William Chambers Restoration

From poor beginnings, living on three and a half pence a day as an apprentice to an Edinburgh bookseller, and then selling books from a wooden stall that he had built himself, William Chambers went on to found the highly successful publishing firm of W. and R. Chambers with his brother, Robert. Deeply interested in Scottish history and tradition, they wrote books on these subjects themselves, and their firm’s schoolbooks, dictionaries and encyclopaedias became so well-known that William would eventually be
presented at Buckingham Palace and entertained at the White House by the President of the U.S.A.

Reluctant to enter public life, he nonetheless agreed in 1865 to become Lord Provost of Edinburgh so that he could tackle the problem of its overcrowded slums in the streets and closes (lanes) around St Giles’. This he did to great effect and one day as he sat in his official pew in the church, he was seized with the notion of demolishing all the internal stone walls in order to return it to its original medieval sacred space, transforming it into ‘Scotland’s Westminster Abbey’. To this end, he engaged the prominent Scottish architect William Hay.

He launched his idea with a public speech in 1867, but it would take sixteen years of fundraising, personal expenditure, seeking permission from many authorities, and the actual demolition and reconstruction before the work was finally finished in 1883. A frail octogenarian by then, Chambers was carried into the Cathedral and placed in a chair so that he could survey the effect for himself. ‘I never could have believed that the interior was so fine!’ he exclaimed. He died on 20 May 1883, just three days before the triumphant re-opening service.