ranged 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 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 mediæval art. His taste had been stimulated by his acquaintance with the antiquary, Francis Douce [q. v.], 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.'
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 213,305l. was the result of the success of the exhibition. Cole was afterwards 'general adviser' to the exhibition of 1862, with a fee of 1,500l.; he had the chief share in managing the unsuccessful exhibitions of 1871-4; 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 5,000l. 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.
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