Chambers, Robert (1737-1803) (DNB00)

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CHAMBERS, Sir ROBERT (1737–1803), Indian judge, was born at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1737, and was the eldest son of Robert Chambers, an attorney of that city, who married Miss Metcalfe. He was placed in due course at its principal school, then under the charge of the Rev. Hugh Moises, whose fame as a master lives to this day, and during his school days he secured the friendship, which he never lost, of two other pupils, John Scott, the well-known lord Eldon, and his brother, William Scott, afterwards lord Stowell. In July 1754 he was elected an exhibitioner of Lincoln College, Oxford, and proceeded B.A. 3 Feb. 1758; but he was elected a fellow of University College 23 June 1761, and took his degree of M.A. from that college on 11 July 1761. The last degree to which he proceeded was that of B.C.L., 14 Dec. 1765. Chambers determined upon adopting the law as his profession, and was appointed to the Vinerian professorship of laws in 1766 when it was vacated by Blackstone. This position he was allowed, when departing for India in 1774, to retain, by the special permission of the university, for three years, in order that he might see whether the climate of that country would agree with his constitution, and during that period John Scott acted as his deputy. Lord Lichfield, the chancellor of the university, bestowed on Chambers, in 1766, the post of principal of New Inn Hall, a post which required no residence, and was consequently held by him throughout his life. While resident at Oxford he engaged in tuition, and among his pupils was Mr. Windham. At this period of life he was much employed in law causes, and his income was such as to enable him to decline in 1768 the office of attorney-general in Jamaica as inadequate to his pretensions. In 1773 the supreme court of judicature in Bengal was established, and Chambers was appointed its second judge, Elijah Impey being his chief. Almost immediately before starting for the East he married (8 March 1774) Fanny Wilton, the only daughter of Joseph Wilton, a celebrated sculptor, and one of the foundation members of the Royal Academy. She was then in her sixteenth year, ‘exquisitely beautiful,’ says Dr. Johnson, and his taste is corroborated by the testimony of Mrs. Thrale, who adds that she ‘stood for Hebe at the Royal Academy.’ His younger brother, William Chambers, a great specialist in the dialects of Hindostan, who became interpreter to the supreme court at Bengal, and whose son, William Frederick, is noticed below, was already there, and their mother, who died in 1782, accompanied her elder son. They sailed in April 1774 on the Anson, with the three other judges, Impey, Hyde, and Lemaistre, a second vessel carrying out Sir Philip Francis, who was voyaging to Calcutta to take his place on the supreme council. In the year 1777 Chambers received the honour of knighthood. In October 1776 he desired to succeed to the place on the council which was vacant by the death of Colonel Monson, and in the ‘Private Correspondence’ of Garrick (ii. 183–4) is a letter soliciting the support of the great actor; but the efforts of Chambers were not successful. Wherever he went he found friends. Mrs. Thrale could never understand the reason of the partiality which all her acquaintances felt for Chambers. His domestic happiness was clouded by the loss of his eldest son in the wreck of the Grosvenor, East Indiaman, in 1782. Some time after the resignation by Impey of the office of chief justice Chambers was elevated to the post (1789), and a further distinction was conferred on him in 1797, when he was elected president of the Asiatic Society, in succession to Sir William Jones and Lord Teignmouth. A discourse which he delivered before this body (18 Jan. 1798) is printed in the ‘Asiatic Researches,’ vi. 1–5. In 1799 he returned to England, with a constitution undermined by his life in the East, and a peerage was offered to him, but he had not availed himself of the opportunities which a man less disinterested could have seized of enriching himself through his official position, and he was compelled to decline the proffered honour and to accept a pension. In the autumn of 1802 his lungs were so much affected that he was ordered to the south of France, but the season was too far advanced for him to proceed further than Paris. Soon afterwards he was seized by a paralytic stroke, and died near Paris 9 May 1803; his body was brought to England and buried in the Temple Church 23 May. A monument by Nollekens to his memory was placed in that church. There is also a tablet to his memory in the chapel of University College, Oxford, where the year of his birth is given as 1735. The epitaph on the monument of his friend, Sir William Jones, in the latter chapel is said to have been composed by Chambers. Lady Chambers died at Brighton 15 April 1839. A volume of family prayers written by her was published in 1821. A portrait of Chambers was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds for Mr. Thrale's study at Streatham, and a second was taken by Mr. Horne, a painter at Calcutta, shortly before the judge's departure. At the sale of the Thrale portraits in 1816 the former was bought by his widow for 84l. The second portrait hangs in the dining hall of University College.

The friendship of Dr. Johnson with Chambers was established in 1766, and lasted unimpaired until he left for India. In the ideal university of St. Andrews which Johnson and Boswell founded in their imagination, the chair of English law was assigned to Chambers, and when he sailed to his new country he carried with him a warm letter of introduction from the doctor to Warren Hastings. Sir Philip Francis was long on friendly terms with him, and stood godfather to his son in November 1779; but in Sir Philip's diary, under the date of February 1780, are some severe reflections on Chambers. This temporary difference was soon composed, and on the return of Francis to London he wrote to Chambers a complimentary letter, although he condemned the other members of the supreme court. More letters followed, and in one of them Francis heartily congratulated his friend on his appointment as chief justice. In the much-debated question of the trial of Nuncomar the conduct of Chambers was marked by deplorable weakness. Fox said that Chambers ‘had acted very weakly,’ and Sir Gilbert Elliot spoke of his ‘mild and flexible character;’ but Francis endeavoured to sever his friend from the other judges on the ground that Chambers wished the trial to proceed under a statute of Queen Elizabeth, which did not visit forgery with the penalty of death. ‘A Treatise on Estates and Tenures, by the late Sir Robert Chambers,’ was edited by his nephew, Sir Charles Harcourt Chambers, in 1824, with the statement that it formed part of Sir Robert's Vinerian lectures, and that he had purposed to write, had his health permitted, a commentary on the common law. In 1834 W. H. Smoult, another kinsman, issued ‘A Collection of Orders by the Supreme Court of Judicature at Bengal on the Plea Side of the Court, 1774–1813, with notes from the note-books of Sir Robert Chambers and Mr. Justice Hyde,’ and in 1838 there was privately printed a ‘Catalogue of the Sanskrit Manuscripts collected during his residence in India by the late Sir Robert Chambers. With a brief memoir by Lady Chambers.’ The judge was throughout his life fond of books, and possessed a large library, especially rich in oriental works. His collection of Sanskrit manuscripts was purchased for the Royal Library at Berlin. His nephew, Sir Charles Harcourt Chambers, was a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge; he graduated B.A. 1809, M.A. 1814; was appointed judge in Bombay 1823, and died there 13 Oct. 1829 (Gent. Mag. for 1829, i. 566).

[Boswell's Johnson (ed. 1835), ii. 22, iii. 8, 304–6, iv. 6, 112, v. 182, 189, vi. 193, viii. 40; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. iv. 627, v. 120, 472, vii. 510; Parkes's Sir P. Francis, ii. 12, 115, 142, 172, 186, 213, 251, 288, 294; Stephen's Nuncomar and Impey, passim; E. B. Impey's Elijah Impey, 177, 255–6, 304, 352; Mrs. Piozzi's Autobiog. (1861), ii. 75, 170–1; Gent. Mag. March 1774, p. 141, May and June 1803, pp. 485, 593; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. x. 430 (1860), 6th ser. xii. 256–7, 273 (1885).]

W. P. C.