George Chamier, the son of William Chamier and his wife, Emily Crookenden, came from a prominent Huguenot family that had been in England since 1691. His great-grandmother's brother, Anthony Chamier, a prominent civil servant, had been an original member of Dr Samuel Johnson's Literary Club and one of the inner circle of Johnson's friends. His grandfather, John Ezechiel Des Champs, was the author of works in philosophy and literature; and his uncle, Frederick Chamier, a high-ranking naval officer, published works of history and travel and a series of nautical novels. His father, retired from the East India Company, was later an Anglican clergyman. Thus George, who was born at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on 8 April 1842, came into a family closely bound up with English literary, intellectual and civil life.
After an education at English schools, followed by scientific training at the polytechnic school in Dresden, Saxony, in 1859–60, George Chamier emigrated to New Zealand in 1860, arriving at Lyttelton on the Chapman on 12 September. He probably spent the next two years as a gentleman cadet on a North Canterbury sheep station, as would the young hero of Philosopher Dick, his first novel. He subsequently worked as a road engineer, borough engineer and surveyor for local road boards, and finally as an assistant in the chief surveyor's department of the Canterbury provincial government from 1866 to 1868. During these years he lived at Saltwater Creek on the Ashley River, and possibly at Leithfield.
In 1869 Chamier left New Zealand for Tasmania, where he became articled to a civil engineer. In 1873 he moved to Victoria and served until 1876 as assistant engineer in the Water Supply Department. He steadily climbed the professional ladder, being admitted to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1879. He worked as an engineer to railway contractors in Victoria and from 1877 to 1879 as an engineer and railway manager in South Australia. On 7 September 1878, at Adelaide, he married Emily Searight (née Gardner), a widow; they were to have two sons and a daughter. By 1884 George Chamier was working in private practice as a consulting engineer in Adelaide, where he was to spend the rest of his life. He also published several papers and pamphlets on aspects of civil engineering.
Chamier spent only a decade in New Zealand, but from that stay emerged what may be considered the best New Zealand novels of the nineteenth century: Philosopher Dick: adventures and contemplations of a New Zealand shepherd (published anonymously in 1891), and A south-sea siren: a novel descriptive of New Zealand life in the early days (1895). The two novels, which are probably semi-autobiographical, form a single extended narrative that focuses on the education of a young gentleman immigrant, Richard Raleigh. Raleigh begins as a naïve idealist, somewhat on the model of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. Through a series of experiences, first as a cadet shepherd on Marino station and then as clerk to the district council and the local magistrate's court at Sunnydowns (a town probably modelled on Leithfield), he undergoes the usual Victorian intellectual battle of faith and doubt, shaken by Darwinism, and emerges with a stoicism of the kind expressed in Chamier's later volume of essays, War and pessimism and other studies (1911). In the process he undergoes a political and social education about New Zealand. When he came he 'foolishly expected that a new country, wide and bountiful, oppressed with no burdens, hampered with no restrictions, but fresh and fair from the hands of God, would afford much happier conditions of life and progress' than he had found in the Old World. What he discovered was that 'human nature remains always the same, and the Englishman, away from his native land, carries with him all the customs, tastes, and prejudices, and most of the vices of his nationality', so that life in New Zealand was but 'a rather servile imitation of life in the Mother Country', with 'little or no attempt to revert to a purer, simpler and more primitive mode of existence'.
Raleigh also undergoes an education about himself. He begins as one of the 'unconscious blind' who 'cannot see that they cannot see', at least 'where their own intentions and sentiments are concerned', and then, especially through his chastening experience with the 'siren' Celia Wylde and her unscrupulous friends (recreated by Stevan Eldred-Grigg in The siren Celia, 1989) comes to recognise and rue his own folly and self-deception. He emerges a more mature individual, and is accepted by the virtuous Alice Seymour. After seeming to have lost his name, his job and his property, he finds that he has really lost but little, and goes off to Wellington to a new life as a journalist.
The loose, capacious form of the novels, based on that of eighteenth century novels of education, allows Chamier to include a variety of materials including letters, a diary, philosophical discussions, inset stories and detachable episodes and vignettes. The resulting structure not only expresses Chamier's curious and wide-ranging mind but also gives a comprehensive, comic and critical picture of Canterbury in the 1860s. Christchurch is seen as 'absolutely wanting in all the attractions of a refined civilisation, the beauties of art, or the charms of old associations'; its people, 'without interest in everything except their progress', animated by 'a humdrum, bustling, and practical spirit…servilely devoted to progress and utility'. Narrow materialism is complemented by a doubtful business morality devoted to land speculation and the fleecing of new chums, while colonial politics is not a noble experiment but a 'pitiable exhibition' evoking disgust. Social life is marked by hard drinking – 'the besetting curse of the whole community' – and petty, malicious gossip. The picture is not entirely dark: the Seymour family offer an attractive portrait of virtuous rural retirement, but this is shown to be atypical. The general tone is one of good-humoured criticism. Among the novels of early colonisation, Chamier's present perhaps the fullest and most critical picture.
George Chamier died at sea on 25 April 1915 while on a voyage to visit his daughter in China. Although his novels of New Zealand may have been merely a brief interlude in a busy professional life in Australia, they remain valuable social–historical documents and the most readable of nineteenth century New Zealand novels.