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date: 21 September 2023

Chambers, Robertfree


Chambers, Robertfree

  • Sondra Miley Cooney

Robert Chambers (1802–1871)

by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson

Chambers, Robert (1802–1871), publisher and writer, was born on 10 July 1802 at Peebles, the second child and son of six children born to James Chambers (1778–1824), cotton manufacturer and merchant, and Jean Gibson (c.1781–1843).

Early years and education

Robert Chambers received his education in Peebles parish school, conducted by James Gray (d. 1810), and at James Sloan's grammar school. He not only enjoyed studying Latin, but spent more time at it than other boys. He was born with six digits on each hand and foot, and those on his feet having been unsatisfactorily removed he could not play games but spent his time reading. His formal education was supplemented at home. James Chambers, a man especially interested in ideas, brought home from the circulating library English classics for Robert and his brother William Chambers (1800–1883) to read. At one time their father purchased the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which Robert read from cover to cover, finding the scientific articles particularly engrossing. He shared his father's love of music. Having heard him play the German flute and sing Scottish songs he recognized, at three years of age, no fewer than sixty old songs and ballads.

But the family fortunes changed. James Chambers was forced to declare bankruptcy, and in 1813 he moved the family from Peebles to Edinburgh, hoping that he could re-establish himself there. Robert remained behind to finish school. When he joined his family in August 1814 he was enrolled in the academy of Benjamin Mackay; the family thought his bookishness suited him for the ministry. At the academy he continued to excel in Latin. When the 1815 school year began he intended both to finish the sixth year at the academy and begin study at the University of Edinburgh, but his family could not afford the university fees.

First attempts at business and literary success

When Chambers's formal education ended in May 1816, he attempted a variety of jobs. He worked as a copyist for a Russian merchant, as a clerk in the counting house of another merchant, and as a private tutor. Having no success at finding and keeping employment, with his brother William's encouragement he decided to try bookselling. He took the books that he and William had collected, as well as the few remaining to the family, and rented shop space on Leith Walk. Much to his surprise he did 11 or 12 shillings' worth of business on the first day; in one week he made as much profit as originally he had in capital. In the meantime he also began practising various kinds of writing—poetry, prose, even a historical novel. When he and William joined their friend John Denovan in producing The Patriot, a weekly radical paper, Robert wrote poetry for it. Then in 1821 William suggested that they publish a weekly literary paper. He would set the type and print it if Robert would do the writing. The Kaleidoscope, however, lasted for only eight issues.

During the next decade Chambers, emulating Sir Walter Scott, wrote on Scottish subjects. At Archibald Constable's suggestion he copied out The Lady of the Lake in fine calligraphy and presented it to Scott, along with Constable's letter of introduction. His first attempt at historical writing was Illustrations of the Author of Waverley (1822), in which he drew upon his knowledge of border-country people and places to identify the originals of the novel's characters. History also inspired Traditions of Edinburgh (1824). Probably the last person to study the old, unaltered city of Edinburgh, he gathered anecdotes about people and manners of its past. Immediately successful, Traditions went into second and third editions and established Chambers's literary reputation; Walks in Edinburgh (1825) and Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1826) followed. For Picture of Scotland (1828) Chambers spent five months walking all over the country collecting topographical information, historical anecdotes, and old stories and poetry. Further historical research produced works for Constable's Miscellany: History of the Rebellion of 1745 (1827), History of the Rebellions in Scotland (1828–9), and Life of James I (1830). Chambers also compiled two collections of Scottish poetry.

Chambers's Edinburgh Journal

Chambers experienced increasing success in his life and work. In 1826 he moved his shop to Hanover Street, where business was more profitable, and on 7 December 1829 he married Anne (1808–1863), daughter of John Kirkwood and Jane Kirkland. He became editor of the Edinburgh Advertiser in 1830 and, in order to have more time for writing, turned over his retail business to his younger brother David. On 6 November 1830 his and Anne's first child and eldest daughter, Jane Gibson (Nina), was born. In all they had fourteen children, eleven of whom survived into adulthood.

In 1831 William Chambers proposed a project that became a landmark of nineteenth-century publishing. He suggested that they publish a low-priced, educational but entertaining, weekly paper. Initially sceptical, Robert agreed to write for it. On 4 February 1832 the first number of Chambers's Edinburgh Journal appeared. It sold 25,000 copies in Scotland alone. By April 1832, 30,000 copies were being printed weekly. Because William could not handle so large a task by himself Robert agreed to become joint editor of the journal and partner in the publishing firm of W. and R. Chambers. The journal was not enthusiastically received in all quarters, however. The minister of the church that Chambers and his family attended attacked it for being secular; the Edinburgh literary establishment thought cheap publications were 'low'.

Meanwhile Chambers continued his other writing. He estimated that by 1832 he had written twenty-three volumes, for which he earned £1050. He and William jointly prepared the Gazetteer of Scotland (1833). Independently he wrote Life of Sir Walter Scott (1832), Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen (1833–5), and Life and Work of Burns (1834). At the same time he was writing an essay, as well as smaller pieces, for each number of the journal. For the Chambers Educational Course he wrote several early volumes: History of the English Language and Literature (1835), History of the British Empire (1836), Exemplary and Instructive Biography (1836), and Introduction to the Sciences (1836). The Educational Course, these texts, and much of Chambers's later thinking and writing were influenced by the concepts of phrenology, especially by its philosophy of improvability, to which George Combe had introduced him.

Major works

These years of relentless writing took their toll; by the early 1840s Chambers was exhausted and depressed. To escape public attention and restore some tranquillity to his life he moved with his family to St Andrews in 1841. While there he undertook two projects for which he is best remembered. First was the Cyclopaedia of English Literature, in which Robert Carruthers assisted. Its two volumes (1840–43) were the first to treat writers of the day as well as those of the past. It provided biographical and historical background, extracts from literary texts, and illustrations. For nearly a century it was a standard resource for university courses and the foreign service examinations.

The second work engaging Chambers's attention at this period was Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Drawing upon his scientific reading, his interest in geology, and phrenological philosophy, he proposed that the universe had not been created in a single act by God, who then controlled all successive creative processes in the universe. Rather, scientific laws explained and governed not only the development of higher life forms but also the origin of life itself. Knowing that his theory, especially its dependence upon phrenological principles, would be controversial, Chambers arranged for the book's anonymous publication. His wife copied the manuscript, which was sent to his friend Alexander Ireland, who sent it on to the publisher. When the book appeared, in October 1844, discussion and controversy immediately ensued. Speculation about the author's identity ranged from Harriet Martineau to Prince Albert. Though attacked by scientists for factual errors and by the clergy for its materialism, Vestiges went through four editions in seven months. Chambers corrected errors in subsequent editions and ultimately wrote Explanations: a Sequel (1845). His seven-volume Collected Writings was published in 1847. During the remainder of the decade he continued geological excursions, writing Ancient Sea Margins (1848) and Tracings of the North of Europe (1849). Having returned to Edinburgh in the late 1840s he was nominated as a candidate for lord provost of the city; opposed by conservative religious and political factions because of his supposed authorship of the Vestiges, he withdrew from the election. Probably his best business decision was not acknowledging his authorship of the Vestiges; had he done so he would have irreparably damaged the firm. Despite the claims of impiety and materialism brought against him by opponents of the Vestiges he had a deep spiritual sense. He rejected the Bible for its geological inaccuracy, but he believed in God as a divine reality, and frequently attended services of the Episcopal Church of Scotland.

In the 1850s Chambers gave his energies to the firm. William, tired of managing it, decided to return to his native Peeblesshire; a new partnership agreement gave Robert the majority of the firm's shares. Under his direction the firm began Chambers's Encyclopaedia of Universal Knowledge for the People. The first edition appeared between 1860 and 1868 and continued to be published until the 1960s. Chambers's own work on Scottish and geological interests continued. The Life and Works of Burns (1851) was written in part to raise money for Isabella Begg, Burns's youngest sister. Chambers collected new material from her and from others who had known the poet, and also drew upon his own knowledge of Scottish songs and ballads. Tracings of Iceland and the Faroe Islands (1856) and Domestic Annals of Scotland (1858) followed. During this time he became intrigued by spiritualism; he observed seances, took notes, and listened to testimony of enthusiasts in attempting to determine whether it was fraud or truth.

Final years

In 1860 William Chambers returned to Edinburgh and the firm. Robert Chambers and his wife travelled to America before he and his family moved to London so that he could oversee the firm's new London offices. At the same time he carried out research in the British Museum and the Athenaeum Library as he prepared the Book of Days (1864). Its assortment of historical figures and events, anecdotes, folklore, geographical oddities, and literary specimens associated with each day of the year has kept it on library shelves; but it was Chambers's last major work, for his productive life was coming to an end. His wife, Anne, became ill, and died in September 1863. In just a matter of weeks so did his daughter Janet. His own health suffered. Assistance that he had counted on for preparing the Book of Days did not materialize, and working on it mostly by himself took its toll; he called the book his ‘death blow’. He returned to live in Scotland, where he built a home at 6 Gillespie Terrace, St Andrews, and in 1867 married the widow of Robert Frith. He did some writing, but his Life of Smollett (1867) was the only work published. Manuscripts from this period include 'Life and preachings of Jesus Christ' ('from the Evangelists'), a catechism for the young, private prayers and meditations, and several papers on spiritualism. Chambers's second wife died in 1870. Thinking that he would not live much longer himself, he selected his burial site, the ruined eleventh-century St Regulus's Tower, in St Andrews. He died at his home in St Andrews on 17 March 1871. Following a funeral at the Episcopal chapel, the provost and magistrates of the town and members of the Senatus Academicus escorted his body to the burial site. The memorial stone at the tower identifies him simply as Robert Chambers LLD, 'Author of the Traditions of Edinburgh and many other works'.

Robert Chambers was a man of insatiable curiosity, great energy, and astonishing memory. He read books of all kinds, studied Scottish poetry, history, and topography intensively, and questioned accepted truths, be they the facts of Burns's life, the origins of geological formations, or the source of spirit rappings. Needing only a few hours' sleep each night, he rose early, wrote and read before attending to the day's business, and went back to his books in the evening. Everything that he read or heard he seemed to remember—and use—in his writing. Family and friends admired his genial manner and generosity. His large circle of friends included writers and scientists from Scotland, England, and the United States. He was generous with advice and money, and many aspiring writers were encouraged by his gracious responses. Besides his publicized efforts on behalf of Burns's sister, his journals, letters, and will record many private charities. An advocate of life assurance, he invested in and served on the boards of several companies.

Like his brother William, Chambers was determined to overcome the family's early misfortunes. He forced his way to recognition; not only did such notables as Scott and J. G. Lockhart scoff at his early work but polite society dismissed the firm's publishing for the common reader. Ultimately, however, Robert Chambers was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, elected to the Athenaeum, and awarded an LLD by St Andrews University.


  • W. Chambers, Memoir of William and Robert Chambers, 13th edn (1884)
  • S. M. Cooney, ‘Publishers for the people: W. & R. Chambers, the early years, 1832–1850’, PhD. diss., Ohio State University, 1970
  • M. Millhauser, Just before Darwin (1959)
  • J. A. Secord, Victorian sensation: the extraordinary publication, reception, and secret authorship of ‘Vestiges of the natural history of creation’ (2000)
  • C. Layman, Man of letters (1990)
  • private information (2019) [D. H. Radcliffe]


  • Hunt. L., letters
  • NL Scot., corresp. and papers
  • NL Scot., W. & R. Chambers archive, literary, historical, and personal papers, deposit 341


  • D. O. Hill, calotype, 1840–49, Scot. NPG
  • R. Lehmann, crayon drawing, 1851, BM
  • R. C. Bell, line engraving (after J. R. Fairman), BM; repro. in W. Chambers, Memoir of Robert Chambers (1872)
  • D. O. Hill and R. Adamson, photograph, Scot. NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Horsburgh, oils, A. S. Chambers, Edinburgh
  • C. Lees, oils, Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St Andrews, Scotland
  • J. Watson-Gordon, oils, Alasdair R. M. Chambers, Inverness
  • bust, Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd, Edinburgh

Wealth at Death

£43,107: NA Scot., Fife county records, register of inventories in the commissariat of Fife, Cupar, 10 June 1871

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Manchester Central Library, Manchester Archives and Local Studies
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National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
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University of Edinburgh Library