From Barman to Manager of The Churchill Arms

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When James Keogh first started work as a live-in barman at The Churchill Arms on London’s Kensington Church Street in 1987, he didn’t think that one day he would be manager of the historic pub.

James, who celebrated 32 years with Fuller’s on 6 June, shared how he went from barman to manager of the world-famous London pub, and what’s kept him with Fuller’s for so many years.

James Keogh Manager of The Churchill Arms pub London

From Ireland to London

Born and bred in Ireland, James fell in love with the bustling city of London and moved there in 1987 at the age of 23. Shortly after arriving he had his first job interview lined-up as a live-in bartender at The Churchill Arms.

“When I got there for my interview it was extremely busy and the staff were all dressed up in Military costumes – I didn’t think I was in the right place, so I walked straight out again,” James explained.

“But I reconsidered and went in to meet Gerry. He had only been managing the pub for two years at the time and told me they were wearing the uniforms because they were celebrating a summer version of Churchill Night – Winston Churchill’s birthday. The interview went well, and he offered me the job.”

James started work on 6 June 1987, joining five other live-in workers at the time.

“I loved the job and being a barman. I loved the hard work and the rewards – to be busy and making people happy.”

From barman to manager

Fuller’s management saw potential in James, and within two years he was offered a temporary management role at another Fuller’s pub in St John’s Wood.

“I thought about it and I said I’d give it a go for a learning experience, so off I went. It was a very popular Italian restaurant with a beautiful downstairs bar. I was there for six months and it was a brilliant experience.”

Proving he had a knack for pub management, James went on to work at several Fuller’s pubs as assistant manager, before taking on various pub management roles throughout the next 22 years of his career with Fuller’s. He even met his now-wife in one of the pubs he managed.

James Keogh Manager of The Churchill Arms pub London

Returning to The Churchill Arms

In 2013, The Churchill Arms’ Manager Gerry O’Brien was contemplating retirement. Fuller’s had big shoes to fill, and Fuller’s Inns Managing Director Jonathan Swaine asked James if he would consider taking the reins of the famous pub.

“What I’ve learned from working for Fuller’s is that they will ask you to take on a pub if they truly believe you’d be a right fit. The pub has always been famous and it’s such a special pub to me because it was my first job in London. I thought long and hard about it, but of course I said yes.”

James returned to The Churchill Arms in September 2013 to co-manage with Gerry until he retired in 2017.

“Gerry told me if there was anyone that would run the pub when he left it should be me, and it was an honour to take over such a famous pub that he had managed for so many years – I wanted to make Gerry proud.”

Today, James is continuing The Churchill Arms’ legacy.

“I’ve been here six years now and haven’t looked back. The pub is exactly the same as it was when I worked here 32 years ago, and I love it. I run the pub like it’s my own, and Fuller’s gives me the encouragement and support to do so. It’s very challenging, but I love every minute of it.”

Inside the bar at The Churchill Arms London
James Keogh Manager of The Churchill Arms pub London serving drinks at the bar

The charm of The Churchill Arms

If you haven’t already heard of The Churchill Arms, the pub is famous for several reasons. Winston Churchill’s grandparents frequented the pub in the 1800s, back when it was the Bedford Arms, and Fuller’s has owned the pub for almost 100 years.

It has won numerous awards over the years, including the Evening Standard’s Pub of The Year in 1999, Fuller’s Pub of the Year in 1989 and 2008, and the Chelsea in Bloom and London in Bloom awards multiple times for its iconic floral displays.

In spring and summer 100 tubs, 32 baskets and 48 window boxes cover the pub from top to bottom, attracting visitors from all over the world.

“The hanging baskets started in the early 90s with a small number of baskets, and each year they kept increasing. Now the pub is famous for its floral displays, and for our Christmas display, making us one of the most instagrammable pubs in London,” James said.

The Christmas decorations outside the pub also started in the 1990s and earned the pub the title of the ‘UK’s most festive pub’ by news outlets.

“Again, each year more Christmas trees were added outside the pub. In 2018 we had 93 trees outside and 21,500 lights. We’ve had so many TV crews visit from all over the world, which keeps us nice and busy.”

Fuller's The Churchill Arms, London, amazing flower display
churchill arms christmas display

A hidden Thai oasis

But while the outside of The Churchill Arms is a spectacle, the journey continues inside where you’ll see thousands of knick-knacks that have been collected over the years. You won’t hear any music in the distraction-free pub, apart from the chatter of customers.

The décor flows into the Thai restaurant at the back of the pub which is full of live plants and flowers to resemble a Thai oasis – giving James the opportunity to put his green fingers to good use for up to eight hours per week. 

“We are also famous for being the first pub in London to introduce a Thai restaurant in 1989. The food is fresh, traditional and affordable and some of the staff members have been here more than 25 years,” James explained.

Famous Thai restaurant inside The Churchill Arms pub
Famous Thai restaurant inside The Churchill Arms pub

The iconic pub has also had its fair share of famous visitors over the years. 

“We have lots of celebrities visit us. We had Prince Edward visit in 2012, Harrison Ford came for dinner, Cara Delevingne, Kate Moss, Alan Titchmarsh, the Australian Rugby team, Hurling teams of Ireland, David Cameron, Frank Lampard and The Hairy Bikers to name a few. Most recently we had the cast from Game of Thrones in after they finished the final series."

Celebrating 32 years with Fuller’s

When asked why he has stayed with Fuller’s for so many years, James said it’s the family-feel.

“The company has grown a lot over the years, but they haven’t lost the caring and the passion. There’s something about that family element. I’ve seen how Fuller’s invests a lot in its pubs, hotels and people. Fuller’s cares about quality and doesn’t cut corners. It’s not just a pub company, Fuller’s has a long history. I love the people and they have been very supportive over the past 32 years.”

He said he is also given the freedom to run the pub like it’s his own.

“For me, every pub is different and unique. If management and the team put their own stamp on the pub that’s what makes it great, and Fuller’s gives us the power do that, which is what sets it apart from other pub companies.”

The Churchill Arms is located at 119 Kensington Church Street in London, W8 7LN. To find out more about the famous pub, or to book a table in its busy Thai restaurant, visit The Churchill Arms’ website or call 020 7727 4242.

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