True Stories: Gay Memories – Gay London During The 1980s #LGBTQI #LGBT #PrideMonth

“They all have moustaches, wear 501s and are called Clones.”

Those were my words to my best friend, Neville, upon my first visit to Earl’s Court, London, back in the mid-1980s.

I was like a kid in a sweet shop. Just about every man in the place had a moustache, and I was big into facial hair.

Gay life in London during the 1980s

Back then, there were five gay bars in Earl’s Court. It was the centre of the universe for any gay man visiting London.

It was easy to get to Earl’s Court, via public transport, and I always felt safe there. It was as if the district had a safety bubble around it.

No surprise then that I moved into a two-bedroom flat in Earl’s Court shortly after arriving to live in London in 1986.

The most famous gay bar in Earl’s Court was called ‘The Coleherne.’ These days, it’s a trendy restaurant come wine bar which I believe serves some smashing food.

The Coleherne – now known as The Pembroke

I spent lots of time in ‘The Coleherne.’ At the time, pubs had to close their doors between 3 and 5:30pm (2 and 7pm on a Sunday). ‘The Coleherne’ was always packed out during the final hour of drinking time.

It had a jukebox in the corner that played all the latest hits as well as many ‘Hi-NRG’ (Pronounced High Energy) tunes which was a new type of music adopted by many gay men.

Evelyn Thomas – Singing some Hi-NRG music

Neville was into the same types of men who drunk in “The Coleherne’ as me. So you’d often find us in there.

There was a strict rule about going into ‘The Coleherne.’ Those wearing leather, such as a bikers’ jacket, waistcoat, or chaps, had their own side-door entrance.

Everybody else had to use the other door on the main street. If you went through what Neville and I called ‘the leather door’ you’d end up on the leather side of the bar.

The leather guys would glare at you if your attire included no leather, and they would continue to glare at you until you made your way to the non-leather side of the bar.

Scary stuff for first-time visitors or anybody who entered the pub by mistake.

What made Neville and me laugh was that some of the leather guys often arrived carrying a motorcycle helmet under their arm. You may ask, ‘what’s so funny about that?’

Well, they’d place the motorcycle helmet on the top shelf above the bar, order their drink, and then stand around looking as butch as possible.

Then, at closing time, Neville and I would watch as they made their way to the bus-stop, with motorcycle helmets under their arms. For some, carrying a motorcycle helmet seemed to be the must-have, new fashion accessory when dressed in leather.

Although ‘The Coleherne’ was probably the most shabby of all the five gay bars in Earl’s Court, it was always busy.

Just down the road, at one end of the street, was ‘The Boltons.’ This was a strict ‘no-no’ bar for Neville and I because it was known for its rent boys.

At the other end of the street was ‘Bromptons’ bar. This was the place Neville and me nicknamed ‘Clone City’ because just about every man who entered had facial hair.

‘Bromptons’ opened at 10pm and closed at 2am. On a Sunday, it opened earlier but closed at midnight. It was a 30-second walk from where I lived, so it was very convenient.

Friendlier than ‘The Coleherne,’ for those who’d never visited before, ‘Bromptons’ had a small dance floor and a kiosk that sold all the latest Hi-NRG 12-inch vinyl singles.

In those days, gay men only purchased 12-inch vinyl singles, unlike most of the rest of the population that bought the 7-inch vinyl version.

A gay anthem from the 1980s

There was the odd splattering of leather amongst the crowd, but most were dressed in check shirts, 501 Jeans and Doc-Marten boots.

Just about everyone ordered and drunk bottles of lager, rather than pints. If you arrived early, you could compare your check shirts and see if any of them clashed severely with the chequered carpet and wallpaper of the bar.

Arriving early also meant free entry into the bar. After 11pm there was a small entry fee charged, so many would flock in at 22:55.

The Barmen at ‘Bromptons’ were often hand-picked by the owner. “Have good looking bar staff, and you’ll pack the place out every night,” he once told me. And he was right!

Gay London barman of the 1980s.

The place was a magnet for clones who seemed to need little sleep despite having full-time jobs, many of which required an early morning start.

The other two bars at the opposite end of Earl’s Court were located next door to each other.

One was a bar called ‘Harpoon Louis,’ which hosted cabaret most nights.

The likes of Lily Savage (aka Paul O’Grady) started out here, and it was always a great place to go for a laugh.

‘Cruising’, as Gay men called it (better known as looking for a partner for the night), did go on. In contrast, in the other bars, cruising was very serious, and you dare not laugh when trying to pick up your date for the night. In ‘Harpoon Louis,’ it didn’t seem to matter as much.

‘Copacabana’ was next door to Harpoon Louis and was the main gay nightclub of the area. It was convenient to fall into when coming out of ‘Harpoon Louis.’

‘Copacabana’ (also known as ‘Copa’s’) was the biggest of all the bars in Earl’s Court and had a large dance floor. It was the place to hear the latest Hi-NRG tunes, dance, drink and check out the men.

Some famous faces often frequented the place, but being ‘gay men,’ the clientele often dare not approach them.

During the 1980s, gay men adopted a ‘hanky’ code. You’d place a particular coloured handkerchief in either the left or right back pocket of your 501 jeans. This told other gay men what kind of sexual fun you were into.

Rather than the ‘hanky’ code, Neville and I adopted the ‘teddy bear’ code. This involved the placing of a small teddy bear in the back pocket. This told others if you enjoyed giving or receiving cuddles.

Today, Earl’s Court is no longer the centre of the universe for gay men. Its crown was lost to Soho and Vauxhall during the late 1990s, although the gay scene in London now seems to be more spread out.

Image credit: Geoff Le Pard

Had we arrived for the first time today, Neville and I would not have liked Earls Court as much. However, it holds lots of happy memories not just for us, but for many from the LGBT crowd.

Sadly, Neville passed away in the mid-1990s. However, the fun and laughter we shared together during the days and nights of Earl’s Court in the 1980s can still be heard in its bars and streets.

This post was originally written and published as a guest post in April 2016 on TanGental. It has been updated for this version.

Click here to read another post from my Pride Month series which tells the story of a first date that went horribly wrong.

Copyright © 2020 – All rights reserved.


55 thoughts on “True Stories: Gay Memories – Gay London During The 1980s #LGBTQI #LGBT #PrideMonth

  1. Very interesting to learn a little bit more about the gay scene in London back “in the day”, Hugh. Such wonderful, fun, and happy memories. Made it’s a stupid question, but what are “clones”. Is that someone who wears facial hair? If so, where did the word come from?

    1. Hi Liesbet, thank you.

      We referred to many of the men on the gay scene (at the time) as clones because they all looked alike. Short hair, moustaches, and they all dressed the same – check shirt, 501 jeans, and black doc-marten shoes. The name has stuck with these types of men throughout the years, although I hear you don’t see as many these days. Facial hair seems to have made a comeback, although I’ve noticed that happening with straight guys too.

      1. Thanks for the explanation, Hugh. That totally makes sense. And, I think you’re right about the comeback of facial hair. We just visited a good friend this past weekend. I’d never seen him with a beard and a mustache before! He looked like a mountain man. Mostly because he now works from home during Covid and doesn’t have to shave anymore.

        1. I’ve heard a lot of that happening, Liesebt. I’ve even heard of people staying in their nightwear all day…for days. I couldn’t do the nightwear thing and have to shave every day; otherwise, I seem to forever touch my face.

  2. What delightful times, a feeling of freedom and expression. I love the 501 jeans hanky code and your addition of the teddy bear! You were part of paving the way for the next generations to expand the expressions of identity and love.

    1. Thank you, Charli. I’m glad you enjoyed the trip back to 1980s London with me. I believe the codes are still used today, although there are probably lots of new ones since I last visited the scene.

  3. Hi Hugh, late to the party as ever but I have not been well. Gosh I enjoyed reading this you have had such an exciting time . I was at home with three children in the mid eighties so I can’t join the remanissing 🥴, my time was the seventies. I worked and socialized with many gay guys too as I was a window dresser, infact two of them had worked at Selfidges. They always were kind to me and taught me loads…always calling me “the little girl” do write more Hugh this is like your pick a date/ song series …I see books here!! Lots of love and Hugs 💜💜💜💜

    1. Nobody is ever late to one of my parties. I’m glad you got here. So sorry to hear you’ve not been feeling well.

      Do you mind me asking which stores(s) you worked as a window dresser? I don’t recall knowing anyone from that department of the store, but maybe they worked after the store closed? I was so lucky in getting a job working in retail when I first hit London because it’s where I made most of my gay friends shortly after arriving to live in the city. When I first got there, I knew nobody, so it was very much on my own. Not for long, though, as I soon discovered.

      I can imagine you had great times in seventies’ London. I’d like to have experienced living and working there during that decade too. I remember watching shows such as ‘Minder’ and ‘The Sweeny’ and wishing I was living in London.

  4. Really enjoyed this post, reminded me of our night clubbing days in the late 80s early 90s. Such fun times. There was a gay bar called The Birdcage that my friends frequented and took me along sometimes, had the best time there. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I don’t recall a bar called The Birdcage. Was it in London? In any case, I’m glad you had great times there.

      Not sure why, but your comment went straight to my WordPress spam folder. Fortunately, I check that folder at least twice a day. It may be worth checking if this was just a one-off or if any other comments you’re leaving on other blogs are also ending up in the spam folder. Hopefully, not, but it may be worth checking out.

      1. Sorry no it was in New Zealand. I don’t think other comments are straying too much. Thanks for letting me know though.

  5. I loved this. Loved your tour into the yesteryear world of gay life in London. Fascinating. Still chuckled at you guys comparing checkered shirts and clashing with checkered carpets LOL 🙂

    1. Indeed, Rob. The gay community has come a long way since the 1980s. Of course, there’s always much more we can do, but we shouldn’t forget the good times and what we did to make the changes and earn respect. I’m proud of what we have achieved.
      Thanks so much for reblogging and sharing the post.
      Happy Pride month. 🏳️‍🌈

  6. Hugh, good looking bar staff and salty peanuts will do the trick every time! Loved the leather/non leather division and the bike helmet story. Didn’t know the Donna Summer story, or maybe I’ve just forgotten. I was a twenty-something in Miami during the Disco years. Lots of tight white tees and blazers! Crazy times.

    1. Good to hear those times were crazy for you too, Suzanne. Gay London was very influenced by what was going on in America. Facial hair died out in the 2000s but seems to have made a come back on the gay circuit again. White tees were also popular, but not blazers. Even the positions of the buttons on the fly of a pair of 501 jeans were used a sign of what you were looking for when out and about in the bars. Great times. Thanks for joining me on my trip back to the late 1980s.

  7. Hi Hugh,

    Thanks for the detailed description of a world totally alien to me, it was really interesting.

    Just one question, at the possibility of sounding totally naive – why were gay men specifically into 12″ singles? Is it a phallic thing or something else?


    1. You’d think it could be phallic, wouldn’t you, Paul, but it was more to do with wanting a more extended version of the track; plus many 12-inch singles also came with bonus tracks. Much of Hi-NRG music was European or American, and it was rare that it ever entered the hit parade in the UK. There were a few exceptions, but only if a radio DJ liked the track enough to promote it on his/her show. At the time, that was rare to happen, especially given that many who were well-known did not want listeners to think they were gay for playing tracks that were popular on the gay scene. Back then, coming out of the closet could be very traumatic and usually came with consequences. Therefore, those in the spotlight did all they could to hide it.

      Sometimes, artists and their music collided with both the heterosexual and homosexual worlds. The gay community could be a compelling force in the music industry. For example, Donna Summer and her music were very popular with gay men. However, when she quoted that AIDS was god’s way of punishing gay men, her record sales plummeted. Many gay men smashed up any Donna Summer singles and albums they owned, and all her music was banned from being played in all gay bars and nightclubs.

      It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that her music was played in some gay bars again, by which time she was releasing very little. Anything she did release, never sold as well as it did before she made the awful mistake of what she’d said about AIDS and gay men.

      1. Thanks for clarifying Hugh. I was aware of the Donna Summer story but not in as much detail, way to go to damage a career. Good job there wasn’t tweeting back then or she would have been in even deeper trouble. Your information as always is enlightening, thanks for sharing.

  8. Ha, i remember that one. Not sure if you caught it but there was a programme – a big disease with a little name – on the radio about aids. A fascinating insight into how the gay community came out to get proper recognition about it and its impact. Given you were in the epicentre of that storm you may find it fascinating,or too painful.. anyway it educated me..

    1. Thanks for the recommendation of the radio programme, Geoff. I’ll see if I can find it because I know it’s something I’d certainly like to listen to. It sounds like a show where I’d sit down and listen while doing little else. As you say, AIDS had a huge impact on the lives of gay men in the 1980s and 1990s. I lost a few friends to it, including Neville.

  9. So many great memories. So lucky, Hugh. I’ve blocked the whole decade out…nothing but diapers and apple juice spills. Ugh!

    1. Given some of the fiction you write, I thought this post might appeal to you, Aimer. I expect you have some wonderful and great memories of life before diapers and apple juice spills though.

      1. You’re right, I did like this post. Got to live my youth again vicariously through you 🙂 The grass is always greener, right?

  10. You brought those years alive for me and added depth to my limited notions of London. Thank you! BTW, I loved the photos and the music.

    1. Thank you, Gwen. I’m glad you enjoyed the music and photos I shared in this post. Whenever I listen to Hi-NRG music, it brings back lots of memories of living and working in London during the 1980s. I’d love to take a trip back again. Maybe I will?

  11. Hi Hugh,
    I came out in 1979 and your description of the bar scene in London wasn’t much different than in San Antonio, Texas where I lived back then. I laughed when you stated you selected your shirts according to the decor of the bar you went to. Even though I was called ‘Preppy’, I also wore 501 bluejeans, but my uniform included a Ralph Loreen polo shirt (usually white). If I was going to our country-western bar, I wore cowboy boots; disco white sneakers. Hitting the bars on Saturday night was a requirement if you wanted to remain in good standing with the LGBT community and the ‘disco dolls’. It’s true, we all looked alike, longer hair and a mustache. Mine was piled high and kept with a ton of hairspray. San Antonio didn’t have a leather bar, but I went to Houston one weekend. I tried to enter the bar, and I was refused because I was wearing my uniform of a polo shirt and white sneakers. I went back to my car, pulled my shirt off, and they let me in. Thanks for taking me down memory lane and letting me contribute to ‘those days’. HUGS

    1. I loved what you said about the leather bar not allowing you entry into the bar, but that after pulling off your short, they let you in, Chuck. I remember the same happening in ‘1980s’ London. Although some of the bars had a strict dress-code, I think it also helped if the security guy on the door took a fancy to you. I remember falling in love (or was it falling in lust?) with one of the two security guys at the Copa’s nightclub I mentioned in this post. However, he didn’t seem interested in me, unlike the other security guy who wasn’t my type at all. However, I didn’t give up on the security guy I was lusting after, and many months later got my way with him.
      I think the gay scene in the UK at the time was very much influenced by the scheme in America.

      Thanks so much for sharing your memories with us. I enjoyed reading them. Maybe I could tempt in writing a guest post where you share more memories of gay life in America during the 1980s? Let me know if it interests you.

      1. I’d like that, but right now, I’m working on getting my second edition of ‘One Month, 20 Days, and a Wake Up’ completed and self-published. Remind me, and I work on something. Maybe add the music I danced my butt off during those days.

  12. Brilliant Hugh; this made me smile. I lived in Islington at the time and there were a few gay bars (that I know of) along Essex Road and me and my girlfriends had a ball – it was such fun and for us cos we loved the music and loved to dance, and felt safe as we knew we weren’t going to be hit on. Most of us had boyfriends at the time and the uneducated “Norf London lads” called these bars and the clientele many kinds of not nice names and would call us “fag hags” Did we care? lol.

    I remember the checked shirts and Levi jeans along with the facial hair; definitely “clones”. I laughed at the ‘teddy bears’ Hugh and I’m glad you had so much fun with Neville before he passed. Sadly, I also lost many friends and colleagues around the 80’s and 90’s but I remember them all with fondness. You’ve brought back some wonderful memories Hugh, thank you. Caz x

    1. I’m so glad to have bought back some lovely memories to you, Caz.

      Neville actually lived near Old Street tube station for a while, and we visited a gay bar nearby called ‘The “L.A.’ We’d sometimes go there on a Saturday night, and then again the following lunchtime. I remember that on a Sunday lunchtime, they always had bowls of roast potatoes and salted peanuts on the bar. Of course, eating these items always made you more thirsty, so you’d end up buying more drinks. That was a smart idea in getting more money in the cash-till.

      Neville and I both worked in Selfridges, so we had many girlfriends who would join us at some of the bars. It was always great fun, and I remember how they all said how safe they felt. It was so lovely, knowing they felt safe with us.

      I may write some more memories from my time living and working in London during the 1980s and 1990s. I spent 27 years in the city, so probably have lots to tell.

      Thanks so much for sharing your memories of that time with us.

      1. Well I never! I lived opposite Exmouth Market by the old St Luke’s Church and of course I know the bar you’re talking about. But’s it’s not one I went to as we were mainly out up Upper Street area.

        I remember the Sunday lunchtimes in pubs back then and the roast potatoes and shellfish. Our local always shut the doors too for ‘lock-ins’. Those certainly some fun times.

        I worked for Warehouse Head Office, which was part of Selfridges so I got a good discount. I was in there most Saturdays shopping for clothes and always went to buy a 1lb box of fresh chocolates from the ground floor – divine!

        I moved down from Scotland in 1979 and never left (apart from to travel) – I still say that on a sunny day, you can’t beat London 🙂

        Whohoo, can’t wait to read more.

        1. The ‘L.A’ was strictly gay men only, Caz. So you couldn’t have got in, not even if you were with a gay man. At the time, there were individual gay bars that only allowed gay men in. I believe there are still a few around, but there were always plenty of gay bars where women were also welcomed.

          I worked in a couple of the departments on the ground floor in Selfridges (including pens and stationery), but not the confectionery department. So our paths may well have crossed before, even if no words were ever spoken between us. There were lots of gay staff at Selfridges. It was the place where I met most of my gay friends after arriving to live and work in London. Neville worked in the menswear department on the first floor.

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