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William Chambers (publisher)

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William Chambers of Glenormiston
Photograph of a statue of William Chambers, outside the National Museum of Scotland
Statue erected in memory of William Chambers of Glenormiston. It faces the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street, Edinburgh.
Lord Provost of Edinburgh
In office
MonarchQueen Victoria
Preceded byCharles Lawson of Borthwick Hall
Succeeded byWilliam Law
Personal details
Born(1800-04-16)16 April 1800
Peebles, Scotland
Died20 May 1883(1883-05-20) (aged 83)
Engraving of William Chambers c. 1845
Memorial to William Chambers, Peebles Cemetery
47 Broughton Street, Edinburgh – formerly William Chambers' bookshop
John Rhind's statue of William Chambers on Chambers St, Edinburgh

William Chambers of Glenormiston FRSE (/ˈmbərz/; 16 April 1800[1] – 20 May 1883) was a Scottish publisher and politician, the brother (and business partner) of Robert Chambers. The brothers were influential in the mid-19th century, in both scientific and political circles.


Chambers was born in Peebles the son of James Chambers a cotton mill owner, said to have 100 looms in his factory, and his wife, Jean Gibson.[2] William was educated locally, but well, being trained in the Classics.[3]

The family moved to Edinburgh in 1814 to work in the book-selling trade. William was apprenticed to a John Sutherland, a bookseller with a circulating library based a 9 Calton Street at the base of Calton Hill. William was paid 4/- per week from which he paid 1/6 per week for lodgings at Boak's Land off the West Port at the west end of the Grassmarket.[3][4]

William opened his own bookshop in 1819 on Broughton Street, an ancient sloping and winding street absorbed by Edinburgh's New Town.[5] In 1820 he began printing his own works. In 1832 he founded the publishing firm of W. & R. Chambers Publishers with his younger brother Robert. They were keen advocates of popular education and his firm pioneered the use of industrial technologies within publishing to make books and newspapers available cheaply.[6] They produced books and periodicals of Scottish interest, such as Gazetteer of Scotland. They also made money in promulgating the many new science discoveries as the modern world emerged from prior modes of thinking in such periodicals as the Edinburgh Journal.

Their publishing business prospered, and in 1849 William purchased the Glemormiston estate near his home town of Peebles, and in 1859 Chambers founded a museum and art gallery in Peebles. The brothers collaborated on the publication of Chambers Encyclopaedia between 1860 and 1868. The Chambers Dictionary in 1872 was one of the first generally affordable dictionaries, allowing its use as a standard school text book.

William was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1860, his proposer was John Shank More.[7] His address was then given as 13 Chester Street, a large townhouse in Edinburgh's west end.[8]

As Lord Provost of Edinburgh from 1865 to 1869, Chambers was responsible for instructing the restoration of St Giles Cathedral and other major town planning exercises, including the creation of Jeffrey Street, St Marys Street and Blackfriars Street. These streets were all created under the City Improvement Act of 1866, including one named in his memory: (Chambers Street).

In 1868 he built a new printworks immediately west of the City Chambers (demolished in the 1930s).[9]

In 1872 Edinburgh University awarded Chambers an honorary doctorate (LLD).[10]

Chambers died at home at 13 Chester Street[11] in Edinburgh's West End on 20 May 1883 and was buried in the family plot in Peebles Cemetery.[7] His memorial is placed on the eastern flank of the central tower.

Greyfriars Bobby[edit]

In 1867, in his capacity as Lord Provost of Edinburgh, William Chambers (who was also a director of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), granted a dog licence to Greyfriars Bobby, paying for the licence and for a customised dog collar, now in the Museum of Edinburgh, himself.[12][13]


A memorial stained glass window was erected in the centre of the north aisle of St Giles Cathedral in his memory. A smaller window to his brother Robert stands to its side.

In 1891 a statue of Chambers, by local sculptor John Rhind[14] was placed in the centre of Chambers Street. This has low-relief copper panels on the base by William Shirreffs.[15] The statue was relocated in 2020 as part of a relancaping exercise on Chambers Street, increasing paved area outside the National Museum of Scotland.

W. & R. Chambers[edit]

In the beginning of 1832 William Chambers started a weekly publication under the title of Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, (known since 1854 as Chambers's Journal of Literature, Science and Arts[16]), which speedily attained a large circulation (84,000), and to which his younger brother Robert Chambers was at first only a contributor. After fourteen issues had appeared, Robert became associated with his brother as joint editor, and his collaboration may have contributed more than anything else to the success of the Journal. From September 1832 the two brothers formed the book publishing firm of W. & R. Chambers Publishers.[17] This was originally located at 19 Waterloo Place at the east end of Princes Street.[18]

In the mid-19th century they moved to a large premises at 339 High Street on the Royal Mile.[19] It lay between Warriston Close and Roxburgh Close.[20] Their premises was acquired in the 1930s by the City Chambers to build an extension to the chambers.[21]

The firm would eventually become part of Chambers Harrap Publishers in the late 20th century.

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.[17]

In culture[edit]

He was played by Christopher Lee in the 2005 feature film The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby.


  • Chamber’s Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts (20 vols., 10 tomes, 1844-1847)
  • Chambers's Papers for the People Vol. 1 (1850).
  • A history of Peeblesshire. (1864). archive.org
  • Chambers's etymological dictionary of the English language. (1871) archive.org
  • Chambers Dictionary (1872)
  • Memoir of William and Robert Chambers. (1883). archive.org


In 1833 he was married to Harriet Seddon Clark (b.1801).[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chisholm 1911, p. 821.
  2. ^ a b "William Chambers of Glenormiston". geni_family_tree. 16 April 1800. Retrieved 13 June 2023.
  3. ^ a b Grant's Old and New Edinburgh vol.2 p.224
  4. ^ Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1819
  5. ^ "Edinburgh Post Office annual directory, 1832-1833". National Library of Scotland. p. 35. Retrieved 16 February 2018.
  6. ^ Fyfe, Aileen (2012) Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820-1860 Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  7. ^ a b "Biographical Index of Fellows" (PDF). Royal Society of Edinburgh. Retrieved 10 December 2021.
  8. ^ "List of the Ordinary Fellows of the Society". Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 26: xi–xiii. 1870. doi:10.1017/S008045680002648X. Retrieved 16 February 2018.
  9. ^ Grant's Old and New Edinburgh vol.2 p.223
  10. ^ Grant's Old and New Edinburgh vol.2 p.225
  11. ^ Edinburgh Post Office Directrory 1883
  12. ^ Education Scotland website "Greyfriars Bobby - Making of industrial and urban Scotland - Scotlands History". Archived from the original on 21 February 2013. Retrieved 11 February 2013. (11 February 2013).
  13. ^ Edinburgh Museums and Galleries website [1] (11 February 2013).
  14. ^ Mcwilliam, Colin. Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh.
  15. ^ Gardner, Tim. "William Shirreffs (1846-1902), sculptor, a biography". www.glasgowsculpture.com. Retrieved 16 February 2018.
  16. ^ "sale offering of, bound collection". Retrieved 9 March 2009. as of the accessdate, this site was selling a bound collected as a hardcopy of 1856's "Chambers Journal of Literature, Science and Arts" (no "Apostrophy-S")
  17. ^ a b  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Chambers, Robert". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 5 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 820–821.
  18. ^ Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1835
  19. ^ Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1855
  20. ^ 1877 Ordnance Survey
  21. ^ Edinburgh and District: Ward Lock Travel Guide 1940

Further reading[edit]

  • Fyfe, Aileen (2012). Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820-1860. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-27651-9.

External links[edit]

Media related to William Chambers (publisher) at Wikimedia Commons