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 1656The 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.