Chambers, Robert (1802-1871) (DNB00)


CHAMBERS, ROBERT (1802–1871), Edinburgh publisher, author of ‘Vestiges of Creation,’ was born in Peebles 10 July 1802, of a family long settled in that town. His father was connected with the cotton trade. His mother, Jean Gibson, was also a native of Peebles. He has left some graphic pictures, drawn from his own recollection, of the state of a small Scottish burgh in the early years of the century, where nightly readings of Josephus excited the keenest interest and ‘the battle of Corunna and other prevailing news was strangely mingled with disquisitions on the Jewish wars.’ Here at the burgh and grammar schools of the place he got for a few shillings a quarter's instruction in Latin and the ordinary elements of an English education, as then understood. A slight lameness (due to a badly performed surgical operation, but cured in after life by skilful treatment) increased his inclination to study. His father had a copy of the fourth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ in a chest in the attic. Robert unearthed it, and it was to him what the ‘gift of a whole toy-shop would have been to most children.’ ‘I plunged into it,’ he says, ‘I roamed through it like a bee.’ This was in his eleventh year. About this time the father fell into increasing difficulties, and thought it advisable to leave Peebles for Edinburgh, where he filled various small appointments. The succeeding years were afterwards known in the family as the ‘dark ages.’ Robert, who had been left at school in Peebles, soon joined the family in Edinburgh. He had been destined for the church, and it was due to this that he attended ‘a noted classical academy’ for some time, and acquired a fair knowledge of Latin. At this period the family lived a few miles out of town. Robert, who lodged in the West Port with his elder brother William (1800–1883) [q. v.], found his chief amusement in wandering through the narrow wynds and among the gloomy, but imposing, houses of old Edinburgh.

In 1816 he left school, and, having taught a little in Portobello, filled two situations as junior clerk. From both of these he was soon discharged, and being now about sixteen, and without employment, his brother suggested to him that he should begin as a bookseller, furnishing a stall with his own school books, the old books in the house, and a few cheap pocket bibles. Robert, taking this advice, speedily started in the world in a small shop with space for a stall in front in Leith Walk, opposite Pilrig Avenue. He prospered in this business, and in 1822 moved to better premises in India Place, from which he afterwards migrated to Hanover Street. He now made the acquaintance of Scott and other eminent men of Edinburgh, and began to engage extensively in literary work. He wrote 'Illustrations of the Author of Waverley' (Edin. 1822) and 'Traditions of Edinburgh' (2 vols. Edin. 1823, new edit. 1868). This latter work, based to a great extent on traditions that were fast dying out, is valuable and interesting. It delighted Scott, who wondered 'where the boy got all the information.' Then followed the 'Fires which have occurred in Edinburgh since the beginning of the Eighteenth Century' (Edin. 1824), 'Walks in Edinburgh' (Edin. 1825), 'Popular Rhymes of Scotland' (Edin. 1826) (one of several volumes which he published on the songs of his country), 'Picture of Scotland' (2 vols. Edin. 1826). The materials for this last work were gathered in the course of successive tours made through the districts described. He also wrote a variety of volumes for 'Constable's Miscellany.' The first of these was 'History of the Rebellion of 1745' (1828, seventh edit. 1869). This was founded to a considerable extent on unpublished sources. It is still the best known account of the rising. Other volumes were: 'History of the Rebellions in Scotland from 1638 to 1660' (1828), 'History of the Rebellions in Scotland in 1689 and 1715' (1829), 'Life of James I' (1830). Other publications about this time were: Editions of 'Scottish Ballads and Songs' (1829), of 'Scottish Jests and Anecdotes,' of which the purpose was to prove that Scotchmen were 'a witty and jocular' race; 'Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen' (4 vols. Glasgow, 1832–1834; there are various later editions), 'Jacobite Memoirs of the Rebellion of 1745' (1834; this was edited from a manuscript of Bishop Forbes). He also wrote (along with his brother) 'A Gazetteer of Scotland,' Poems (1835), 'A Life of Scott' (new edition with notes by R. Carruthers, ed. 1871), 'Land of Burns' (with Professor Wilson, Glasgow, 1840), and a large number of magazine articles. During the years thus occupied Robert's affairs had steadily grown more prosperous. 'Chambers's Journal,' of which Robert was joint editor, had been established in 1832. The undertaking was a great success, and had led to the establishment of the firm of W. & R. Chambers. The business management of what was soon a large publishing business fell on William [see Chambers, William], and Robert was left to carry out his literary projects undisturbed. In 1840 he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and having soon after removed to the comparative quiet of St. Andrews, he laboured for two years at the production of 'Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.' This well-known work is a clear and able exposition of a theory of development. When published in 1844 it excited great attention, and was bitterly attacked. The author had foreseen this. He was anxious to escape strife, he did not wish to risk a sound literary reputation honestly won in other fields, or to bring his firm into discredit; hence he published his book anonymously. Extraordinary precautions were taken to avoid detection. All the publishing arrangements were conducted through Mr. Alexander Ireland of Manchester. He got the proofs, sent them under fresh covers to Chambers, who returned them to Manchester, whence they were sent to London. The authorship was attributed to many different hands—among them were Sir Charles Lyell and Prince Albert—but people came generally to believe that Chambers was the author. In the 'Athenæum' of 2 Dec. 1854 it was said that he 'has been generally credited with the work.' The alleged heterodox opinions of the author were also used against him when, in 1848, a proposal was brought forward to make him lord provost of Edinburgh. The secret of authorship was not fully disclosed till 1884, when Mr. Ireland, the 'sole surviving depositary' of the secret, edited a twelfth edition, in an introduction to which he gave full details as to the authorship of the work. Although the book was generally considered an attack on the then orthodox mode of conceiving creation, and although Carl Vogt, the German translator, in his preface (Braunschweig, 1851), expressly praises it on this account, yet Chambers, a man of true, though unsectarian piety, did not himself so regard it. He looked upon the question as one purely scientific and non-theological. In 1845, after the fourth edition was published, he issued a temperate reply to such criticism as seemed to him most noteworthy, entitled 'Explanation; a sequel to "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,"' by the author of that work. Darwin (Historical Introduction to Origin of Species) says that the work, from its 'powerful and brilliant style,' immediately had a very wide circulation. 'In my opinion it has done excellent service in this country in calling attention to the subject, in removing prejudice, and in thus preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views.’

When the ‘Vestiges’ were disposed of, Chambers returned to Edinburgh and resumed the writing and editing of a number of useful works published by his firm. For about twenty years he worked with extraordinary activity. Besides occasional pieces and school-books, such as his ‘History of the British Empire’ and ‘History of the English Language and Literature,’ he produced, with Robert Carruthers of Inverness, his ‘Cyclopædia of English Literature’ (2 vols. 1844), ‘Romantic Scotch Ballads,’ with original airs (1844), ‘Ancient Sea Margins’ (1848), ‘History of Scotland’ (new edit. 1849), ‘Life and Works of Robert Burns’ (1851, ‘after minute personal investigation’), ‘Tracings of the North of Europe’ (1851), ‘The Threiplands of Fingask’ (written in 1853, published 1880), ‘Tracings in Iceland and the Faröe Islands’ (1856), ‘Domestic Annals of Scotland’ (3 vols. 1859–1861; this work, based on original research, comprehends the period from the Reformation to the rebellion of 1745), ‘Memoirs of a Banking House’ (1860, by Sir William Forbes, edited by Chambers), ‘Edinburgh Papers’ (1861, on miscellaneous subjects), ‘Songs of Scotland prior to Burns’ (1862). Most of these went through several editions. In 1860 Chambers paid a visit to the United States, and on his return removed to London (March 1861), in order that he might consult authorities in the British Museum for the ‘Book of Days,’ ‘a miscellany of popular antiquities in connection with the calendar, including anecdotes, biographies, curiosities of literature, and oddities of human life and character’ (2 vols. 1862–1864). During his residence in London the degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by the University of St. Andrews. He was also elected a member of the Athenæum Club. These were probably the most pleasing to him of the various honours which were now the reward of his labours. When the ‘Book of Days’ was printed, Chambers returned to Scotland. The production of the work had, however, injured his health to such an extent that he never quite recovered. ‘That book was my death-blow,’ he said. A brief ‘Life of Smollett,’ which appeared in 1867, was the last of his printed productions. ‘A Catechism for the Young’ and ‘The Life and Preachings of Jesus Christ from the Evangelists’ were left unfinished. Among his unpublished works are numerous antiquarian papers, and an extensive inquiry into spiritualistic and psychical research, together with materials for another volume of the ‘Domestic Annals of Scotland.’ Chambers died at St. Andrews, 17 March 1871, and was buried in the old church of St. Regulus there. Chambers was of a fairish type, with brown hair, which early became tinged with grey; he was strongly made, though somewhat under middle size. His opinions in politics and religion were moderate and liberal. His disposition was genial, hospitable, and kindly. When Leigh Hunt, in April 1834, started the ‘London Journal,’ which seemed likely at first to prove a rival to ‘Chambers's Journal,’ Chambers, in a kindly letter, wished him all success as a labourer in a common field. He gave all the profits of a cheap edition of his ‘Life and Work of Burns’ for the benefit of Mrs. Begg, the poet's sister. These are but two of many like instances. As a writer Chambers is vigorous, instructive, and interesting. He knew a great deal of men and books, and in communicating his knowledge he remembered his own precept, that dulness is ‘the last of literary sins.’ Thus he was well fitted to be a popular expounder of science and history. Occasional touches of humour give his writing additional interest. In treating, as he frequently did, of subjects illustrating Scottish character, he uses the Scottish dialect with singular force and effect. Chambers was twice married, but both his wives predeceased him. He was survived by three sons and six daughters.

[Memoir of William and Robert Chambers, with portraits, by William Chambers (12th edit. 1883); Scotsman, 18 March 1871; original materials supplied by Mr. C. Chambers of Edinburgh. A selection from his writings, containing his original poems, was published in 1847, in 7 vols. In Brit. Mus. Cat. is a list of several works written in criticism of the ‘Vestiges.’ A reference to the numerous magazine articles on the book is given in Poole's Index, p. 313. Some interesting personal reminiscences of Chambers will be found in Mr. James Payn's Literary Recollections (1884).]

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