A Tale of the Coleherne

Thinking about my slight connection with Stephen Sondheim opened a floodgate of memories. Our friend in common was a tall, dark, handsome (aren’t they all?) pre-bear era leather bear named John Scobie. I met John at the Coleherne originally. He stayed with Sondheim when in NYC and I stayed with a friend (who I had also met at the Coleherne) on the Upper West Side. (Richard Gampert still lives there.) John introduced me to fisting. John also became friends with a London painter, Ken Ratcliffe. Ken is still painting in London and he is still my life-long best friend. Scobie, like nearly all the guys from those days, did of AIDS decades ago.

The legendary Coleherne pub was located in Earl’s Court, a gay neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s. Much like Castro Street in the same era, everyone went there. It was a leather bar with a huge J-shaped bar. Along the long side of it leather and levi guys socialized and cruised. Along the short side, the more dedicated leather guys congregated. In those days English pubs opened for lunch (11-3) and in the evening (6-10). The photo here is of a typical 3 pm crowd that formed after closing. The socializing and cruising got more intense. The proprietors would try to get the guys to leave quickly, before the police showed up and started arresting them for public nuisance, public intoxication, etc. (typical police harassment at the time).

The Coleherne 1866 – 2008 by Charlie Dave on Flickr:
Only five London pubs have witnessed the span of (modern) gay history, from the prohibition of the 1950s to the present day. The Coleherne became the UK’s first leather bar. Some of the biggest stars of the 1970s and 80s were regulars. That history began in 1866, when the Coleherne Hotel was built in the Old Brompton Road, later to become part of West London’s Bohemian quarter. The pub began to turn queer in the mid-1950s and swiftly built up a loyal following. A regular performer from the old days said “We used to see the same faces in the same places every week. We wondered if they ever went home or if someone just came in and dusted them down.”

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