Chambers was founded by William Chambers (born Peebles, Scotland, 1800) and Robert Chambers (born Peebles, Scotland, 1802). They were born into a prosperous, mill-owning family in Peebles in the Scottish Borders, and much of their childhood was passed during time of war with the French.
In fact it was war with the French which brought about a change in the family fortunes, and turned the Chambers brothers from middle-class lads receiving a grammar-school education, into poverty-stricken boys who had to leave school and work to support their family. The story goes that their father, during the Napoleonic wars, feeling pity for the many French prisoners-of-war garrisoned in Peebles, gave them cloth to make clothes on credit. On their departure, the French prisoners promised that they would repay their debts as soon as they returned home, but they never did. The Chambers family was ruined, and in 1813 the family left Peebles for Edinburgh. Robert remained in Peebles to finish his education, but William was forced to find work to help support the family.
In Edinburgh, William was apprenticed to a bookseller, at a sum of 4 shillings a week. This made him self-supporting, but far from wealthy; a keen reader, he would rise at 5am to read by the early-morning light as he did not have enough money for candles. Robert was an avid reader too. A deformity in his feet left him lame and unable to join in games at school and he would swap his 'jeelie pieces' (jam sandwiches) for books. He was a clever boy, but his family could not afford to send him to university, so he too moved to Edinburgh, rented a one-roomed shop in Leith Walk, and set himself up as a bookseller. He had his own library and what was left of his father's library (acquired in more prosperous times) for stock. He was 16 years old. William's apprenticeship came to an end when he turned 18 and he joined Robert in the shop in Leith Walk.
Although their beginnings were modest, they began to do well. William (19 at the time) helped unpack the books for an Edinburgh book fair and was rewarded with £10's worth of stock, the money to be repaid when he had sold the books in his shop. This gave them more, and much-needed, stock to sell, which in turn encouraged more customers to visit the shop. More stock and more customers led to more sales and a larger profit, and they invested some of the profits in the purchase of a small hand press. With no training in printing or binding, William and Robert printed, bound and published 750 copies of The Songs of Robert Burns in about 1819. This was the nearest thing to a guaranteed best-seller in 19th-century Edinburgh, and brought further profits and some fame.
They took work printing bills and notices and other successes followed, including Traditions of Edinburgh, written by Robert and published by the brothers in 1824. Their fame continued to grow, attracting many visitors to their shop including Sir Walter Scott, who became a great friend of Robert's.
From educational publishing...
Education, and making information available to as many people as possible, were always priorities for William and Robert. In 1832 they began to publish The Chambers's Journal. This was a weekly, 16-page journal containing articles - many of them written by Robert - on subjects such as history, religion, language and science. It was an immediate success; within a few years the weekly circulation had risen to 84 000 copies, and it put an end to their struggle to survive although they still had to work hard.
The Chambers's Journal was followed in 1834 by Chambers's Information for the People. This was a series of sheets on subjects such as science, maths, history, geography and literature, bound in sets. Eventually around 170 000 sets were sold, amounting to over 2 million individual sheets. This publication also saw some success abroad; a US edition was published, and it was translated into French (under the title Information pour le peuple) and - more surprisingly perhaps - into Welsh.
...to dictionaries and encyclopedias
In 1835, the brothers started work on Chambers's Educational Course, a series of short works and schoolbooks. There were eventually more than 100 titles in this series on almost every subject. 1859 saw the publication of the first part of Chambers's Encyclopedia, which was published in 520 parts between 1859 and 1868, and, in 1867, they published their first dictionary, Chambers's Etymological Dictionary, by James Donald. A larger version of this dictionary, Chambers's English Dictionary, was published in 1872, (with a second edition in 1898); Chambers's Biographical Dictionary was published in 1897; and a compact edition of the English dictionary, Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary, in 1901.
Fame and fortune...
Educational publishing made William and Robert famous. Robert was a learned man in his own right, and as well as contributing many of the articles for the Journal, and writing books for his brother to publish, was a leading evolutionist. His Vestiges of Creation, published anonymously in London in 1844 and credited as a precursor of Darwin's Origins of the Species, caused considerable controversy in the United Kingdom. Both brothers were philanthropists: they gave money to restore St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh; William was Lord provost of Edinburgh twice; and they both received honorary law degrees (William from the University of Edinburgh, Robert from the University of St Andrews). By the end of the 19th century, W & R Chambers's was one of the largest English-language publishers in the world.
Chambers, now properly Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd following the acquisition of the Harrap bilingual dictionary list in the early 1990s, continues to be based in Edinburgh. As of 2006 it is part of the Hachette Livre UK group of publishers. As well as the core business of publishing dictionaries and thesauruses, Chambers also publishes a range of language-reference titles, reference titles on science, history, biography and quotations, fact books, phrasebooks, and crossword, puzzle and games titles.