Nathaniel Ponder of Rothwell


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

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.