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 the 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, / p.24 / 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 C
[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).]