The Coleherne Arms public house was a gay pub in west London. Located at 261 Old Brompton Road, Earl’s Court, it was a popular landmark leather bar during the 1970s and 1980s. In 2008, it was rebranded as a gastropub, The Pembroke.
The Coleherne Arms (named after the Coleherne family) began in 1866, at 261 Old Brompton Road. It had a long history of attracting a bohemian clientele before becoming known as a gay pub. A lifelong resident of Earl’s Court Square, Jennifer Ware, recollected as a child being taken there to Sunday lunch in the 1930s; at that time, drag entertainers performed after lunch had finished. It became a gay pub in the mid-fifties. Originally it was segregated into two bars, one for the straight crowd and one for the gay community at a time when homosexuality was illegal. In the 1970s it became a notorious leather bar, with blacked-out windows, attracting an international crowd including Freddie Mercury, Kenny Everett, Mike Procter, Anthony Perkins, Rupert Everett, Ian McKellen, and Derek Jarman. Leather men wearing chaps and leather jackets with key chains and color-coded handkerchiefs formed the clientele, justifying its nickname of “The Cloneherne”. The Coleherne was known internationally as a leather bar by 1965. The gay community flourished in Earl’s Court and many international tourists joined the locals.
It sought to lighten its image with a makeover in the mid-1990s to attract a wider clientele, but to no avail. In September 2008, it was purchased by Realpubs, underwent a major refurbishment and reopened as a gastropub, The Pembroke. The Coleherne was reputed to be the oldest gay pub in London before reopening as the Pembroke; the title then fell to the King Edward VI in Islington, which closed in 2011; then the Queen’s Head in Chelsea which closed in 2016. The Markham Arms at 138 King’s Road, which closed in the early 1990s and is now a bank branch, was a gay pub on Saturdays only.
Coleherne pub-goers, angry at the politicisation of gay sex, lifestyle and position in society by the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), pelted passing parade-goers with bottles in 1972.
Over the years, many police arrests were made for a range of offenses, including obstruction, soliciting, importuning, and the more serious conspiracy to corrupt public morals, in the street outside the pub at night when customers left at closing time. These arrests were often just as a result of little more than gay men standing in the street talking to each other—despite the fact that many other non-gay pubs in the area used to have similar crowds at closing time, with no police action taken against them. There were several local street disturbances and demonstrations in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of continual, decades-long police harassment around the Coleherne.
In its latter years the pub was infamous as having been the stalking ground for three separate serial killers from the 1970s to the 1990s: Dennis Nilsen, Michael Lupo, and Colin Ireland. Ireland committed five murders in 1993, after making a New Year’s resolution to become a serial killer. Although he later claimed to be straight, he picked up men at the Coleherne, men whose color-coded handkerchiefs indicated that they were into sadomasochism and passive. He accompanied his victims to their homes, where he restrained and then killed them.
American author Armistead Maupin included references to the Coleherne in his Tales of the City book Babycakes:
He left as a clock was striking ten somewhere and walked several blocks past high-windowed brick buildings to a gay pub called the Coleherne. These were the leather boys, apparently. He ordered another gin and tonic and stood at the bulletin board reading announcements about Gay Tory meetings and ‘jumble sales’ to benefit deaf lesbians.
When he returned to the horseshoe-shaped bar, the man across from him smiled broadly. He was a kid really, not more than eighteen or nineteen, and his skin was the same shade as the dark ale he was drinking. His hair was the startling part – soft brown ringlets that glinted with gold under the light, floating above his mischievous eyes like … well, like the froth on his ale.
The pub is referred to in the lyrics of “Hanging Around” on the debut album Rattus Norvegicus by The Stranglers:
I’m moving in the Coleherne
- With the leather all around me
And the sweat is getting steamy
- But their eyes are on the ground
They’re just hanging around