George Thomson Chapman (baptised George) was born in Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, Scotland, on 14 June 1824, the son of Charles Chapman, a farmer, and his wife, Mary Wood. He became an apprentice in a general store and is said to have educated himself in his leisure hours. At the end of his apprenticeship he entered business on his own account, and married Isabella Falconer in Burntisland, Fife, on 20 April 1848.
In the late 1840s the Free Church of Scotland was recruiting missionaries for the Otago Association's colony in Otago, New Zealand. Chapman and his elder brother, Robert, signed up and they arrived together in Port Chalmers on the Blundell in September 1848. George was posted to East Taieri. Neither brother, however, seems to have been deeply committed to missionary work, as both immediately commenced mercantile careers in Dunedin, where Robert was to become a prominent citizen. The precise nature of George's business is not known. However, he showed his love for literature by being active on the Otago Library Committee and became its vice president in 1851. In the same year he founded and became first secretary of the Dunedin Mechanics' Institute.
Chapman's wife and infant son died in 1850, and chance led to a dramatic change in his life in late 1851 when a trip to Sydney, New South Wales, coincided with news of a gold strike in Victoria. He seized the opportunity of making money and seems to have prospered during his nine months on the goldfields. In 1853 he travelled to Scotland with money in his pocket, and a wealth of experience which later became the subject of some of his writings. On 24 January 1854 Chapman married Margaret Simpson at Burntisland. Later that year he returned to Sydney and set up a business in Pitt Street. The venture failed, and he arrived back in New Zealand in April 1855.
Chapman settled in Auckland and started in general trade, but almost immediately established himself as a stationer and bookseller. His renown came chiefly from his lending library of more than 4,000 volumes, established in 1855, and from his publishing activities. In 1863 he claimed that Chapman's Circulating Library was the oldest and the largest in New Zealand; it was certainly 'much appreciated and prized'.
Chapman's energy and literary inclination are best demonstrated in the extraordinary breadth and volume of material he published. From his first edition of Chapman's New Zealand Almanac in 1860 he published about 100 titles, many of which he wrote, co-wrote or compiled. They covered such diverse topics as travellers' guides, the management of honey bees, a guide to New Zealand's statute law, and gardening.
Although Chapman was not active in public affairs in Auckland he was, for many years, a deacon of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church. He died at Auckland on 24 June 1881 after a stroke and was survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons, who took over his business. Margaret Chapman died in 1904.
George Chapman's books imparted a great deal of useful information to mariners, gardeners, farmers and tourists. He had a vast and acquisitive intellect, was said to be well read in the early history of New Zealand, and was considered to have one of the most valuable libraries in the country.