Robert Chambers, author, journal editor, naturalist and publisher, was born on the 10th of July, 1802.
Robert Chambers was co-founder, with his brother William, of W. & R. Chambers, a highly influential firm of book publishers in 19th Century Edinburgh. The brothers were responsible for the publication of the well known ‘Chambers Encyclopaedia’ and ‘Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal’. Robert was the principle author of several works, including the ‘Life and Works of Robert Burns’ and ‘The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character’, which is a bit like this blog, except with a longer title. Whilst his brother was also a politician, Robert was active in scientific circles and is now, but was not then, known as the author of the controversial book ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’.
‘Vestiges’ was the pioneering work on the theory of evolution and so controversial that Robert’s authorship was not acknowledged until after his death. Integrating research in the burgeoning sciences of anthropology, geology, astronomy, biology, economics, and chemistry, it described the evolution of the universe, from planets to people, being driven by a self developing force, which acted according to natural laws. It reached a huge popular audience and was widely read, and not just by the social and intellectual elite. Of course, it sparked debate about natural law, setting the stage for the controversy over Darwin's ‘Origin’.
Robert Chambers was born in Peebles on the 10th of July, 1802, at a time when Britain was at war with the French. His family was relatively prosperous at first, however, his father’s business suffered dramatically as a result of extending credit to French prisoners-of-war. They reneged on the repayment, which led to straitened circumstances and denied Robert a chance at University and a career in the Church. In a sense, Robert educated himself, through becoming an avid reader. He was born with a deformity in his feet and an attempt at its correction left him lame. Consequently, he was less active than most young boys and wasn’t able to take part in sports. So Robert sought an alternative pastime, which involved reading everything on which he could lay hands.
He was well served by a small circulating library in Peebles, Elders Library in the High Street and his father’s copy of ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’. By the age of twelve, his future career looked certain as he was to write later, "Books, not playthings, filled my hands in childhood. At twelve I was deep, not only in poetry and fiction, but in encyclopedias". By the age of sixteen, Robert had opened a bookstall in Leith Walk, with his brother William. Their entire stock consisted of the remnants of his father’s library, a few cheap Bibles and their schoolbooks.
Despite such modest beginnings, they did well enough, helped by the future politician’s business acumen. An early success for the embryonic publishers came as a result of being offered £10 worth of books from an Edinburgh book fair, with the money only having to be repaid once they had sold the books. Thankfully, the books sold well and the profits were given to the purchase of a small, second hand printing press. The firm of W. & R. Chambers, publishers at large, Edinburgh, Scotland, was off and printing.
A first, inspired success came from printing, binding and publishing 750 copies of ‘The Songs of Robert Burns’. They also printed more mundane stuff, but Robert’s literary and scientific interests led to his first attempts at writing, which the brothers duly published. ‘Traditions of Edinburgh’ was published in 1824, which brought Robert to the attention of Sir Walter Scott. Numerous works followed, which Robert either wrote, contributed to or edited. Five volumes of ‘A History of the Rebellions in Scotland from 1638 to 1745’ was published as were ‘The Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen’, the ‘Cyclopedia of English Literature’, and the ‘Life and Works of Robert Burns’.
The successful ‘Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal’ appeared weekly from 1832, which contained many articles written by Robert. These were on subjects as diverse as history, religion, language and science. It seems to make sense, that after having been denied a formal, higher education, Robert and William turned their business into an educational publishing house. The topic sheets published as ‘Chambers’ Instruction for the People’ were an example. Dealing with subjects such as science and mathematics, they were widely sold at home and abroad. The theme continued with the first part of ‘Chambers’ Encyclopedia’, which appeared in 1859. It was published in 520 parts, between 1859 and 1868, and edited by Dr. Andrew Findlater. In 1867, Chambers’ first dictionary appeared and by the end of the 19th Century, W. & R. Chambers was one of the largest English language publishers in the world.
Robert was the more literary and intellectual of the brothers and became interested in geology, again, despite having little formal scientific training. That interest led to his greatest achievement, which predated Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ by fifteen years. Published in 1844, his 400-page ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ offered a comprehensive account of the history and evolution of the Earth, from the formation of the Solar System, right through the development of plants and animals to the origins of mankind. It received a lot of flack, not least because it rejected the myths of Genesis in the Bible, which is no doubt why he published anonymously, in order not to damage the business.
It was written in an attractive and accessible style to appeal to the widest possible readership and as a result, became a ‘best seller’. Charles Darwin called it "that strange, unphilosophical, but capitally-written book," and noted that a few people suspected him of being the author. Thomas Henry Huxley, hardly surprisingly, called it a “notorious work of fiction". During Robert’s lifetime, only seven people knew that he was the author and it wasn’t until 1884, long after his death and when the 12th edition was in print, that the truth emerged. He deserves much credit and praise alongside his more famous contemporary, Charlie is my Darwin.
Robert Chambers died on the 17th of March, 1871, at his house in St. Andrews. He was honored by being buried in St. Regulus Tower, St. Andrews.