William Chambers.

Memoir of Robert Chambers, with autobiographic reminiscences of William Chambers online

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the proud satisfaction of acquiring by persevering indus-
try instead of by compassionate donation, — how differ-
ently would they act !

I think there was a degree of infatuation in my attach-
ment to that jangling, creaking, wheezing little press.
Placed at the only window in my apartment, within a few
feet of my bed, I could see its outlines in the silvery moon-
light when I awoke ; and there, at the glowing dawn, did
its figure assume distinct proportions. When daylight
came fully in, it was impossible to resist the desire to
rise and have an hour or two of exercise at the little

With an imperfect apparatus, the execution of my song-
book was far from good. Still, it was legible in the old
ballad and chap book style, and I was obliged to be con-
tent. Little by little, I got through the small volume. It
was a tedious drudgery. With my limited font, I could
set up no more than eight small pages, forming the eighth
part of a sheet. After printing the first eight, I had to
distribute the letter and set up the second eight, and so on
throughout a hundred pages. Months were consumed in
the operation. The number of copies printed was seven
hundred and fifty, to effect which I had to pull the press


twenty thousand times. But labor, as already hinted, cost
nothing. I set the types in the intervals of business, par-
ticularly during wet weather, when the stall could not be
put out, and the press-work was executed late at night or
early in the morning. The only outlay worth speaking of
for the little volume was that incurred for paper, which I
was unable to purchase in greater quantities than a few
quires at a time, and therefore at a considerable disadvan-
tage in price, but this was only another exemplification of
the old and too well-known truth, that "the destruction of
the poor is their poverty," about which it was useless to

When completed, the volume needed some species of
embellishment, and fortune helped me at this conjuncture.
There dwelt in the neighborhood a poor but ingenious man,
advanced in life, named Peter Fyfe, with whom I had al-
ready had some dealings. Peter, a short man, in a second-
hand suit of black clothes, and wearing a white neckcloth,
which he arranged in loose folds so as effectually to cover
the breast of his shirt, was from the west country. He
had been a weaver's reed-maker in Paisley, but having
been unfortunate in business, he had migrated to Edin-
burgh, in the hope of procuring some kind of employment.
Necessitous and clever, with an inexhaustible fund of
drollery, he was ready for anything artistic that might
come in his way. Peter did not want confidence. I am
not aware of any department in the fine or useful arts of
which he would have confessed himself ignorant. At this
period, when few knew anything of lithography, and he
knew nothing at all, he courageously undertook, in answer
to an advertisement, to organize and manage a concern of
that kind, and by tact and intuition gave unqualified satis-
faction. Peter was just the man I wanted. Although al-
together unacquainted with copperplate engraving, he ex-

142 . MEMOIR.

ecuted, from the descriptions I gave him, a portrait of the
Black Dwarf, for my account of that singular personage ;
which sketch has ever since been accepted as an authority.

I now applied to this genius for a wood-engraving for
my song-book, which he successfully produced, and for a
few shillings additional he executed a vignette represent-
ins: some national emblems. Invested with these attrac-
tions, the song-book was soon put in boards, and otherwise
prepared for disposal. I sold the whole either in single
copies at a shilling, or wholesale to other stall-keepers at
a proper reduction, and, after paying all expenses, cleared
about nine pounds by the transaction.

Nine pounds was not a large sum, but it served an im-
portant end. I was able to make some additions to my
scanty stock of types, which I procured from an aged
printer with a decaying business. To be prepared for ex-
ecuting posting-bills, I cut a variety of letters in wood with
a chisel and pen-knife. For such bold headings, therefore,
as " Notice," " Found," or " Dog Lost," I was put to no
straits worth mentioning. One of my most successful
speculations was the cutting in wood of the words "To
Let," in letters four inches long, an edition of which I dis-
posed of by the hundred at an enormous profit, to dealers
who sold such things to stick on the fronts of houses to
be let.

Through the agency of book-hawkers who purchased
quantities of my "Burns's Songs," I procured some orders
for printing '•' Rules " for Friendly and Burial Societies.
These answered me very well. The Rules were executed
in my old brevier, leaded, on the face of half a sheet of
foolscap, and were therefore within the capacity of my
font. A person who was a lessee of several toll-bars in
the neighborhood of the city, found me out as a cheap
printer, and gave me a job in printing toll-tickets, which I


executed to his satisfaction. Another piece of work of a
similar character which came in my way was the printing
of tickets for pawnbrokers. My principal employer in
this line was a lady whose establishment was a second
floor in High Street. She was a short, plump, laughing,
good-natured woman, turned of fifty years of age. Her
family consisted of a niece, who attended to business, and
an aged female domestic, who went by the name of " Paw-
kie Macgouggy." Pawkie, who had been a servant in the
family for upwards of twenty years, received me when I
called with a package of tickets, and kindly gave me a
seat in the kitchen till her mistress could be communi-
cated with.

The lady was so obliging as to show me some politeness,
and then, as well as a few years later, I learned a part of
her history. She had travelled abroad, and brought with
her to Edinburgh a knowledge of Continental cookery.
With this useful acquirement, she set up a tavern business
in South Bridge Street, and there she laid the foundation
of her fortune by a dexterous hit in the culinary art. This
consisted in the invention of a savory dish possessing an
odor which, it was said, no human being could resist. To
this marvelously fascinating dish she gave the name of
GoUi-Gosperado. The way she attracted customers was
ingenious. Her tavern was down a stair, and was lighted
by windows to the street, protected by iron gratings, over
which the passengers walked. Having prepared her Golli-
Gosperado, she put a smoking dish of it underneath the
gratings in the pavement. According to her own account,
the odor was overpowering. Gentlemen in passing were
instantly riveted to the spot. They declared they must
have some of that astonishing dish, whatever it was, and
at whatever cost, and down-stairs they rushed accordingly.
Per a time there was quite a furore in the town about the


Golli-Gosperado. The happy inventor retired from the
trade with so much money that she was able to set up as
a pawnbroker. In that profession she was likewise suc-
cessful^ and ultimately retired altogether from business to
a villa in the neighborhood, where she died, being at-
tended in her last moments by the faithful and sorrowing
Pawkie Macgouggy.

My means being somewhat improved, it did not appear
unreasonable that I should enlarge my stock of letter by
ordering a moderate font of long primer adapted for pam-
phlet-work from an aged type-founder, named Matthewson,
who carried on business at St. Leonard's, and with whom
I had become acquainted. In his walks, he occasionally
called to rest in passing, and hence our business dealings.
His cut of letter was not particularly handsome, but in the
decline of life, and in easy circumstances, he did not care
for new fashions.

Disposed to be familiar, Matthewson gave me an out-
line of his history. He had, he said, been originally a
shepherd boy, but from his earliest years had possessed a
taste for carving letters and figures. One day, while at-
tending his master's sheep, he was accidentally observed
by the minister of the parish to be carving some words on
a block of wood with a pocket-knife. The clergyman was
so pleased with his ingenuity that he interested himself
in his fate, and sent him to Edinburgh to pursue the pro-
fession of a printer. Shortly afterwards, he began to
make himself useful by cutting dies for letters of a partic-
ular description required by his employer, there being
then no type-founder in the city. While so occupied, he
attracted the notice of Benjamin Franklin on his second
visit to Scotland. This was about 1771. Franklin was
pleased with the skill of the young printer, and offered to
take him to Philadelphia, and there assist him in estab-


lishing a letter-foundry. Matthewson was grateful for the
disinterested offer, of which, unfortunately, for family rea-
sons, he could not take advantage. He set up the busi-
ness of letter-founding in Edinburgh, which he had all to
himself until the commencement of establishments with
higher claims to taste in execution.

To vary the monotony of my occupation, I had for
some time been making efforts at literary composition.
It was little I dared to attempt in that way, for anxiety
concerning ways and means impelled me to disregard
every species of employment that partook of recreation, or
which was not immediately advantageous. With a view
to publication at the first favorable opportunity, I wrote
an account of the Scottish Gypsies, for which I drew on
my recollection of that picturesque order of vagrants in
the south of Scotland, and also the traditions I had heard
regarding them. It was a trifle — nothing worth speak-
ing of j but being now provided with a tolerably good
font of long primer, also some new brevier suitable for
foot-notes, I thought it might be made available. I ac-
cordingly set up the tract as a sixpenny pamphlet \ and
for this small brochure a coarse copper-plate engraving
was furnished by that versatile genius, Peter Fyfe. It
represented a savage gypsy-fight at a place called Lowrie's
Den, on the top of Soutra Hill. The edition was sold
rapidly off, and I cleared a few pounds by the adventure.
What was of greater service, I felt encouraged to put my
thoughts on paper, and to endeavor to study correctness
and fluency of expression. The tract on the Gypsies also
procured me the acquaintance of a few persons interested
in that wayward class of the community.

My enlarged typographical capabilities led to new as-
pirations. Robert, who had made corresponding advances
in business, but exclusively in connection with booksell-


ing, was occupying his leisure hours in literary composi-
tion, which came upon him like an inspiration at nineteen
years of age. His tastes and powers in this respect sug-
gested the idea of a small periodical which we might
mutually undertake. He was to be the editor and prin-
cipal writer. I was to be the printer and publisher, and
also to contribute articles as far as time permitted.

The periodical was duly announced in a limited way,
and commenced. A name was adopted from the optical
toy invented by Sir David Brewster, about which all classes
were for a time nearly crazy. It was called the " Kaleido-
scope, or Edinburgh Literary Amusement." In size it was
sixteen pages octavo, — the price threepence, — and it was
to appear once a fortnight. The first number was issued
on Saturday, October 6, 182 1. The mechanical execution
of this literary serial sorely tested the powers of my poor
little press, which received sundry claspings of iron to
strengthen it for the unexpected duty. My muscular powers
likewise underwent a trial. I had to print the sheet in
halves, one after the other, and then stitch the two to-
gether. I set all the types, and worked off all the copies,
my younger brother, James, a fair-haired lad, rolling on the
ink, and otherwise rendering assistance.

This was the hardest task I had yet undergone ; for,
being pressed by time, there was no opportunity for rest.
Occupied with business, the composing-frame, and the
press, also with some literary composition, I was in har-
ness sixteen hours a day ; took no more than a quarter of
an hour to meals ; and never gave over work till midnight.
Sometimes I had dreadful headaches. Of course, I do not
justify this excessive application. It was clearly wrong. I
was acting in violation of the laws of health. Enthusiasm
alone kept me up ; certainly no material stimulus. My only
excuse for this, ardently pursued labor, which must have


been troublesome to quietly disposed neighbors, was what
at the same period might have been offered by my brother
for his incessant self-sacrificing exertions ; a desire to
overcome a condition that provoked the most stinging
recollections. I should probably have broken down but
for the weekly repose and fresh air of Sunday, when, after
attending church, I had an exhilarating ramble on the
sands and links.

Robert wrote nearly the whole of the articles in the
" Kaleidoscope," verse as well as prose. My contributions
consisted of only three or four papers. The general tone
of the articles, by whomsoever produced, may be acknowl-
edged to have been unnecessarily caustic and satirical.
There was also a certain crudeness of ideas, such as might
be expected from young and wholly inexperienced writers.
Nevertheless, there was that in the " Kaleidoscope " which
was indicative of Robert's future skill as an essayist ; for
here might be found some of the fancies which were after-
wards developed in his more successful class of articles.
In particular, may be mentioned the paper styled the " Ther-
mometer of Misfortune," in which occur the ideas that
were in after years expanded into the essay on the luckless
class of intemperates popularly known as " Victims."

This little periodical also contained a few articles de-
scriptive of a wayward class of authors in the lower walks
of life, written from personal knowledge, and marked by
that sympathy for the unfortunate which characterized my
brother through life. I feel tempted to give one of these
sketches. It refers to Stewart Lewis, a hapless being with
whom Robert had become acquainted, when he himself
was in straits previous to commencing his small business.



"It was towards the end of 18 16, when I lived in a cottage
on one of the great roads which lead to this metropolis, that I
was engaged in a mercantile concern in the city, and travelled
thither every morning, and, after the duties of the day were per-
formed, came back in the evening. I was one evening, after
my return, entertained by my mother with an account of two
extraordinary persons who had called during my absence ; and
who afterwards proved to be Stewart Lewis and his wife, travel-
ling on an expedition to Haddington, selling a small volume of
poems which he had just published.

"The appearance and singular manners of these visitants
were described to me in such terms of respect as made me re-
gret my absence when they called ; and the volume of poems
which they had left increased my desire to see their author :
for the acquaintance of a poet, and one who had actually printed
his productions, was at that time an object of very great inter-
est, and even curiosity.

"On the very next evening, however, my curiosity was des-
tined to be gratified, for who should drop in upon us but poor
Lewis with his wife ! They had, to use the wife's expression,
* never been off their feet ' since early in the morning, and were
very much fatigued accordingly. I was then introduced to the
poet, and in the course of five minutes we were engaged in as
sincere a friendship as if we had lived together from infancy.
Whether it was from the naturally ardent enthusiasm of his
temper, or a secret instinctive discovery that I was afterwards
to become one of his own brotherhood, I will not, cannot de-
termine. From what I can recollect of his appearance and
countenance, he was dressed in a suit of shabby clothes, mostly
of a gray color ; his person was slender ; his face interesting,
and bearing peculiar marks of genius and intelligence ; his
forehead was high, his hair gray and thin, and he had a coun-
tenance wrinkled with care and squalid with poverty. He
never spoke but under the influence of a sort of furor ; and he
even did not return thanks for the favor of another cup of tea
without an excitation of feeling and expression which had in
it something of poetic fervor.


" His wife was a little old woman, with no remains of that
beauty which had captivated the high-toned heart of Stewart
Lewis thirty years before. He had thus addressed her on the
thirtieth anniversary of their marriage : —

" * Though roses now have left thy cheek,
And dimples now in vain I seek ;
Thy placid brow, so mild and meek,
Proclaims I still should love thee.

" * How changed the scene since that blest day !
My hair 's now thin and silver gray ;
Though all that 's mortal soon decay.
My soul shall live to love thee,'

She spoke in a low, querulous voice, subdued in its tones by a
long course of misery. They addressed each other by terms
of endearment as strong, and spoke with as great an affection,
as they had done on their marriage day. An instance of con-
jugal attachment has seldom been found Hke that of Stewart
Lewis and his sorrow-broken spouse. He had addressed sev-
eral poems to her even in her old age, some of which are emi-
nently beautiful, and breathe the spirit of as fond an affection
as if they had still been the accents of a first love, unbroken
and unproved.

" They were much fatigued when they arrived ; but a refresh-
ment of tea soon revived their spirits ; and though the success
of their journey had been very limited, the poor bard was soon
elevated to a state of rapturous excitement ; while yet in the
intervals of his joy, the wife, who had less of a poetic tempera-
ment, and whom misfortune had taught the very habit of sor-
row, would interfere, with a voice mournfully soothing, and
warn him of his inevitable griefs to-morrow.

"After this we had frequent visits of Stewart Lewis ; but as
these were generally through the day, when I was engaged in
the duties of my profession, I had little opportunity of seeing
him. He had left several copies of his poems with us, and I
afterwards succeeded in disposing of a few to the most poetical
of the neighborhood, which raised a small sum. I then re-


solved to pay him a visit. My father accompanied me in this
adventure, out of curiosity to see his dwelhng. After searching
all the closes at the west end of the Cowgate for his habitation,
we were at length directed to it by an old woman, who ap-
peared like a corpse from the grave, rising out of a low cellar
in a very dark close — such a pallid and wrinkled crone as I
have seen full oft in my antiquarian researches through the
ancient lanes of the town, emerging from her dark dungeon at
midday to taste one breath of a somewhat purer atmosphere
than that of her own subterranean domicil. With her shriv-
eled arm she pointed up a narrow crazy stair which winded
above her head, and told us that the object of our search Hved
there. We thanked her, and ascended. At the second landing-
place we entered a dark, narrow passage from which a number
of doors seemed to diverge, the habitations of miserables, and
in one of which dwelt Stewart Lewis.

" On entering this wretched abode we found the unfortunate
bard, with his son, a lad of seventeen, sitting at a table and em-
ployed in stitching up various copies of his poems in blue paper
covers. At our entrance he started up with an exclamation of
surprise, and welcomed us to his humble shed. I perceived,
however, that his countenance presently lost that bold smile of
welcome, and his tongue that vehement gush of poetical, enthu-
siastic language habitual to him in even the lowest occurrences
of common life ; while his mind seemed engaged in recollecting
whether there was anything in the house with which he might
entertain us. I soon eased him of his fear on that account by
laying in his hand the small sum which I had collected for his
benefit from the sale of his poems. His face immediately as-
sumed its former smile, and, after thanking me, he sent away
his son with two thirds of the money to purchase whiskey — an
act of improvident extravagance which I could not help con-
demning with perhaps too great vehemence for a guest. He
did not seem offended by my remonstrances. It was obvious,
however, that the cause of his miserable and hopeless condition
had been disclosed.

" After this interview I never saw Stewart Lewis more. His
wife died shortly after, and he came to my father's house in my


absence, in a state of distraction for his loss. He waited many-
hours for my return, but at last went away without seeing me.
The depth of his sorrow was intimated to me in a way perhaps
more affecting than any personal interview might have been.
He left a letter, in which was written, in a hand which I could
scarcely decipher, and in characters which strayed over the
whole page, —

"'My dear Sir,


Stewart Lewis.'

" The affection which this poor man entertained for the be-
nign being who, for upwards of thirty years, had shared with
him a constant train of sorrow and poverty without ever repin-
ing, had in it something truly romantic. She was the first and
only woman he had ever loved, and he always declared that he
could not survive her loss. Their love was mutual, and her
devotion to him had been often shown by more substantial
proofs than words.

" She had frequently, even when they were in a state of
starvation, worked a whole day at some coarse millinery work
to earn a sixpence, that she might, with mistaken kindness,
supply her husband with spirits. The unfortunate habit of
drinking intoxicating liquors, which he had acquired after an
early disappointment in life, never afterwards left him ; and
whether to drown reflections on his own misery and blasted
prospects, or to inspire him with the faculty of versification, he
found the indulgence of that propensity, as he imagined, neces-
sary to his existence. But never was the brow of this woman
clouded with a reproof of the cause of all her sorrows, and a
word of remonstrance against his foibles was never heard to
escape her lips. He has commemorated his unutterable affec-
tion in several beautiful songs. In one, which he calls his
' Address to his Wife,' I find the following pathetic verses : —

" ' In youthful life's ecstatic days,

I've rapt'rous kissed thae lips o' thine ;


And fondly yet, with joy I gaze
On thee, auld canty wife o' mine.

" * When fortune's adverse winds did blaw,
And maist my senses I wad tine,
Thy smilin' face drove ill awa',
Thou ever dear auld wife o' mine.

" * Lang round the ingle's heartsome blaze,
Thy thrifty hand made a' to shine ;
Thou'st been my comfort a' my days,
Thou carefu' auld wife o' mine.

*' ' When life must leave our hoary head.
Our genial souls will still be kin'.
We'll smile and mingle wi' the dead,
Thou canty auld wife o' mine.'

After the death of his wife he wandered all over Scotland and
the northern counties of England, reckless of his fate. He la-
mented her death in ceaseless complaints, and seemed careless
of life. The remainder of the copies of his poems which he
had left with us — a considerable number, — were sent to him
while he was at Inverness, and he subsisted entirely on what
the sale of them provided for upwards of a twelvemonth. When
weary of existence, and worn out with fatigue, he died at an
obscure village in Dumfriesshire about the end of 1818. He
left three daughters, none of whom I ever saw, and one son,
who had latterly been the companion of his wanderings, — a
youth unfortunately weak in his intellects, and of whose fate I
have been able to learn nothing."

My brother's poetical pieces were the best. Some of
them were touching and beautiful, particularly the address
" To the Evening Star," which has been often reprinted
by compilers of volumes of poetry without intimating its
origin, which is not surprising, for who knows that the ob-
scure periodical in which it first made its appearance ever
existed ? It may be given as a specimen of his powers of
versification at nineteen years of age.



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Online LibraryWilliam ChambersMemoir of Robert Chambers, with autobiographic reminiscences of William Chambers → online text (page 11 of 24)