple of Christmases (although a declining one these days) since at least as far back as 1843.

It was then that Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant, inventor and the first director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, came up with the idea of sending out a card bearing Christmas greetings to a large number of people as a means of coping with the substantial volume of correspondence he was receiving (and would have to send to greet family and friends at Christmas).

Sir Henry commissioned his friend, painter John Callcott Horsley, to design the card and an initial run of 1,000 cards were printed by Jobbins of Warwick Court in Holborn (a further thousands cards were printed in a second run).

Having sent the cards he required, Sir Henry sold the rest for a shilling each under his literary pseudonym of Felix Summerly from the premises of his publisher Joseph Cundall in Old Bond Street (the introduction of the uniform Penny Post in 1840 having made sending them affordable – Cole had been an important figure in its establishment as assistant to the idea’s main instigator Rowland Hill).

The card, which were hand-coloured by professional colourer Mason, depicts a family gathered for Christmas and imbibing wine with side panels depicting two acts of charity – “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked”. On it were printed the words “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”.

The card was apparently controversial for its depiction of drinking wine (temperance advocates argued it promoted drunkenness) and particularly for its images of children drinking wine.

The idea didn’t also catch on immediately – the cost of a shilling was rather steep. But new designs soon began to appear in the following years and by the mid-1850s, the idea had finally taken hold.

WHERE: The Postal Museum, 15-20 Phoenix Place (nearest Tube stations are Farringdon, Russell Square, King’s Cross St Pancras and Chancery Lane); WHEN: 10am to 5pm Wednesday to Sunday (booking in advance suggested); COST: Adult £17/Young person (16-24) £12/Child (3-15) £10 (discounts apply for booking online/other ticket types available; WEBSITE: www.postalmuseum.org

This Week in London – William Hogarth and the Europeans; Christmas in the post; and, Paul McCartney’s lyrics…

William Hogarth, ‘Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête’ (1743) 45 © The National Gallery, London.

• See the works of 18th century English artist William Hogarth alongside those of his European contemporaries in a new exhibition which opened at Tate Britain this week. Hogarth and Europe features more than 60 of Hogarth’s works and has some of his best-known paintings and prints – such as Marriage A-la-Mode (1743), The Gate of Calais (1748), Gin Lane (1751) and his celebrated series, A Rake’s Progress (1734) – shown alongside works by famed European artists including Jean-Siméon Chardin, Pietro Longhi, and Cornelis Troost. The display also includes Hogarth’s work, Miss Mary Edwards (1742) – it depicts the eccentric, wealthy patron who commissioned many of Hogarth’s best-known works and has not been seen in the UK for more than century. Admission charge applies. See www.tate.org.uk.

The first commercial Christmas card, created after civil servant Henry Cole commissioned artist​ John​ Callcott​ Horsley to design one for him in 1843, can once again been seen at The Postal Museum’s permanent display. That’s just one of the drawcards (pardon the pun), at the Postal Museum in the lead-up to Christmas with others including a new display, Letters to Santa, featuring Royal Mail cards sent by Father Christmas to children between 1963 and 2010 (from a recently donated collection), and the chance to ride on the Mail Rail which has undergone a Christmas makeover. The museum is also holding a series of ‘Festive Family Fun Days’ on selected dates in December. Admission charges apply. For more, head to www.postalmuseum.org.

Handwritten lyrics and photographs spanning the career of Paul McCartney feature in a new free Entrance Hall display at the British Library from tomorrow. Paul McCartney: The Lyrics features previously unseen materials from his personal archives as it reveals the process and people behind some of the most famous songs of all time, from some of his earliest compositions to his time with The Beatles, Wings and through to today. The display accompanies his new book, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. Can be seen until 13th March next year. For more, see www.bl.uk/events/paul-mccartney-the-lyrics.

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Where’s London’s oldest…street with house numbers?

OK, so we’re not absolutely certain which street is the oldest in London to have introduced a number system. But one contender – according to The Postal Museum at least – is Prescot Street in Whitechapel.

That comes from a mention, in 1708, when topographer Edward Hatton made a special note of the street’s use of numbers instead of signs in his New View of London, in a rather clear indication that the use of numbers was still at that stage rather unusual.

The following century saw the numbering of properties become more common. Some suggest that the banning of hanging signboards (under an 1762 Act of Parliament) and the subsequent requirement that names to be fixed to all thoroughfares (under the Postage Act of 1765) both played a significant role in encouraging the use of house numbers.

Interestingly, not all numbering schemes are the same. The first schemes introduced in London involved numbering houses consecutively along one side of the street – this can still be seen in streets like Pall Mall and Downing Street, where Number 10 – official residence of the Prime Minister, is located next to number 11 – official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The system used in more modern times, typically, involves numbering one side of the road with odd numbers (usually the left with the lowest number closest to the city or town centre) and the other with even.

But it’s fair to say that the numbering of houses was, initially at least, rather haphazard and it wasn’t until the passing of the Metropolitan Management Act that the numbering of properties become more standardised with the then new Board of Works given the power to regulate street numbers.

PICTURED: Number 23 Prescot Street, said to be the street’s single 18th century survivor.

10 subterranean sites in London – 9. The Mail Rail…


Long out of active service, London’s Mail Rail service has recently made a comeback as a tourist attraction (which means you can now experience it for yourself!)

The Mail Rail – more officially known as the London Post Office Railway – was initially opened in 1927 as a more efficient means of moving the mail than fighting traffic congestion above ground.

The six-and-a-half mile (10.5 kilometre) route linked the Paddington sorting office in the west, the centrally located Mount Pleasant sorting office and depot, and the Whitechapel sorting office in the east. The main tunnel sits at about 21 metres underground.

The system operated for 22 hours a day and hauled tons of mail through up to nine stations. There were even plans to extend it to the north and the south.

The Mail Rail was eventually closed in 2003 with the Royal Mail, rather ironically given its origins, apparently citing the costs of using it compared to road transport.

These days, the Mail Rail serves as one of the attractions at the new Postal Museum and, located in the former engineering depot, offers a 20 minute ride through stalactite-filled tunnels beneath what was the Mount Pleasant sorting office.

WHERE: Mail Rail at The Postal Museum, 15-20 Phoenix Place, Mount Pleasant, Clerkenwell (nearest Tube stations are Chancery Lane and Russell Square); WHEN: 10am to 5pm daily (except from 24th to 26th December) COST: £16 adult/£14.30 concession/£8 child (includes donation/timed ride on Mail Rail and general admission to exhibition); WEBSITE: www.postalmuseum.org/discover/attractions/mail-rail-ride/.

PICTURES: Above and right – The Mail Rail as it is today; and a curve in the tracks (© Postal Museum); Below – London Post Office Railway cars from 1930, now at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre (Oxyman/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)