Robert 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
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
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
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
Possibly as a result of their own curtailed
formal schooling, education and making information available to as
many people as possible were priorities
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
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
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
Rightfully, and increasingly, Robert has begun
to draw attention today. His writings have influenced authors such
as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton, and Tod Robbins to name just a
few. James A. Secord at Cambridge, Sondra Miles Cooney and Robert
Scholnick in the
USA, and Alistair McCleery here in Edinburgh, are just some of the
notable academics currently involved in studies of the
achievements of Robert Chambers.
The above abridged history of Robert Chambers
was exerted from David Anson's:
William and Robert
Founders of W & R Chambers, publishers, of Edinburgh.
A short history to commemorate the 200th anniversary
of Robert Chambers' birth.