An ape tea party at Belle Vue in 1920
Vue from the past
For many Mancunians, Belle Vue is still synonymous with melting ice lollies, rides on elephants and screaming down a rollercoaster. Across their 140 year history, the Gardens welcomed millions of visitors from across the North West.
A new Belle Vue?
Local campaigners Communities For Stability are attempting to bring back the fun to east Manchester with a bid to build a new Belle Vue. Their plan, which they have submitted to Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, is for a park that will eventually include a new amusement park, a zoo and a deer park.
Belle Vue Zoological Gardens were opened in 1836 by John Jennison, a Stockport entrepreneur who had had some success with a small aviary he ran with his wife Maria.
The aviary’s success meant the couple had to look for larger premises, and they chose Belle Vue, a public house with a large area attached, which already earned extra income from rabbit coursing on its grounds.
A year after opening, an advert in the Manchester Guardian stated that visitors could expect to see parrots, macaws, cockatoos, pheasants, peacocks, swans, geese and various other animals (thought to be rabbits, dogs, goats and deer, though no records exist from the time). Entry was three pence, for which patrons would also receive a drink and some biscuits.
The Jennisons in 1850 (John is in the top hat)
The venture was an immediate success, though the nearby St James’s Church took offence at the Sunday opening hours and asked Jennison not to trade while services were taking place. The entrepreneur politely but firmly refused.
Early ups and downs
The success inspired Jennison to expand. The Gardens were extended over newly drained land (which had been a lime pit), fencing was put up at the Longsight end of the property and four arbours were added near to the pub.
A Belle Vue performer in leopard skin, circa 1880
Two years after opening, more land was leased to provide clay to create bricks to build new buildings on the site. The digging left a massive hole, which Jennison saw an opportunity in, filling it with water and opening it as the 'Great Lake' in 1841.
In 1842, despite the success of the gardens, Jennison found himself in financial difficulties. Bankruptcy was filed against him and he was told to sell Belle Vue.
Luckily, two sales fell through and his creditors decided the best way to get their money was for Jennison to earn it through Belle Vue. Meanwhile, the competition of Higher Broughton’s Manchester Zoological Gardens closed, with some of its animals being incorporated into Jennison’s collections.
The lucky break saw the Gardens go from strength to strength. A new station at Longsight meant easy access to visitors and a new boating lake brought not only an added attraction but also a place to stage fantastic firework displays – great set pieces built around the idea of battles, complete with massive canvas backdrops.
Maharajah the elephant and Lorenzo in 1880
Exotic and exploited
Alongside the fireworks, the zoo was also exploding, with the addition of many exotic animals. By 1856, the collection included monkeys, kangaroos, rhinos, lions and bears, and once the aging Jennison handed over the running to his children in 1870, it increased even further.
Amongst the most famous of the new animals was Maharajah the elephant. Bought from an Edinburgh zoo, Maharajah was supposed to be transported by train from Scotland. The elephant had other ideas, tearing off the roof of his compartment with his trunk.
As a result, Maharajah, along with his trainer Lorenzo Lawrence, had to walk from Edinburgh to Manchester, a journey that took 10 days. On arrival, Lorenzo decided to stay along with his elephant charge and was head elephant-keeper at Belle Vue for over 40 years!
The 'Figure 8 Toboggan' in 1900
In a typically Victorian way, everyone and everything attached to Belle Vue was expected to work. As a result, Maharajah gave rides to visitors and, when needed, pulled around carts of bricks and meat. In fact, even after his death in 1882, Maharajah worked for the zoo, as his skeleton was put on display (it can now be seen in Manchester Museum).
Maharajah wasn’t the only one working. In 1893, Consul the chimpanzee arrived from London. Consul’s party piece was wearing a smoking jacket and sporting a pipe and he was a hit with the crowds.
When he suddenly died a year later, the Jennison brothers were quick to replace him with Consul II, a chimp who could not only ride a tricycle but also play a violin at the same time!
Long queues for entry in 1946
Riding into the future
In 1925, the Jennison family sold their attraction to Belle Vue (Manchester) Ltd, who would build on the zoo’s success and add the rides and stalls that made it a world-famous theme park.
Two years later, the popular but rickety 'Figure 8 Toboggan' was replaced by the 'Scenic Railway' and the dodgems, the 'Caterpillar', the 'Ghost Train', the 'Flying Sea Planes' were all up and running.
More rides were added all the time, including what was perhaps the park’s most successful, 'The Bobs' - so called because it cost a shilling to ride, it was a rollercoaster that rose high above the Gorton skyline.
A circus performer in 1953
The late 20s didn’t just see the arrival of rides. A circus, led by world famous ringmaster George Lockhart, opened and a stadium was built to house dirt track racing (what would become speedway) - it would be the home of the Belle Vue Aces until they moved to their present home on Kirkmanshulme Lane in 1987.
The end arrives
With so much to see and do, Belle Vue became one of the biggest tourist attractions in the North West in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, but sadly, the good times had to come to an end.
In 1977, the bosses of the zoo announced they were having to close, unable to support the £100,000 a year losses. It wasn’t the only part of the park to be shut down. Boating ceased on the lake and the miniature railway was halted.
These measures failed to stop the financial rot. Three years later, the amusement park, which had been opening only at weekends, was given notice to close and time was called on Belle Vue.
The closed park in 1988
The attractions were dismantled and in 1988, what was left on the site was finally demolished. Sadly, nothing now remains of what was indisputably one of the North’s best-loved days out.
All pictures courtesy of Manchester City Council Image Archives
last updated: 07/04/2008 at 16:16