Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Chalmers, Alexander
CHALMERS, ALEXANDER (1759–1834), biographer and miscellaneous writer, was born at Aberdeen on 29 March 1759, being the youngest son of James Chalmers, a learned printer, by his wife Susanna, daughter of the Rev. James Trail, minister at Montrose; and grandson of the Rev. James Chalmers, professor of divinity at Marischal College. Having received a classical and medical education he left his native city about 1777, and never returned to it. He had obtained the situation of surgeon in the West Indies, and had arrived at Portsmouth to join his ship, when he suddenly altered his mind and proceeded to London, where he soon became connected with the periodical press, and was appointed editor of the ‘Public Ledger’ and ‘London Packet.’ At this period he acquired considerable fame as a political writer. He contributed largely to the ‘St. James's Chronicle’ and the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ and at one time was editor of the ‘Morning Herald.’
Chalmers was early connected in business with George Robinson, publisher, of Paternoster Row, whom he assisted in examining manuscripts offered for publication. He was also a contributor to the ‘Critical Review’ and the ‘Analytical Review.’ At this period he lived almost wholly with Robinson. During the largest portion of his life he resided near the Bank of England, and having, after his settlement in the metropolis, become a sincere member of the church of England, he was not only a constant attendant at divine service on Sunday, but for thirty years was scarcely ever absent from the Tuesday morning lecture of the Rev. W. Wilkinson at the church of St. Bartholomew by the Royal Exchange. He made frequent visits to the libraries of the British Museum and of both universities. In 1805 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries; he was also a master of arts, probably of the university of Aberdeen. In 1783 Chalmers married Elizabeth, widow of John Gillett; she died in June 1816. He died at his residence in Throgmorton Street on 10 Dec. 1834, and was buried on the 19th in the same vault with his wife in the church of St. Bartholomew by the Royal Exchange.
No man ever edited so many works as Chalmers for the booksellers of London. Among them were:
- ‘A Continuation of the History of England,’ 2 vols. 1793, 2nd edit. 1798, 3rd edit. 1803, 4th edit. 1821.
- ‘Glossary to Shakespeare,’ 1797.
- ‘Sketch of the Isle of Wight,’ 1798.
- An edition of the Rev. James Barclay's ‘Complete and Universal English Dictionary.’
- An edition of ‘The British Essayists, with prefaces, historical and biographical, and a general index,’ 45 vols.; this series begins with the ‘Tatler’ and ends with the ‘Observer.’ The papers were collated with the original editions, and the prefaces give accounts of the works, and of the lives of such of the writers as are less generally known.
- Lives of Burns and Dr. Beattie prefixed to their respective works, 1805.
- An edition of Fielding's Works, 10 vols. 1806.
- An edition of Warton's ‘Essays,’ 1806.
- ‘The Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian,’ 14 vols. 1806.
- An edition of Gibbon's ‘History,’ with a life of the author, 12 vols. 1807.
- Prefaces to the greater part of the collection known as ‘Walker's Classics,’ 45 vols. 1808, and following years.
- An edition of Bolingbroke's Works, 8 vols. 1809.
- An edition of ‘Shakespeare,’ with an abridgment of the notes of Steevens and a life of Shakespeare, 9 vols. 1809.
- Many of the lives in the ‘British Gallery of Contemporary Portraits,’ 2 vols. 1809–16. These memoirs, though short, are authentic and valuable.
- An enlarged edition of Johnson's ‘Collection of the English Poets,’ with some additional lives, 21 vols. 1810.
- ‘A History of the Colleges, Halls, and Public Buildings attached to the University of Oxford, including the Lives of the Founders,’ 1810.
- ‘The Projector,’ 3 vols. 1811, a periodical containing essays originally published in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’
- An edition of the autobiographies of Dr. Pocock, Dr. Twells, Bishop Pearce, Bishop Newton, and Burdy's life of the Rev. Philip Skelton, 2 vols. 1816.
- ‘County Biography,’ 4 Nos., 1819.
- The ninth edition of Boswell's ‘Life of Johnson,’ 1822.
- A new edition of ‘Shakespeare,’ 1823.
- Another edition of Dr. Johnson's Works, 1823.
Chalmers, who was a great friend of John Nichols, contributed many obituary notices, especially of printers and publishers, to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’ But the work on which his fame as a biographer chiefly rests is his enlarged edition of the ‘New and General Biographical Dictionary,’ which was first published in eleven volumes in 1761. Other editions of this useful compilation appeared in 1784 and in 1798–1810. The latter, in fifteen volumes, was edited as to the first five by William Tooke, and as to the last ten by Archdeacon Nares and William Beloe. Then followed Chalmers's edition, which is entitled ‘The General Biographical Dictionary: containing an historical and critical account of the lives and writings of the most eminent persons in every nation, particularly the British and Irish, from the earliest accounts to the present time.’ The first four volumes of this work, in 8vo, were published monthly, commencing in May 1812, and then a volume appeared every alternate month to the thirty-second and last volume in March 1817, a period of four years and ten months of incessant labour and of many personal privations. The preceding edition of the ‘Dictionary’ was augmented by 3,934 additional lives, and of the remaining number 2,176 were rewritten; while the whole were revised and corrected. The total number of articles exceeds nine thousand. For many years Chalmers was employed by the booksellers in revising and enlarging the ‘Dictionary;’ but at the time of his death only about one-third of the work, as far as the end of the letter ‘D,’ was ready for the press. A competent authority, Mr. Chancellor Christie, remarks that ‘Chalmers's own articles, though not without the merit which characterises a laborious compiler, are too long and tedious for the general reader, and show neither sufficient research nor sufficient accuracy to satisfy the student.’ John Nichols, his intimate acquaintance, states that Chalmers was ‘a warm and affectionate friend and a delightful companion, being very convivial, and his conversation replete both with wit and information.’ His portrait has been engraved.
[Gent. Mag. new ser. iii. 207; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit.; Nichols's Lit. Anecd.; Quarterly Review, clvii. 203; Poynder's Literary Extracts, i. 98; Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, Nos. 13874, 13875; J. R. Smith's Cat. of Engraved Portraits (1883), Nos. 1322, 1323; Biog. Dict. of Living Authors (1816), 59.]