|Born||10 July 1802|
Peebles, Peeblesshire, Scotland
|Died||17 March 1871 (aged 68)|
St Andrews, Fife, Scotland
|Resting place||St Regulus Chapel, St Andrews|
|Occupation||Co-founder and partner, W & R Chambers, publisher, Edinburgh|
|Education||The High School, Edinburgh|
|Children||son: Robert Chambers Jr. (1832-1888)|
Robert Chambers FRSE FGS LLD (; 10 July 1802 - 17 March 1871) was a Scottish publisher, geologist, evolutionary thinker, author and journal editor who, like his elder brother and business partner William Chambers, was highly influential in mid-19th century scientific and political circles.
Chambers was an early phrenologist and was the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which was so controversial that his authorship was not acknowledged until after his death.
Chambers was born in Peebles in the Scottish Borders 10 July 1802 to Jean Gibson (c. 1781-1843) and James Chambers, a cotton manufacturer. He was their second son of six children. The town had changed little in centuries. The town had old and new parts, each consisting of little more than a single street. Peebles was mainly inhabited by weavers and labourers living in thatched cottages. His father, James Chambers, made his living as a cotton manufacturer. Their slate-roofed house was built by James Chambers' father as a wedding gift for his son, and the ground floor served as the family workshop.
A small circulating library in the town, run by Alexander Elder, introduced Robert to books and developed his literary interests when he was young. Occasionally his father would buy books for the family library, and one day Robert found a complete set of the fourth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica hidden away in a chest in the attic. He eagerly read this for many years. Near the end of his life, Chambers remembered feeling "a profound thankfulness that such a convenient collection of human knowledge existed, and that here it was spread out like a well-plenished table before me." William later recalled that for Robert, "the acquisition of knowledge was with him the highest of earthly enjoyments."
Robert was sent to local schools and showed unusual literary taste and ability, though he found his schooling to be uninspiring. His education was typical for the day. The country school, directed by James Gray, taught the boys reading, writing, and, for an additional charge, arithmetic. In grammar school it was the classics - Latin and Ancient Greek, with some English composition. Boys bullied one another and the teacher administered corporal punishment in the classroom for unruly behaviour. Although uninspired by the school, Robert made up for this at the bookseller.
Both Robert and William were born with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. Their parents attempted to correct this abnormality through operations, and while William's was successful Robert was left partially lame. So while other boys roughed it outside, Robert was content to stay indoors and study his books.
Robert surpassed his elder brother in his education, which he continued for several years beyond William's. Robert had been destined for the ministry, but at the age of fifteen he dropped this intended career. The arrival of the power loom suddenly threatened James Chambers' cotton business, forcing him to close it down and become a draper. During this time, James began to socialise with a number of French prisoners-of-war on parole who were stationed in Peebles. Unfortunately, James Chambers lent these exiles a large amount of credit, and when they were abruptly transferred away he was forced to declare bankruptcy. The family moved to Edinburgh in 1813. Robert continued his education at the High School, and William became a bookseller's apprentice. In 1818 Robert, at 16 years old, began his own business as a bookstall-keeper on Leith Walk. At first, his entire stock consisted of some old books belonging to his father, amounting to thirteen feet of shelf space and worth no more than a few pounds. By the end of the first year the value of his stock went up to twelve pounds, and modest success came gradually.
While Robert built up a business, his brother William expanded his own by purchasing a home-made printing press and publishing pamphlets as well as creating his own type. Soon afterwards, Robert and William decided to join forces - with Robert writing and William printing. Their first joint venture was a magazine series called The Kaleidoscope, or Edinburgh Literary Amusement, sold for threepence. This was issued every two weeks between 6 October 1821 and 12 January 1822. It was followed by Illustrations of the Author of Waverley (1822), which offered sketches of individuals believed to have been the inspirations for some of the characters in Walter Scott's works of fiction. The last book to be printed on William's old press was Traditions of Edinburgh (1824), derived from Robert's enthusiastic interest in the history and antiquities of Edinburgh. He followed this with Walks in Edinburgh (1825), and these books gained him the approval and personal friendship of Walter Scott. After Scott's death, Robert paid tribute to him by writing a Life of Sir Walter Scott (1832). Robert also wrote a History of the Rebellions in Scotland from 1638 to 1745 (5 vols, 1828) and numerous other works on Scotland and Scottish traditions.
On 7 December 1829 Robert married Anne Kirkwood, the only child of Jane and John Kirkwood. Together they had 14 children, three of whom died in infancy. Excluding these three, their children were Robert (Robert Chambers (publisher born 1832)), Nina (Mrs. Frederick Lehmann, and mother of Rudolf Chambers Lehmann), Mary (Mrs. Alexander Mackenzie Edwards, mother of Bob Edwards), Anne (Mrs. Dowie, mother of Ménie Muriel Dowie), Janet, Eliza (Mrs. William Overend Priestley), Amelia (Mrs. Rudolf Lehmann), James, William, Phoebe (Mrs. Zeigler), and Alice.
At the beginning of 1832 Robert's brother William Chambers started a weekly publication entitled Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, which speedily gained a large circulation. Robert was at first only a contributor, but after 14 volumes had appeared, he became joint editor with his brother, and his collaboration contributed more perhaps than anything else to the success of the Journal. The two brothers eventually united as partners in the book publishing firm of W. & R. Chambers Publishers.
At the same time Robert ran a bookshop and circulating library from 48 Hanover Street with his younger brother, James Chambers. Meanwhile, William ran his shop from 47 Broughton Street. Robert at this time was living close to the shop, at 27 Elder Street, (demolished in the 1960s to improve access to Edinburgh Bus Station).
Among the other numerous works of which Robert was in whole or in part the author, the Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen (4 vols., Glasgow, 1832-1835), the Cyclopædia of English Literature (1844), the Life and Works of Robert Burns (4 vols., 1851), Ancient Sea Margins (1848), the Domestic Annals of Scotland (1859-1861) and the Book of Days (2 vols., 1862-1864) were the most important.
Chambers's Encyclopaedia (1859-1868), with Dr Andrew Findlater as editor, was carried out under the superintendence of the brothers. The Cyclopædia of English Literature contains a series of admirably selected extracts from the best authors of every period, "set in a biographical and critical history of the literature itself." For the Life of Burns he made diligent and laborious original investigations, gathering many hitherto unrecorded facts from the poet's sister, Mrs Begg, to whose benefit the whole profits of the work were generously devoted.
During the 1830s, Robert Chambers took a particularly keen interest in the then rapidly expanding field of geology, and he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1844. Prior to this, he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1840, which connected him through correspondence to numerous scientific men. William later recalls that "His mind had become occupied with speculative theories which brought him into communication with Sir Charles Bell, George Combe, his brother Dr. Andrew Combe, Dr. Neil Arnott, Professor Edward Forbes, Dr. Samuel Brown, and other thinkers on physiology and mental philosophy." In 1848 Chambers published his first geological book on Ancient Sea Margins. Later, he toured Scandinavia and Canada for the purpose of geological exploration. The results of his travels were published in Tracings of the North of Europe (1851) and Tracings in Iceland and the Faroe Islands (1856).
However, his most popular book, influenced by his geological studies and interest in speculative theories, was a work to which he never openly attached his name. In 1844, Chambers completed the dictation of his Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation to his wife, Anne Kirkwood, as he recuperated from depression at his holiday home in St Andrews. The composition of Vestiges may have served a therapeutic purpose. Chambers had been an enthusiastic phrenologist in Edinburgh in the 1830s, and the anonymously authored Vestiges became an international bestseller and a powerful public influence, subsequent to Combe's Constitution of Man (1828), and anticipating the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. In a strange parallel to Robert and Anne Chambers, Prince Albert read the Vestiges aloud to Queen Victoria over several days in 1845. The first edition of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was released in 1844 and published anonymously. Literary anonymity was not uncommon at the time, especially in periodical journalism. However, in the science genre, anonymity was especially rare, due to the fact that science writers typically wanted to take credit for their work to claim priority for their findings.
The reason for Chambers' anonymity was clear enough as soon as one began reading the text. The book was arguing for a developmental view of the cosmos combining stellar evolution with progressive transmutation of species in the same spirit as the late Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck had been discredited among intellectuals by this time, and evolutionary (or development) theories were exceedingly unpopular, except among political radicals, materialists, and atheists. Chambers, however, tried to explicitly distance his own theory from that of Lamarck's by denying Lamarck's evolutionary mechanism any plausibility. "Now it is possible that wants and the exercise of faculties have entered in some manner into the production of the phenomena which we have been considering; but certainly not in the way suggested by Lamarck, whose whole notion is obviously so inadequate to account for the rise of the organic kingdoms, that we only can place it with pity among the follies of the wise." Additionally, his work was far more sweeping in scope than any of his predecessors. "The book, as far as I am aware," he writes in his concluding chapter, "is the first attempt to connect the natural sciences in a history of creation."
Robert Chambers was certainly aware of the storm that would probably be raised at the time by his treatment of the subject, and most importantly he did not wish to get his and his brother's publishing firm involved in any kind of scandal that could potentially ruin or severely impact their business venture. The arrangements for publication, therefore, were made through a friend named Alexander Ireland, of Manchester. To further prevent the possibility of any unwanted revelations, Chambers only disclosed the secret to four people: his wife, his brother William, Ireland, and George Combe's nephew, Robert Cox. All correspondence to and from Chambers passed through Ireland's hands first, and all letters and manuscripts were dutifully transcribed in Mrs. Chamber's hand to prevent the possibility of anyone recognizing Robert's handwriting.
By implying that God might not actively sustain the natural and social hierarchies, the book threatened the social order and could provide ammunition to Chartists and revolutionaries. Anglican clergymen and naturalists attacked the book, with the geologist Adam Sedgwick predicting "ruin and confusion in such a creed" which, if taken up by the working classes, "will undermine the whole moral and social fabric" bringing "discord and deadly mischief in its train". The book was liked by many Quakers and Unitarians. The Unitarian physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter called it "a very beautiful and a very interesting book", and helped Chambers with correcting later editions. Critics thanked God that the author began "in ignorance and presumption", for the revised versions "would have been much more dangerous". Nevertheless, the book caused a sensation and quickly went through a number of new editions. Vestiges brought widespread discussion of evolution out of the streets and gutter presses and into the drawing rooms of respectable men and women.
Chambers gave a talk on ancient beaches at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at Oxford in May 1847. An observer named Andrew Crombie Ramsay at the meeting reported that Chambers "pushed his conclusions to a most unwarrantable length and got roughly handled on account of it by Buckland, De la Beche, Sedgwick, Murchison, and Lyell. The last told me afterwards that he did so purposely that [Chambers] might see that reasonings in the style of the author of the Vestiges would not be tolerated among scientific men." On the Sunday Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, used his sermon at St. Mary's Church on "the wrong way of doing science" to deliver a stinging attack obviously aimed at Chambers. The church, "crowded to suffocation" with geologists, astronomers and zoologists, heard jibes about the "half-learned" seduced by the "foul temptation" of speculation looking for a self-sustaining universe in a "mocking spirit of unbelief", showing a failure to understand the "modes of the Creator's acting" or to meet the responsibilities of a gentleman. Chambers denounced this as an attempt to stifle progressive opinion, but others thought he must have gone home "with the feeling of a martyr".
Near the close of autumn 1848, Chambers allowed himself to be brought forward as a candidate for the administrative position of Lord Provost of Edinburgh. The timing was especially poor, with others seeking any means possible to try and discredit his character. His adversaries found the perfect opportunity to do so in the swirling allegations that he was the author of the much reviled Vestiges. William Chambers, in his Memoir of Robert Chambers, still sworn to secrecy despite his brother's recent passing, makes his only mention of Vestiges in connection with this affair: "(Robert) might have been well assured that a rumor to the effect that he was the author of 'Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation' would be used to his disadvantage, and that anything he might say on the subject would be unavailing.". Robert withdrew his candidacy in disgust.
In 1851 Chambers was one of a group of writers who joined the publisher John Chapman in reinvigorating the Westminster Review as a flagship of free thought and reform, spreading the ideas of evolutionism.
Robert Chambers was a golfer and was elected an Honorary Member of The Musselburgh Golf Club (now Royal Musselburgh Golf Club) on 14 September 1833. His son, who followed him into the publishing business, was a renowned player and became Champion Golfer in 1858 as a member of Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society.
The Book of Days was Chambers's last major publication, and perhaps his most elaborate. It was a miscellany of popular antiquities in connection with the calendar, and it is supposed that his excessive labour in connexion with this book hastened his death. Two years before, the University of St Andrews had conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws, and he was elected a member of the Athenaeum Club in London.
Robert Chambers died on 17 March 1871 in St Andrews. He was buried in the Cathedral burial ground in the interior of the old Church of St. Regulus, according to his wishes. The grave lies against the southern wall of the structure attaching the roofless section, east of the tower. A memorial window was also erected to Robert by his brother William in St Giles Cathedral next to a larger window to William himself, placed at the time of his restoration of the cathedral. The pair of windows lie in the northern transept.
A year after Robert's death, his brother William published a biography under the title Memoir of Robert Chambers; With Autobiographical Reminiscences of William Chambers. However, the book did not reveal Robert's authorship of the Vestiges. Milton Millhauser, in his 1959 book Just Before Darwin, wrote the following about William's memoir: "The fraternal Memoir of Robert Chambers might have been an excellent biography had not the author been concerned to keep the Vestiges secret and one or two others. Despite the author's intelligence and sympathy, such omissions inevitably produced a distorted picture" (p. 191, note 7). The book contains some reminiscences by Robert of his early life, with the rest of the narration filled in by William.
Alexander Ireland, in 1884, issued a 12th edition of Vestiges with Robert Chambers finally listed as the author and a preface giving an account of its authorship. Ireland felt that there was no longer any reason for concealing the author's name.