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Nathaniel Ponder of Rothwell

Fresh Light on the Publisher of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”


On October 15th, 1934, a paper was read before the London Bibliographical Society by Dr. Frank Mott Harrison on “Nathaniel Ponder, the publisher of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress.’”The town of Rothwell has been in existence at least a thousand years, for when the Domesday Book was completed, eight hundred and fifty years ago, the town was then a well organised community with two mills and its meadow and ploughed lands all estimated as to extent and owned and let and cultivated according to the then prevailing custom. Yet during the whole time since the founding of the town, of all the thousands born within its boundaries, how few have left behind them any memory of personality or life work done.

Of these few notable Rothwellians, Nathaniel Ponder is certainly one. By accident or design he hitched his business waggon to a star of the first magnitude in the literary firmament and the brilliant radiance which crowned John Bunyan as the writer of “The Pilgrims Progress” was shared in a lesser degree by Ponder and still, all these years after, sheds a mild halo over the name of the man who published the immortal allegory and gave it forth to the world.

The Bibliographical Society concerns itself more with writing about books and their publication than it does about the author’s work within their pages and this special interest of the Society attaches itself naturally more to Ponder than to Bunyan.

Dr. Harrison, a gentleman living at Hove, and an authority on bibliographical matters, has for a long time been keenly interested in the life and work of Nathaniel Ponder. His essay, which has been reprinted since by the Oxford University Press in “The Library,” contains the results of many years labour in time and thought given to his attempt to find out all that could be known about Ponder especially concerning his publication of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and the numerous law proceedings which followed the success of that remarkable work.

Dr. Harrison has made enquiries on the spot at Rothwell and all the other places connected with the object of his search, and has carried out close research in law court and other legal records and in the registers of the Stationers’ Company. This effort has brought to light much fresh information to supplement the scanty personal details of Ponder’s life known before.

But Dr. Harrison is as much interested in the writer of the book as he is in Ponder, the publisher. He is the foremost Bunyan scholar of the present day. From his unique knowledge of both the writing and the printing of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” he was chosen at the Bunyan Tercentenary in 1928 to revise and edit with additions the tercentenary or fifth edition of the late Dr. John Brown’s “John Bunyan, His Life, Times and Work,” which contained the results of forty years’ research on the part of the Bedford minister. To this are now added the conclusions of the new editor, obtained after many years’ devotion to Bunyan literature and lore In this way, Dr. Harrison’s work has secured a permanent place in the literary history of our land.After all the endeavours, however, made to acquaint us with Nathaniel Ponder’’s

The corner of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane in 1656.

life we are still in the dark regarding many portions of it. It is no easy matter to get a complete view of the life of this man who left Rothwell in 1656 to be apprenticed in London to the publishing trade. A few years later he started in business for himself. Success attended his efforts and by 1672, six years after the Great Fire of London which scorched his abode but did not burn him out, he had obtained a position of both reputation and influence in the great city. This is proved by the fact that people in Rothwell and other towns in Northamptonshire and elsewhere were writing to him in 1672 as to one with power to get them help from State authorities in connection ‘with changes being made in laws relating to religious matters.Ponder’s life in London covered forty three years. It is to enlighten us in regard to this period and the problems arising from it that Dr. Harrison has striven with no small success. The publisher’s earlier years in Rothwell, too, have claimed attention and this first part of his life has interest for those fond of looking into the too often obscure pages of our past local history.


Nathaniel Ponder was born in Rothwell in 1640 five years before the battle of Naseby was fought. His father was John Ponder, who was in business in Rothwell as a chandler or general dealer. Copper trade tokens stamped with a row of candles and his name and date still exist. He was a man of thoughtful and independent mind and with other Puritans in Rothwell was many times summoned before the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for refusing to obey the religious laws then in force. John Ponder, with his friends, took a leading part in founding the Rothwell Independent Church and his name stands on the church roll as the first appointed elder following the name of John Beverly, the first minister of the church.

The Ponders held an important place in Rothwell life through several generations at least. The name occurs again and again, though often we are ignorant of the relationship existing between those who bear it. Our knowledge in this direction has been much increased by the family records brought to light through the interest and research of Mr. F. W. Bull.

One notable bearer of the name was a certain T. Ponder who, about 1714, left six small tenements together with three roods of land adjoining for the use of the poor widows of Rothwell. This Ponder, at any rate, was a man of some means. He was probably the same person as a Thomas Ponder, gentleman, who died in 1732, and whose social position was such that his sister married the Lord Chief Baron Ward and his daughter, Mary, became the wife of John York, who was Vicar of Rothwell from 1690 to 1694.

From this date we must go back about forty years to pick up again what threads we can of Nathaniel Ponder’s early life. He was sixteen years of age in 1656 when his father, John Ponder, with his friends. John Cooper, John Fox, Thomas Wells and others, were forming the Rothwell Independent Church.

As a boy, Nathaniel may have been educated in the Grammar School at Roth-well, or possibly, as Dr. Harrison suggests, he may have gone to Oundle School where, a little earlier than this one of the ushers was named John Ponder. However Nathaniel spent his boyhood, from what we know of him in later life, we may be pretty certain, in his sixteenth year, he would be very interested in what was going on at the opposite side of the town to Ponder’s End. There a big six bayed barn was being turned into a Meeting House and being fitted up with pulpit and seats for the preaching of a simple New Testament gospel now permitted by the toleration granted under Cromwell’s rule. We think young Nathaniel often went to see the changes being made down the lane which soon came to be called Meeting Lane, a suitable and pleasant name, which for long years perpetuated a real and interesting development in the changing religious life of the town in Stuart times. This fitting name has more recently in some curiously unaccountable and unjustifiable way been changed into Gas Street, a term dismal and forbidding enough to blight the future outlook on life, and bring a feeling of woeful despair into the hearts of all dwelling within its bounds. Amenity lovers who are arming for the “War on Ugliness” ought to mark down for early attack the whole foul brood of Gas Streets scattered throughout King Edward’s realm.


During 1656, in which year the Independent Church was founded, Nathaniel Ponder left Rothwell for London where, on June 2nd, he was apprenticed to one Robert Gibbs, a publisher of religious and serious books at the address of the Golden Ball in Chancery Lane. In the century preceding this time Dr. Harrison has discovered the names of several Ponders who were living in the Chancery Lane district, some of whom were pretty well-to-do. Their presence and relationship may have determined Nathaniel going there to live, and it seems likely that some of this London Ponder property came to him and helped to start him in business, his father, too, John Ponder in Rothwell, may have helped him with money. This is probable, for when the father died in Rothwell nine years after, in 1665, he left by will £50 to his son Thomas; £5 to his son John, £50 each to each of six daughters, but to Nathaniel only five shillings. Apparently the son in London had received his share before or his father thought he was getting sufficient from London relatives.

It is uncertain how long Nathaniel stayed as apprentice and assistant with Robert Gibbs, but he was in business for himself and brought out the first book bearing his name in 1668. This volume on “The Epistle to the Hebrews” was written by Dr. John Owen, who had been chaplain to Oliver Cromwell.

Ponder had set up in business in Chancery Lane taking as his sign the Peacock with outspread plumage. This rather vainglorious trade mark was printed in one only of his books and a picture of it is shown with this article. Chancery Lane is of no great length so that Ponder’s Peacock sign would not be far from his former master Gibbs’ shop adorned with the Golden Ball. As they were both bringing out the same kind of books there was doubtless more or less of rivalry between them.In 1676 Ponder opened a second shop with the same Peacock sign in the Poultry.

Ponder’s device from “The Unreasonableness of Atheism.” (1669).

For a few months he had two business addresses. But in 1677 he seems to have left Chancery Lane for good as from that year all his books were issued from the Peacock in the Poultry. The next eleven years form the busiest and most important period of his life as a publisher. During this time he became connected with Bunyan and brought out a number of his books, including the first and ten following editions of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Dr. Harrison gives a list of over one hundred books brought out by Ponder after 1668. But the list would be longer probably if we had details of all he did.

Like his father in Rothwell, Nathaniel Ponder, when he started in London, was strongly imbued with Puritanism and the books he published were many of them written by Nonconformists and were such as appealed to them. He did not, however, confine himself to religious works, but published school books on grammar, writing, arithmetic, history, Latin, and also volumes on medicine, Protestantism, and other subjects.

In the porch of Irthlingborough parish church hangs, or did hang till recently, a printed list of incumbents. Under date 1670 we read “Simon Wastell, Incumbent, wrote or translated ‘The Divine Art of Memory,’ published by Nath. Ponder 1683 in London.”


In April, 1665, the father, John Ponder, in Rothwell, died. He seems to have been taken ill rather suddenly and seriously as he could write no will but had to deliver it by word of mouth. The next month, May, the widow, Dorothy Ponder, died. In her will she left £45 to her son John but no mention is made of Nathaniel.

These two deaths of John Ponder and his wife occurring so near together in 1665 make us wonder a little if they were due to the Great Plague which was spreading about England in that year preparatory to its hideous onslaught on the ill-fated and grossly insanitary Metropolis. Both Kettering and Rothwell suffered severely from plague ravages but mainly at a time a little later than the Ponder deaths.If Nathaniel Ponder suffered in any way in health or business during 1665, when the Great Plague caused grass to grow in London streets, he was certainly lucky the next year when the Great Fire, after its devastating march westward, was beaten out almost literally on his doorstep with its expiring flames licking the houses in Chancery Lane where his business lay. Amid all the commercial difficulties which followed such a huge catastrophe he was left with confidence and in circumstances good enough to get married In October, 1666, a licence was granted for his marriage with Mary Guy, daughter of Robert Guy, Gentleman, of Isham, at the church of St. Dunstan’s in the West, which stood at the end of Chancery Lane and like that street narrowly escaped destruction.


Mary Guy was baptised in Kettering Church in 1645 and so would be 21 and her husband 26 on their marriage. The names of several of their children have been preserved. There was a daughter, Elizabeth, who came down to Rothwell and died and was buried there in October, 1687. Another daughter, Sarah, was buried at St. Gregory-by-Paul in 1696. A son Robert, with his mother Mary, appeared before the Court in 1693 as plaintiffs on behalf of other children—daughters—who were minors. The case concerned a legacy left by the grandfather, Robert Guy, of Isham, to his daughter Mary (Nathaniel’s wife) and her children. Judgment was given for the plaintiffs. The defendants—one of whom was Nathaniel’s brother-in-law— were ordered to pay the legacy over for the benefit of the wife and children.

It is pleasant to learn of the son Robert winning his law case in this way, for his father lost most of his.


Twice in his life, at any rate, Nathaniel Ponder suffered imprisonment in regard to matters connected with his business but in each of these cases he seemed to be a victim of unfortunate circumstances.

His first imprisonment was in 1672, rather early in his London life, when he was sent for a short term to the Gate-house prison for publishing an unlicensed book.

This book, called “The Rehearsal Transpros’d” (which title has no meaning apart from topical matters quite familiar to the smart folks of that day) was written by Andrew Marvell, the witty M.P. for Hull. He was a friend of John Milton and a good poet often quoted in the present day. Marvell’s book was a satirical and bantering reply to a serious treatise written by Dr. Samuel Parker who afterwards became Bishop of Oxford. In Cromwell’s time Parker had been a Puritan, but under Charles II had joined the opposite side, and, as often happens, he became very intolerant towards his former friends and laid down the law against them in most rigorous fashion. He asserted in his treatise that civil magistrates and princes had authority over the consciences of their subjects in religious matters. This claim, of course, the Puritans denied and even in the town of Rothwell there were a number of men who chose rather to be summoned and fined than submit to it. Dr. Parker’s intemperate statement of the King’s rights in religious matters verged on the ludicrous seeing that the reigning ~ prince was Charles II, probably the most shameless and immoral sovereign who ever occupied the English throne. Marvell’s reply showed up the absurdity of the clergyman’s contention and his mocking raillery held up Dr. Parker to such ridicule and made such burlesque of his arguments that he had to retire from the field sadly discomfited. Friends and foes were set laughing at him together, which was perhaps the best way of knocking the support from such senseless claims.

No charge seems to have been made against Marvell for writing the book. Very likely the Merry Monarch enjoyed the jest against himself as much as anyone.

But for the man who published the work things turned out differently. Although the book was not licensed, Ponder, thinking it would help the Dissenting Cause, did not hesitate to risk getting it printed and put on sale so that all interested could buy and read it for themselves. Ponder thus brought himself within reach of the law which forbade unlicensed printing. Though this illegality took place in 1672 and though no attempt was made to hide Ponder’s main share in the action, it is curious that as far as can be found no accusation was brought against him until four years after.

What then happened is shown by quotations which Dr. Harrison has unearthed from the Minutes of the Privy Council for 1676. The first of these reads:”May 10. A warrant to committ Nathaniell Ponder to the Gatehouse for carrying to the Presse to be printed an unlicensed Pamphlett tending to Sedition and Defamation of the Christian Religion.”

Title page of the first edition of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”

To such a strait had Ponder’s enthusiasm for Nonconformity now brought him. How many during the last two thousand years in the long struggle against religious intolerance have been punished in the same or worse ways! Not a few men of the Ponder type in Germany to-day are staring blankly at prison walls or, filled with righteous indignation, passing weary days in concentration camps for daring to do in 1935 what Nathaniel Ponder did in 1672.Ponder was in prison sixteen days. During that time he thought the matter out. No good would seem to be gained by his staying in durance if freedom could be had. His business was suffering from his absence and he had a wife and children to think about. He could help the cause he had at heart much more if free outside than in confinement. Besides the object aimed at had been gained by giving to all people who mattered a chance to read what Marvell had to say of the Parker dogmatisms. The way to freedom was offered and though some humiliation was attached Ponder wisely accepted the terms as explained in this second quotation from the Privy Council Minutes of 1676:”May 26. Upon paying the due fees, Nathaniel Ponder, stationer, upon his humble petition to his Majesty setting forth his hearty sorrow for his said offence and promising never to offend in like manner for the future, His Majesty was thereupon graciously pleased to order that the said Nathaniel Ponder – entering into £500 bond with two sufficient sureties – is hereby discharged from his imprisonment.”

So ended that chapter in the life of this Rothwell man struggling with the destinies which beset his career.

In the same year, 1676, in which Ponder suffered this short imprisonment, John Bunyan was set free from his six months’ confinement in the Bedford Town Gaol, during which time he probably wrote most of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” The book, at any rate, was finished and ready for publication soon after. Ponder was asked by Bunyan to be his publisher and on December 22nd, 1677, Ponder, as is duly recorded, paid sixpence fee to the Stationers’ Company to get “The Pilgrim’s Progress” properly licensed ready for publication in February, 1678.

Dr. Harrison discusses the question why Ponder was chosen by Bunyan now as his publisher, seeing that previously they had had no business relations. It seems certain that before this they must have been known to each other.

Ponder had connection in several ways with Bunyan’s native Bedford region, and he could not have missed knowledge of the conspicuous preacher and writer whose resolute Nonconformity had brought him first twelve years’ imprisonment in the County Gaol, which stood in Bedford, where the cinema now stands at the corner of High-street and Silver-street, and again three years later, six months in the Town Gaol, which stood on Bedford Bridge.

Ponder must have known much of such a man, but it seems likely that Dr. Owen, the Puritan divine already mentioned, was the means of bringing the two together for business purposes. Ponder had already published many religious works for Dr. Owen, who did what he could to encourage the young publisher in his early career. Dr. Owen, too, had much to do with securing Bunyan’s release from his second imprisonment. It is thus quite easy to see how Ponder and Bunyan might become intimately acquainted through their common friendship with Dr. Owen. However it came about Ponder was chosen by Bunyan to be the publisher of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.’ We give here a copy of the title page of what claims to be an exact facsimile of the first edition. ‘

The title page bears the words “Printed for Nath. Ponder at the Peacock in the Poultrey, near Cornhil, 1678.”

It is also marked:

“Licensed and entred according to order.”


So “The Pilgrim’s Progress” came out. It was a small book of a little over 200 pages priced at one shilling and sixpence. That was 258 years ago. In the present day copies of this first edition are exceedingly rare, less than ten only being known to exist. Owing to its great interest in the literary world, it is eagerly sought after by collectors. In 1926, a copy was sold in London for several thousand pounds.

When in 1678 the first edition of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” was thus brought out by Ponder, the book at once became popular, thousands of copies were sold, and Bunyan’s remarkable “Dream” became the favourite reading of multitudes of both young and old. This gave pleasure to Ponder in two ways. First, from the serious Puritan point of view he was glad to have provided the public with a religious book written by such an earnest preacher as Bunyan, a book which the people seemed eager to get and read. and which Ponder believed they could not read without getting mental and moral good thereby,

Second, from the perfectly natural and business point of view he felt sure his venture would prove successful. For though the price of the book was only one shilling and sixpence, this allowed a fair margin of profit over the cost of paper, printing and binding as recorded, and there seemed every likelihood of a large and long continued sale. Ponder’s hopes in this direction ran high, and it is a pity such reasonable anticipations were not realised.

Had there been in Ponder’s time a law of Copyright such as now exists in England, both Bunyan and Ponder might have secured adequate pay for the labour each had put into the making of the book. But unfortunately no effective English Copyright Act was then on the Statute Book.

Sixteen years previous to this, in 1662, a Licensing Act had been passed which recognised ownership of literary property at common law and prohibited the printing of any work without the consent of the owner. This Act did not cover all the necessary ground but it did afford a measure of help and protection to authors and publishers.Unfortunately just about the time of the publication of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” this Licensing Act of 1662 expired and attempts to renew it failed. Thus just when Ponder wanted legal help to restrain unscrupulous rivals from taking from him business and business profits which were really and truly his, the Courts had no power either to help him or any other publisher in a similar predicament.

Church of St. Gregory-by-Paul standing close to Old St. Paul’s. – From model in the London Museum.


The very success and rapid sale of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” brought the trouble about and led eventually to the ruin of its first publisher. In the confused accounts remaining of the Ponder law suits we find printings of five and ten thousand copies of the book at a time mentioned. Trade rivals noting this large sale and seeing there was profit in the increasing popularity of the book, began to print thousands of copies for themselves and sell them without asking permission of Ponder or anyone else. Bunyan most certainly desired that Ponder alone should have the right to get printed and sell his book, but as the law stood, he was powerless to stop what going on.

Ponder, irritated beyond measure at the unjust treatment he was receiving, tried to remedy matters by going to law against these “land pirates” as he called them. He was soon involved in expense and ever-increasing expense as he continued litigation without the slightest benefit for himself. He became embroiled with printers and other persons in the book trade until having spent is money on useless laws suits, he was driven to borrowing and risky trading which further depleted his means and ruined his business. Though he was fated to get no help through the law, he so resented the behaviour of those acting against him, that he felt driven to the Courts to try and get redress. The details of these law-suits are not now interesting reading. It is a sad record of misfortune dogging the step’s of a worthy man through no fault of his own.

By 1688, in which year Bunyan died, not less than 100,000 copies of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” had been sold, and if Ponder had been legally able to guard his own rights, he might fairly have made a small fortune by the venture. Instead of that in 1688 Ponder was in prison for debt, and the only inventory of property left by Bunyan after his death gives its value as £42 19s. Thus neither the writer nor the publisher of the wonder “Dream” made much material profit out of its publication and large sale.LAST YEARS.

After his imprisonment in the King’s Bench Prison for debt in 1688 there still remained eleven years before Ponder’s death 1699. The glimpses we get of this part his life present us with but a weary record ol adversity and ill-luck We read of more law suits, bills of sale, borrowings of money, auction sales of his book stock, fraudulent rivals continuing to take the grist which rightly should have come to his mill, with ever-increasing debt and difficulty. Impoverished and with black care doggng his steps he struggled on. He dropped from the higher trade level of a publisher that of a mere bookseller. He left his premises in the Poultry at some date unknown, and the peacock with his flaunting plumes withdrew from public view.

In 1695 Bunyan books printed with Ponder’s name attached were marked as being sold by “N. Ponder at London House Yard,” where he had been some time with probably a small shop or bookstall in far different circumstances to what we should have expected his earlier enterprise and success would have led him.

London House Yard, where formerly had stood a palace of the Bishop of London, as near the present bookselling region of Paternoster-row and adjacent to the west end of St. Paul’s Cathedral. There in apparently poor circumstances Ponder finished up his career in June, 1699. Dr. Harrison has found the date of his burial in the register of the Church of St Gregory-by-Paul as follows: – “Nathaniel Ponder, buried 22nd June, 1699.”

This, so far as is known, is the only record remaining of his death. Three years before this, in 1696, an edition of Bunyan’s “Holy War” was issued bearing Ponder’s imprint sold by him in London Yard.

The Parish Church, St. Gregory-by-Paul, stood close to the south-west corner of St. Paul’s, its walls adjoining those of the Cathedral. It is said to have been pulled own about 1645. Any part remaining would be destroyed when the Cathedral itself met disaster in the Great Fire in 1666. St. Gregory-by-Paul never seems to have been rebuilt.

So few natives of Rothwell have succeeded in leaving behind them any memory of their name and life work, that it has seemed worth while in regard to Nathaniel Ponder to write out afresh and as correctly as possible what knowledge we have up to date respecting him. Possibly in the future, though it does not seem likely, other information will come to hand which will compel a revision of some of the statements and opinions set out above in regard to the forty-three years of varied business activity he spent amid the vivacious and changeable life of seventeenth century London. Some of his experiences were far from pleasant, and the success which every man hopes for – whether deserved or not – certainly did not come to him.

The Nathanael in the New Testament whom his Puritan parents must have thought about when naming their boy as “whom God gave” was spoken of as one “in whom is no guile.” We do not know if Bunyan Ponder as he grew up merited such high praise as that. But we can continue to think well of him, for in all we read we find his character does not suffer except on account of manifest indiscretion. Nathaniel Ponder had two brothers and six sisters, and the father and mother in Rothwell, with Puritan fondness for the Bible, gave Scripture names to all of them except one girl, who was called Dorothy after her mother. Their names were Nathaniel, John, Thomas, Susanna, Elizabeth, Mary, Martha, Dorothy and Sarah, and all were living when the parents died in 1665. From one or other of these children descendants have come down to our time. Our knowledge of the family extends over four centuries, for Mr. F. W. Bull from wills still in existence has shown that various Ponders were playing a prominent part in Rothwell affairs in the first half of the sixteenth century.

In Rothwell the family died out, but in other parts of England the line of descent traced by Dr. Harrison remains – with one or two slight missing links – unbroken to the present day. There are people now living who claim direct relationship with John Ponder the chandler, who became first elder of Rothwell Independent Church, and who died at Rothwell in the Great Plague year, 1665.


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