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Robert Chambers

1802-1871

Robert ChambersRobert Chambers was a prolific writer who is most famous for his enjoyable reference books. Along with his older brother William (1800-1883), he began in business as a bookseller in Edinburgh (1819), and wrote in his spare time. In 1832 the brothers combined to form a publishing (and printing) house. As authors and publishers they exercised great influence on both sides of the Atlantic.

Robert Chambers were born into a relatively prosperous, mill-owning family in the Scottish Borders, and much of their childhood was passed during time of war with the French. It was an indirect consequence of that war that so adversely affected the family fortunes.

His father extended many of the French prisoners-of-war garrisoned in Peebles credit to re-clothe themselves; the agreement being that the French prisoners would repay their debts as soon as they returned home. When the French let them down the Chambers family was ruined and in 1813 they left Peebles for Edinburgh. Robert remained in Peebles to finish his education.

Robert exhibited early evidence of unusual literary taste and ability. An avid reader, a small circulating library in the town, Elders Library in the High Street, and a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica which Alex Elder had sold to his father, furnished him with stores of reading. Furthermore, a deformity in his feet had left him lame and unable to join in games at school so, it is claimed, he would swap his 'jeelie pieces' (jam sandwiches) for books.

He later wrote of these early years:

"Books, not playthings, filled my hands in childhood. At twelve I was deep, not only in poetry and fiction, but in encyclopedias."

Straitened circumstances denying him his chance at university and a career in the church, in 1818, at just sixteen, Robert opened a bookstall in Leith Walk. The entire stock consisted of the remnants of his father's library and his own personal collection.

From such modest beginnings, they began to do well, helped in no small part by His brother William's undoubted business acumen and the habit of strict financial prudence acquired during his apprentice years when he would scrupulously account for every penny, maintaining a strict daily budget, and maximizing every potential economy. A keen reader, he would rise at 5 am to read by the early-morning light to save on candles. He then used this habit to supplement his meager diet with fresh baked bread earned by reading aloud to a baker and his son as they baked.

The brothers' new business received an unexpected, early, boost when, having helped unpack books for an Edinburgh book fair, William was offered 10 worth of stock; the money to be repaid when he had sold the books in his shop. This increased the shop's customer appeal, with concomitant increase in sales, and larger profits, some of which William applied to the purchase of an old, small hand press.

Untrained in either printing or binding, William and Robert, undaunted, shrewdly set about printing, binding and publishing 750 copies of The Songs of Robert Burns. An almost guaranteed best-seller in 19th-century Edinburgh, it further improved both profits and repute.

They also took work printing bills and notices and further success followed. Robert Chambers had shown an enthusiastic interest in the history and antiquities of Edinburgh and his first literary effort, Traditions of Edinburgh, published in-house in 1824, won him the approval and the personal friendship of Sir Walter Scott, and remains in print to this day. A History of the Rebellions in Scotland from 1638 to 1745, in 5 volumes, and numerous other works followed of which Robert was, in whole or in part, the author. Richly diverse, titles included The Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, The Cyclopedia of English Literature, The Life and Works of Robert Burns, Ancient Sea Margins, The Domestic Annals of Scotland and The Book of Days.

The Cyclopedia of English Literature presented a series of selected extracts from the best authors of every period, "set in a biographical and critical history of the literature itself whilst The Life of Burns was the product of diligent and laborious original investigations and the gathering of many previously unrecorded facts from the poet's sister, Mrs. Begg, to whose benefit Chambers generously devoted the whole profits of the work.

The Book of Days, Robert Chambers' last publication, and perhaps his most elaborate, was a miscellany of popular antiquities associated with the calendar, and many, especially his family, believed that his excessive labor in connection with this book hastened his death.

Robert Chambers died on the 17th of March 1871 at his house on the Scores, in his adopted home of St. Andrews. Its ancient University had conferred upon him the degree of doctor of laws two years before. He was further honored by being buried in St. Regulus Tower in the town.

Possibly as a result of their own curtailed formal schooling, education and making information available to as many people as possible were priorities for Robert.

In 1832 they launched Chambers' Edinburgh Journal, a weekly, 16-page journal containing articles many of them written by Robert on subjects such as history, religion, language and science. At first only a contributor, by the fifteenth number Robert had joined his brother as joint editor. It was an immediate success; within a few years the weekly circulation had risen to 84,000 copies Chambers' Instruction for the People - a series of sheets on subjects such as science, math, history, geography and literature, bound in sets followed in 1824. Eventually around 170,000 sets were sold, amounting to over 2 million individual sheets. This publication also saw some success abroad; a US edition was published, and it was translated into French and perhaps more surprisingly into Welsh.

In 1835, the brothers started work on Chambers' Educational Course, a series of short works and schoolbooks. There were eventually more than 100 titles in this series on almost every subject. 1859 brought the first part of Chambers' Encyclopedia, published in 520 parts between 1859 and 1868, and edited by Dr. Andrew Findlater. In 1867, they published their first dictionary, Chambers' Etymological Dictionary, by James Donald, with a larger version, Chambers' English Dictionary in 1872.

By the end of the 19th century, W & R Chambers' was one of the largest English-language publishers in the world. Success continued with Chambers' Biographical Dictionary in 1897, and a compact edition of the English dictionary, Chambers' Twentieth Century Dictionary, in 1901.

Constable took over the printing side in 1932, but the publishing side continues in Edinburgh to this day, producing dictionaries and other titles for a variety of users, including students and teachers of English as a foreign or second language. As well as the core business of publishing dictionaries and thesauruses, Chambers also publishes a range of titles on grammar and usage, single-volume reference titles on science, history, biography and quotations, as well as titles for Scrabble and crosswords.

Although educational publishing made William and Robert famous, Robert was a learned man in his own right. Acknowledged as the more literary and intellectual of the two, a genuine polymath and something of scientific geologist, despite having little formal scientific training, he toured both Scandinavia and Canada conducting geological exploration. His ensuing publications included Tracings of the North of Europe and Tracings in Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

However, what many are coming to regard as possibly his greatest achievement is a controversial book on evolution which predated Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" by 15 years and for which, until recently, he has certainly not had the credit he deserves.

Published in 1844, it took the form of a 400-page book with the grand title Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, presenting a comprehensive account of the history of the Earth, from the formation of the Solar System through the development of plant and animal life, up to the origins of humankind.

Typically, it dealt with a dangerously taboo subject, rejecting as it did the testimony of Genesis, in an attractive and accessible style, clearly written to appeal to the widest possible readership the general public rather than the social and academic elites. Vilified by certain sections as a result, applauded by others, containing many errors, and exhibiting a degree of naive and a certain lack of scientific circumspection, it still sold over 20,000 copies in a decade, making it one of the best-sellers of its time.

Incredibly, despite following it with a defense, including corrections and amendments based on collaborations with an extensive list of experts, its many subsequent editions, and its continued influence on Victorian science, art, and public opinion, Robert was able to maintain the anonymity throughout his lifetime. It was never acknowledged until the 12th edition forty years later!


The above abridged history of Robert Chambers was exerted from David Anson's:

 William and Robert Chambers
Founders of W & R Chambers, publishers, of Edinburgh.
A short history to commemorate the 200th anniversary
 of Robert Chambers' birth.

To read David's full history of William and Robert Chamber, please visit the
web site of the Edinburgh City Libraries