Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Chambers, William (1800-1883)

CHAMBERS, WILLIAM (1800–1883), Edinburgh publisher, was born at Peebles on 16 April 1800. His early life is described in the notice of his brother Robert [see Chambers, Robert]. He attended the same schools, and read the same books. He removed with the family to Edinburgh, and in 1814 was apprenticed to Sutherland, a bookseller in Calton Street, for five years at 4s. a week. As his father went to live some miles out of town, he was obliged to support himself. His lodgings at the West Port cost him 1s. 6d. per week, 1s. 9d. he paid for his food, and 9d. was reserved for miscellaneous expenses. He thought himself fortunate in an arrangement he concluded with a baker whose bakehouse was situated in the (now removed) Canal Street. The baker and Chambers were fond of books, and it was agreed that the boy was to read to him and his men in the morning; ‘a penny roll newly drawn from the oven’ was to reward the reader. ‘Seated on a folded-up sack in the sole of the window, with a book in one hand, and a penny candle stuck in a bottle near the other,’ Chambers read ‘Roderick Random,’ and other works of the older novelists. He also found time to read a little on his own account. In May 1819 he finished his apprenticeship, and immediately started business for himself as a bookseller in Leith Walk. The agent of a London bookseller to whom he had been useful gave him 10l. worth of books on credit; these he wheeled down in an empty tea-chest, and having erected a few rough shelves and a bookstall, he opened shop. He began to bind the books for himself, then he bought an old printing-press and types for 3l. On this he printed several little works; one of these, ‘A History of the Gipsies,’ he wrote himself, as well as printed and sold. In the spring of 1823 he removed to Broughton Street, and might fairly consider his early struggles over. He now wrote ‘The Book of Scotland,’ and (with his brother) ‘A Gazetteer of Scotland.’ The first of these, published in 1830, is an account of the machinery of Scottish government before the union. Although no second edition was ever published, this work is the most learned and valuable its author produced. He soon became too busy for much original work. He had already (6 Oct. 1821–12 Jan. 1822) published a fortnightly journal called ‘The Kaleidoscope,’ and some years afterwards it occurred to him that the growing taste for cheap literature would insure the success of a low-priced weekly publication. Accordingly the first number of ‘Chambers's Edinburgh Journal’ was issued on 4 Feb. 1832. The price was 1½d. per weekly part. The success of the venture was at once assured by a circulation of 30,000. In a few years this rose to 80,000. Robert was almost from the first associated with William in this enterprise, which soon led to the removal of both brothers to new premises, where they established the firm of W. & R. Chambers. The firm, under William's direction, soon embarked on a career of extensive and successful publishing enterprise. Aiming at the production of cheap and useful literature, they produced (in addition to books mentioned under Chambers, Robert) ‘Chambers's Information for the People,’ 1833; ‘Chambers's Educational Course,’ 1835 (this, which is still in progress, contains works on a great variety of subjects); ‘Chambers's Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts;’ ‘Chambers's Encyclopædia,’ 10 vols. 1859–68 (partly based on the ‘Conversations-Lexikon’). The various editions and wide popularity of these works prove that they fulfilled the hopes of their publishers. One fundamental rule in all their undertakings was to ‘avoid as far as possible mixing themselves up with debatable questions in politics and theology.’ Even after Robert's death, and when the storm caused by the appearance of the ‘Vestiges’ had long blown over, William would not consent to the secret of the authorship being divulged during his own lifetime (Ireland's Introduction to twelfth edition, pp. viii and xv). Chambers found time, notwithstanding his business responsibilities, for a considerable amount of literary work. Besides a number of occasional pieces, he produced: ‘Tour in Holland and the Rhine Countries,’ 1839 (from information gathered during a journey there); ‘Glenormiston’ (1849); ‘Fiddy, an Autobiography of a Dog,’ 1851; ‘Things as they are in America,’ 1854 (an account of a visit); ‘Peebles and its Neighbourhood,’ 1856; ‘American Slavery and Colour,’ 1857; ‘Something of Italy,’ 1862; ‘History of Peebles,’ 1864; ‘About Railways,’ 1866; ‘Wintering at Mentone,’ 1870; ‘Youth's Companion and Counsellor,’ new ed. 1870; ‘France, its History and Revolutions,’ 1871; ‘Ailie Gilroy, a Scottish Story,’ 1872; ‘Biography, Exemplary and Instructive,’ 1873; ‘A Week at Welwyn,’ 1873; ‘Kindness to Animals,’ 1877; ‘Stories of Old Families and Remarkable Persons,’ 2 vols. 1878. Chambers also published privately a number of pamphlets on Scottish subjects. In 1841 William and his brother received the freedom of their native town. A few years after he presented Peebles with ‘a suite of buildings consisting of a library of 10,000 volumes, a reading-room, museum, gallery of art, and lecture hall.’ This was called the Chambers Institution. (In 1860 an account of it was published in Dutch by J. H. van Lennep.) His favourite country residence was in the neighbourhood at the estate of Glenormiston, which he purchased in 1849. In 1865 Chambers was chosen lord provost of Edinburgh. His term of office was signalised by the passing of the Edinburgh City Improvement Act (1867), of which he was the chief promoter. Under the powers thus obtained a vast work of demolition and reconstruction was begun. Spacious new streets were run through the most crowded and badly constructed parts of old Edinburgh. The result was that ‘the death-rate of Edinburgh, which in 1865 was 26,000 per annum, had in 1882 fallen to 18,000.’ Chambers was re-elected lord provost in 1868, but, having accomplished his task, resigned next year. One of the new streets to the north of the college was called Chambers Street to commemorate his services. Chambers's latter years were occupied with a scheme for the restoration of St. Giles's Church, Edinburgh. This great historic building had been disfigured and degraded in a number of ways. It was partitioned into four churches, and had been barbarously ‘restored’ between 1829 and 1833. Chambers, whilst lord provost, had often occasion to attend public worship officially here. He conceived the idea ‘of attempting a restoration of the building,’ and so carrying it out that the church might become, ‘in a sense, the Westminster Abbey of Scotland.’ (The details of the scheme are given in his ‘Story of St. Giles's Church, Edinburgh,’ 1879.) The work, owing to his unremitting exertion and generosity (he spent between 20,000l. and 30,000l. on it), was completely successful. The reopening ceremony was fixed for 23 May 1883. Chambers, who had been gradually failing, died on the 20th of that month. He was buried near Peebles under the shadow of the old tower of St. Andrews, which, in accordance with his direction, was then being restored.

Chambers was married, and had a family of three. All his children died in infancy. His wife survived him. Chambers received the degree of LL.D. from Edinburgh University in 1872, and shortly before his death he accepted the offer of a baronetcy made him by Mr. Gladstone, but this honour he did not live to receive. Chambers was about the middle height, dark in feature, with hair that comparatively early became grey. Somewhat reserved in manner, he was not popular with those who knew him slightly. He had great business talents, and to him the success of the firm as a financial undertaking was chiefly due. He had no special literary faculty, but his writings exhibit strong common sense, and he knew how to make a subject interesting. It is, however, not as the popular writer or the successful publisher, but as the good citizen, that he will be longest remembered. The name of William Chambers will always be connected with the city of Edinburgh, which he beautified, and the church of St. Giles, which he restored. Portraits of the brothers Chambers, by Sir J. Watson Gordon, are in the possession of Mr. Robert Chambers of Edinburgh.

[Chambers's Story of a Long and Busy Life (1882), and Memoir of himself (with portrait), 13th ed. 1884; Scotsman, 21 May 1883; original materials supplied by Mr. C. Chambers of Edinburgh.]

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