The above brass half penny token measures 19.3 mm and weighs 2.08 grams. It was issued in 1665 in the name of Ralph Lucas of The White Bear Tavern in Abchurch Lance in the Candlewick Ward of the City of London. The design of the token may be formally described as follows;
Obverse: (rosette) RALPH. LVCAS.AT.THE.WHIT, around twisted wire inner circle, within is a depiction of a bear on all fours paws walking left wearing a collar and waist harness.
Reverse: (rosette) IN. ABCHVRCH.LANE.1665, around twisted wire inner circle, legend within three lines reads HIS / HALF / PENY.
A Ralph Lucas is recorded in the “Lane Syde” part of Abchurch Lane in the 1666 Hearth Tax returns. He is recorded as occupying a property with 5 hearths. This was almost certainly a reference to the White Bear Tavern. By September of that same year the tavern, like all the other properties in Abchurch Lane was consumed by the Great Fire of London. The lane was re-built over the following three years but it appears that Ralph Lucas did not return to resurrect the White Bear. Instead the approximate site of the old tavern was used for a new establishment which traded under the sign of “Pontack’s Head”.
The new proprietor, of what was to become one of the city’s most fashionable eating houses, was François-Auguste Pontac, the son of Lord Arnaud de Pontac who was the parliamentary president of Bordeaux.
François-Auguste use his newly established French Ordinary(1) as an outlet for the celebrated wines from his family’s vineyards, particularly those from the estate of Château Haut-Brion in Bordeaux. It was a sign board depicting his father’s image which he chose to hang outside his new premises. The diarist John Evelyn was a regular at Pontack’s and in his diary entry for 13th July 1683 he wrote this of his host;
“I had this day much discourse with Monsieur Pontaq, son of the famous and wise prime President of Bordeaux. This gentleman was owner of excellent vignoble of Pontaq and Obrien, from whence comes the choicest of our Bordeaux wines; and I think I may truly say of him, what was not so truly said of St. Paul, that much learning had made him mad. He spoke in all languages , was very rich, had a handsome person, and was well bred; about forty five years of age.”
Pontack’s Head was famous for its French cuisine and excellent wines. The fashion for such new French cookery was not to the tastes of all Londoners and many retained an insular contempt for such new fashions. However, amongst those who could afford it and who were more adventurous in their eating habits it was a great hit and could possibly be described as the capital’s first trendy and exclusive French Wine Bar.
A French refugee in London writing in 1693 took pride in the fact that where it was difficult to obtain a good meal elsewhere “those who would dine at one or two guineas per head are handsomely accommodated at our famous Pontack’s”
Amongst those who frequented Pontack’s were such personalities such as John Evelyn, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, John Locke and Sir Christopher Wren. It was also to become the location where Fellows of the Royal Society held their annual dinner until 1746. As a fellow of the Royal Society from 1665 and as its president from 1684 to 1686 it is almost certain that the famous diarist Samuel Pepys would have visited at Pontack’s. A further well-known diner at Pontack’s is believed to have been the artist William Hogarth. Hogarth even paid Pontac a dubious compliment in his third scene from “The Rakes Progress” series.
The room of this boisterous scene is adorned with pictures of Roman Emperors, one of which has been removed to make way for a portrait of Pontac. One contemporary of Hogarth commented on Pontac as follows ” an eminent French cook, whose great talents being turned to heightening sensual, rather than mental enjoyments, has a much better chance of a votive offering from this company, than would either Vespasian or Trajan.” Such advertisements, were no doubt all to the good for Pontack’s and its proprietor’s reputation.
It is not clear when François-Auguste Pontac died. However in January 1735, there is a reference to a Mrs. Susannah Austin;”who lately kept Pontack’s, and had acquired a considerable fortune” prior to marrying the banker William Pepys of Lombard Street.
1) An Ordinary was a term used to describe a tavern or eating house which served regular meals.