Belle Vue Zoo: Wikis


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Belle Vue Zoological Gardens
Main Entrance
Belle Vue Zoological Gardens
Date opened June 1836
Date closed Zoo: 11 September 1977
Amusement Park: 26 October 1980
Gardens: February 1982
Exhibition halls: October 1987
Speedway: November 1987
Location Gorton, Manchester, England
Coordinates 53°27′49″N 2°11′15″W / 53.46361°N 2.1875°W / 53.46361; -2.1875

Belle Vue Zoological Gardens was a large zoo, amusement park, exhibition hall complex and speedway stadium located in Belle Vue, West Gorton, Manchester, England. The Gardens opened in 1836 and developed into one of the most popular attractions in the north of England. At its peak it occupied 165 acres (0.67 km2) and attracted over 2 million visitors each year,[1] as many as 250,000 of them over the Easter weekend alone.[2] The Zoo closed in September 1977, and the amusement park in 1980. The land was sold off in 1982, and the site was finally cleared in 1986.


Jennison family (1836–1925)


Early history

Belle Vue Zoological Gardens was the brainchild of Victorian entrepreneur John Jennison. In 1826 Jennison, then a part-time gardener,[3] opened the grounds around his home in Adswood, Stockport,[4] to the public. The attraction were originally called Strawberry Gardens, and was later renamed Jennison's Gardens. He turned his home into a public house called the Adam and Eve.[3] He ran it with his wife Maria, where they also sold fruit and vegetables. In either 1828 or 1829 Jennison purchased a neighbouring 0.5 acres (2,000 m2) of land on which he and his wife built an aviary, after starting with a captured thrush, for which they started charging for admission.[4] At the time, an increasing urban population in Manchester allowed the leisure industry to thrive, and public parks were popular.[5]

John Jennison, founder of Belle Vue Zoo

In 1835 Jennison was approached by a businessman named George Gill, who suggested that he lease Belle Vue – then a public house in 35.75 acres (144,700 m2) of open land – as a more suitable site for the increasingly popular aviary.[6] The land was situated between Kirkmanshulme Lane and Hyde Road, which marked the boundary between the local townships of Ardwick and Kirkmanshulme.

Jennison was persuaded of the benefits of the proposed new site, and in December 1835 took out a mortgage of £300 to pay off the £80 mortgage on Strawberry Gardens, using the remainder, in June 1836, for a six-month trial lease of the Belle Vue property and associated land. The trial evidently proved to be successful, as in December 1836 Jennison took out a 99-year lease at a rent of £135 per annum. He also took on the tenancy of a further area which extended the western boundary to Redgate Lane, close to Stockport Road. This extra land cost him an additional £100 annual rent. His reasoning was that, although the main entrance would stay on Hyde Road, it could be very useful to have a second entrance on Redgate Lane. To provide the finance for further expansion Jennison yet again re-mortgaged, this time for £800.[7]

When the Jennison family moved to Belle Vue from the Strawberry Gardens all they took with them besides their belongings, apparently all contained on just one handcart, were two or three birdcages containing a few parrots and other assorted birds, along with a woodcock belonging to Ann Jennison, the eldest daughter. They decided after moving to their new home that their zoological collection had to be expanded as a matter of priority.[8]

The first advert for Belle Vue Zoo appeared in The Manchester Guardian newspaper in May 1837. It read:

... The Public are respectfully informed that the BELLE VUE GARDENS ... are NOW OPEN to the public ... (John Jennison) has collected a large number of very beautiful Birds, comprising parrots, parroquets, macaws, cockatoos, gold and silver pheasants, peacocks of different descriptions, swans, Canada geese and various animals, which he intends placing in the grounds ...During the Whitsunweek, a field of 10 acres [40,000 m²], belonging to the grounds, will be opened for the use of Sunday Schools, free of expense; and a band will be in attendance

The original Helter Skelter Lighthouse built in 1906

There are no surviving records of what the "various animals" were, but it is speculated that they included rabbits, dogs, goats, deer and a fox. It is also conjectured that there were no exotic animals in the collection initially, as none were mentioned in the advert. Admission to the gardens was 3d, for which the visitor also received a non-alcoholic drink and some "milk and butter" biscuits.

The venture was controversial right from the start. The wardens of nearby St James's Church insisted that Jennison cease serving customers when Sunday services were taking place. Jennison's alleged reply was "I am like thee, I make my living on Sundays". Apparently this sufficed, as the wardens made no further complaints. Additional problems occurred when regular carting customers arrived to stable their horses at the public house, and found them to be full of rabbit coursing spectators. Complaints to Jennison were ignored, which caused the carters to leave the Belle Vue forever.

Jennison's first move was to build a cottage on the grounds as a home for his mother. It was on the northern border of the property near Kirkmanshulme Lane and was eventually named "Belle Vue Cottage". The main house was also enlarged and the bar was extended. The outbuildings were improved, and some of them were converted into a brew house, where Jennison brewed his own beer.

Initially the animal collection was housed in a 36-foot (11 m) by 70-foot (21 m) shed, situated to the right of the main Hyde Road entrance. Before Jennison's purchase of the lease, the 13 acres (53,000 m2) of pasture lands to the rear of the public house were used for rabbit coursing. During 1836 Jennison allowed this to continue, because it was lucrative, but he had no enthusiasm for the sport as it attracted a class of patron that he was not too keen on. Jennison left the organisation of the coursing events to other staff and family members.


Official guide book diagram of the Zoological Gardens c. 1931

His next expansion consisted of landscaping the gardens and increasing the exotic animal collection. The Gardens were originally created on a disused lime pit which used to be mined by Ardwick Lime. The land was criss-crossed with a system of waterways which allowed the lime to be moved in small boats. The majority of the waterways were filled in, although the result of this was that the land was somewhat marshy in places. The land was drained and fencing was installed around the border at the Longsight end of the property. Four arbours were installed in the 2-acre (8,100 m2) garden adjacent to the pub.

In 1838 another 8 acres (32,000 m2) were leased. This new land was in the triangle between Kirkmanshulme Lane and Hyde Road. The land was used to dig out the clay used to make the bricks that were used to build various buildings in the Gardens. As a result of the excavations the land became a large hole. Jennison, being a master of using what was available, decided to fill the pits with water. By May 1841 this land had become the "Great Lake", an additional attraction. In 1843 13 acres (53,000 m2) of adjacent farmland at the western end of the site were incorporated into the main gardens and one of the ponds was enlarged to form a boating lake. This lake later became known as Firework Lake. An island was built in the middle of the lake and a building created which became a natural history museum. Further expansion followed, and by 1905 Belle Vue consisted of 68 acres (280,000 m2) of walled gardens and a further 97 acres (390,000 m2) outside its walls.[9]

Financial difficulties

By this time the whole Jennison family were involved in the Belle Vue project. Although the Zoo thrived in its early years, by 1842 Jennison was having financial troubles, and on 13 December 1842 bankruptcy proceedings were initiated against him. The money problems were caused in part by Jennison's failure to sell the Strawberry Gardens property and partly due to the new Manchester & Birmingham Railway—the track cutting through the plot Jennison had leased in December 1836, which cut off the approach from Stockport Road—and partly to the competition from the new Manchester Zoological Gardens at Higher Broughton. His revenue was further reduced when the police took exception to the crowds of "rough men" gathering at the rabbit coursing events and closed them down for a period.

Guide book cover thought to be from the late 1800s

Initially he was told to sell Belle Vue in order to pay his debts, but two attempts at the sale failed and eventually his creditors decided the best way to recoup their money was to wait for Jennison to earn it. He paid off one creditor with beer and managed to pay off the remainder with a loan he had somehow managed to obtain. Unfortunately this tactic cost him the tenancies of the extra land he had acquired in December 1836 and 1839. A further piece of luck came with the closing down of the Manchester Zoological Gardens. There are confused reports about Jennison acquiring some of the exotic animal stock from the Manchester Zoo, which closed in 1842. There were some reports that he had purchased the animals although the Belle Vue accounts do not show this. What is more likely is that he was given the animals that could not be sold.[10] Jennison capitalised on the closure by introducing new events such as a footrace and the moving of the "Hollow Blasted Oak" from Gorton into the Gardens. On 2 May 1842 the first fireworks display took place. The display was designed by 'Signor Pietro' (aka Mr Richardson of Chapel House, Gorton). A footrace on 17 July 1842 resulted in another minor controversy. The race was for £25 but one of the participants gave up after 25 yards (23 m) and lost his £25. Later he disputed the validity of the race, sued, lost and went to jail.[11]

1843 was a much more successful season, so much so the loan Jennison had taken to pay off his creditors was paid back. The fact it was paid back so quickly apparently annoyed the creditor considerably.[10] The new railway that had initially been a thorn in Jennison's side now proved to be a useful asset. A station had been built in Longsight which made it much easier for visitors to get to the Gardens. Additionally one of Jennison's priorities was to entice visitors using scheduled excursion trips and the proximity of the Longsight railway station helped to this end.


After a trip to London to see the Great Exhibition, Jennison's ideas for Belle Vue became more ambitious. He came up with an idea that was to give Belle Vue a reputation for years to come when he decided to implement large, scheduled "fantastic" firework displays. Jennison employed a scenic artist called George Danson to design and create a 30,000-square-foot (2,800 m2) canvas backdrop for the firework display. The theme for the early displays was "battle enactment", which proved to be exceptionally popular with the paying public and had the effect of turning Belle Vue Zoo into an all day entertainment venue.[12]

Jennison's zoo

Consul II

Although Jennison's original idea was that the Gardens should be a relaxing botanical excursion with the animals being a means to support that environment, it became clear that the public was interested in the animals as an attraction in their own right. The initial collection brought from the Strawberry Gardens had consisted mainly of domestic birds with a few exotic parrots, but by 1856 the Jennisons had added exotic animals such as kangaroos, rhinos, lions, bears and gazelles to the collection.[13]

Maharajah the elephant

By 1870 Jennison had handed over the running of the Gardens to his sons, with the majority of the work being handled by eldest son George. Under his direction, in 1871 the zoo became the proud owner of its first four giraffes, and the following year a new elephant arrived, Maharajah, who became one of Belle Vue's most famous attractions. He was purchased for £680 from an Edinburgh zoo called Wombwell's Menagerie No.1, when it was closed down. The initial plan was to transport Maharajah from Edinburgh to Manchester by train, but this idea was abandoned after the elephant destroyed the railway compartment he was intended to travel in.[13] It was decided that Maharajah and his trainer, Lorenzo, should walk to Manchester, which they completed in ten days with little incident.[nb 1][14] "Lorenzo", whose real name was Lorenzo Lawrence, subsequently became the head elephant-keeper and stayed at Belle Vue for over 40 years.[15]

In line with the Jennison tenet that everything should earn its keep, Maharajah was not left just to look good in an enclosure, so for ten years he provided "elephant rides" to the public. He also took part in Whitsuntide street processions and there were reports that he was co-opted into grinding coffee and pulling carts of meat and bricks. Maharaja died of pneumonia in 1882, and his skeleton was preserved and added to the Garden's Natural History Museum six years later.[16] Subsequently, in 1941, when the Natural History Museum was decommissioned, the skeleton, along with some other exhibits, was transferred to the Manchester Museum.[17]

Consul the chimpanzee

In 1893 another purchase was made from yet another of Wombwell's Travelling Menageries, this time in London. Consul was a tame four-year old chimpanzee whose party piece was to dress in a smoking jacket and cap and puff on a cob pipe. He frequently accompanied James Jennison to business meetings. Consul proved to be exceptionally popular, but he died of dropsy (oedema) a year later on 24 November 1894. His popularity was not lost on the Jennison brothers who immediately obtained a replacement in the form of Consul II. Like his predecessor, this chimp also had a party trick, which was playing a violin whilst riding a tricycle, although Consul II later graduated to a bicycle.[18]

The Great War

Although the Zoo and Gardens remained open throughout the war, they were affected in many ways. The Jennison family volunteered several parts of the park to the government for use in the war effort. The Gardens were used by the Manchester Regiment for drilling, the skating rink and the Kings Hall were used for manufacturing aircraft components and to train staff from the aircraft factory in Heaton Chapel. A munitions factory, in which George Jennison worked as a foreman, was built on the athletic grounds, complete with railway sidings.[19]

Most of the keepers volunteered for the armed services and were replaced by women. As could be expected in wartime, food for the animals became difficult to obtain, but for the most part the Gardens carried on normally. Even the firework displays continued on as usual, with the exception that they could no longer use rockets which were now prohibited under the Defence of the Realm Act. The firework displays now reflected current events. In 1915 the title was "The Battle of the Marne", in 1916 it was "The War in Flanders". During the latter it was reported that a spectator got so caught up in the action that he waded across the lake so he could join in with the "fighting". In 1917 the display was seriously affected by a fire which broke out in one of the dressing rooms. The result was that all of the costumes were destroyed, as was most of the stage backdrop. There was so much damage that the scenic designer, Bernard Hastain, who had only recently joined the army, was given a special two-week leave of absence to enable him to carry out repairs. Although the display continued after the repairs were carried out, the cast had to make do with old uniforms, and in one case, just a cap.[19]

John Jennison & Co Ltd

Since 1895 the family had bickered about the idea of setting up a limited company to administer the Gardens. The majority of the family were in agreement, but the hold-out was Richard Jennison, the youngest son of John Jennison Snr. Richard had always opposed the idea, but as he was reputed to be independently wealthy enough to buy the company out any time he liked, the rest of the family were reluctant to go ahead. They considered Richard to be too taken with his "idle pursuits", and in their opinion he was not capable of running the Gardens.

Richard Jennison died in 1919, and the remaining family members went ahead and created John Jennison & Co Ltd. They used a capital of £253,000, which included investments and loans totalling £63,000. George Jennison became Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer and Joint Managing Director along with John Jennison Jnr (John Jennison Snr's great-grandson). John, William, Angelo and Richard Jennison Jnr obtained enough shares to be appointed directors. Apparently it became a "very happy Board with few meetings and an entire absence of quarrels".[20]

Belle Vue (Manchester) Ltd (1925–1956)

A 1950s advert for the Belle Vue Zoo water chute ride

On 27 November 1924 the Jennison family made an agreement with a Harry George Skipp of London to sell Belle Vue for the sum of £250,000. Skipp was rumoured to be an intermediary and sure enough on 6 March 1925 a further agreement was made between the Jennisons, Skipp and a new company called Belle Vue (Manchester) Ltd. The agreement was for the new company to take over from 1 January 1925, but the actual transfer did not take place until 28 March. The new managing director was John Henry Iles. Under his management the Gardens expanded to include what was to become a world-famous amusement park.[21]


Under the Jennisons the main priorities for Belle Vue were the zoological and botanical aspects; the amusements were provided as a distraction for visitors. Iles believed that expansion of the rides and the fun aspect of the park was the way forward, and so the first thing he did was to add additional rides in the form of the dodgems, the Caterpillar, the Ghost Train, Jack & Jill, the Flying Sea Planes and the Scenic Railway. This latter ride replaced the Figure 8 Toboggan, but although it was purchased in 1925 it was not fully functional until 1927. The Scenic Railway proved to be one of Belle Vue's most popular rides and remained in use until 1975.[22]

The Bobs was arguably the most popular ride, so named because it cost a bob for admission. This was a rollercoaster that had an 80-foot (24 m) drop at a 45 degree angle, down which the cars travelled at 60 miles per hour (97 km/h).[23] It was built by Harry Traver and designed by Fred Church and Tom Prior,[24] who had to develop a series of engineering innovations to make the ride possible. The Bobs' distinctive white-painted wooden superstructure became an imposing element of the Belle Vue skyline.[23]

Belle Vue Circus

George Lockhart

The annual Belle Vue Christmas Circus eventually became a major Manchester attraction, but it did not have an especially auspicious beginning. The first Christmas circus was held in 1922, but it did not prove to be either particularly successful or particularly popular. The new company did not try again until 1929, when the zoo director Gerald Iles, along with his father William, made a deal with Alderman Tom Bickerstaff of the Blackpool Tower Company whereby several of the Blackpool Tower Circus acts and equipment would be used at Belle Vue. One of the first to come to Belle Vue from Blackpool was ringmaster George Lockhart, who was to become legendary in the region.[25]

Lockhart, known as the Prince of Ringmasters, became synonymous with Belle Vue Circus, and his face was used on many advertising posters. He was so much a part of Belle Vue that in the 1967–1968 season, to celebrate his 39th consecutive year with the show, the circus was temporarily renamed the George Lockhart Celebration Circus. Lockhart was the ringmaster for 43 years, until his retirement in 1970 at the age of 90. His replacement was, for the first time at Belle Vue, female; a Danish-born ringmaster called Nelly Jane. She carried out the job for two years before being replaced by the ringmaster who was to reign the ring right up until the end, Norman Barrett. It is generally considered by fans of the circus that the end came with the closure of the Kings Hall, which was the traditional venue for the circus. This was in spite of the fact that for several years after Kings Hall closed the circus performed in the car park and in a marquee on wasteland on the other side of Hyde Road, directly opposite the Gardens' main gates (now the car park of a DIY store).[26] George Lockhart was posthumously honoured after the Belle Vue site was demolished; a road in the housing estate built on the site was called Lockhart Close.[27]

Belle Vue Officials[27]
1925–28 Sir William Gentle
1928–37 John Henry Iles
1938–70 H.F.B. Iles ("Mr Eric")
General Managers
1925–41 George Wilson
1956–58 J.W. Betts
1958–64 W.M. Marshall
1966–73 J.F. Fearnley
1974–76 C. Hind
1978 I. Brown
1978–79 A. Coppin
1979–81 A. Lee
Publicity Managers
1932–38 W. Rubinstein
1938–45 P.F. Chandhor
1945–56 D. Buckland-Smith
1956–60 Johnnie Hoskins
1960–64 H. Wilson Rogers
1964–81 Norman Roland (advisory)
Zoo Superintendents
1925 George Jennison
1933–57 Gerald T. Iles
1957–61 William Wilson
1962–71 Raymond Legge
1971–78 Paul Grayson
Head Keepers
1946–75 Matt Kelly
1975–77 John Christy
Horticultural Superintendents
Leslie Cook
J.B. Brook
Managing Directors
1925–37 John Henry Iles
1938–41 George Wilson
1941–47 E.O. Spence
1947–56 Richard Morton Dixon
1956–62 Sir Leslie Joseph
1962–65 W. Morris Marshal
1965–71 K. Paxton
Scenic Artists
1852–94 George Danson & Sons
1894–96 Messrs Caney & Perkins
1896–1912 R. Caney
1912–17 B. Hastain & R. Caney
1918 Charles Caney
1919–22 B. Hastain & C. Caney
1923–33 B. Hastain
1935–39 O. Simpson
1947–68 Syd Lane (freelance)
Speedway Managers
1929–41 E.O. Spence
1941–52 Miss A.S. Hart
1953–60 Johnnie Hoskins
1960–63 Ken Sharples
1964–65 H. Jackson
1966–72 Dent Oliver
1972–73 Frank Varey
1974–81 Eric Boocock
Works Managers
1925–44 C. Wiseman
W. Ray
F. Jenkinson
F. Selby

Another of the circus stalwarts was resident band-leader, Fred Bonelli. He had started his career as a trumpet player for Barnum and Bailey's circus band and eventually led various Belle Vue Circus bands for 30 years.

The circus was active before concerns over animal performances for entertainment became widespread, so many of its acts featured animals, such as Dolas the lion tamer, Thorson Kohrmann and his Farmyard Friends, Willi Mullens Caucasian Cavalry & Ponies, Miss Wendy's Performing Pigeons and Harry Belli's Horse Riding Tiger – to say nothing of the Dog![28] Although the animal acts were considered to be the crowd-pullers, there was also the usual collection of acrobats, strongmen and clowns, the most popular of whom was Jacko the Clown (real name Robert George John Francis Fossett), accompanied by his small partner, Little Billy Merchant. Jacko was the king of the clowns at Belle Vue for over 30 years.[29]

Belle Vue Speedway

One of the activities that ultimately became synonymous with Belle Vue was motorcycle speedway (known at the time as dirt track racing) which was introduced on 28 July 1928 in the recently built greyhound racing arena. By March 1929 it was proving to be very popular. Iles, after buying a controlling interest in the North Manchester Motor Club (NMMC), decided to move the track to build a purpose-built stadium. This stadium was contracted to provide the NMMC with racing facilities for five years. The new stadium opened on 23 March 1929. At the time this was the largest purpose-built speedway stadium in the country, possibly in the world. Eventually it became the first home of the Belle Vue Aces.

Second World War

The Zoo and Garden management anticipated the breakout of war as early 1933 when they organised two firework displays entitled "Air Raid on London". In 1938 an ARP demonstration was carried out and in 1939 the staff members were trained in Civil Defence work and fire-fighting. They also started taking precautions such as sticking gummed paper on to windows so as to prevent or reduce flying glass should they be damaged by bomb blasts. They also installed pumps to enable staff to access water from the lake for fire-fighting purposes.[30]

On Sunday 3 September 1939 the Gorton Philharmonic Orchestra were due to commence an "open rehearsal" at 11 am. This was subsequently cancelled after the broadcast of Neville Chamberlain's radio broadcast announcing that Britain was at war with Germany. The Gardens were closed to the public at noon due to the military sequestering the Exhibition Hall, the restaurants and the top floor of the administrative offices (with the exception of Gerald Ile's office). The military also took over the sports ground to use as a barrage balloon base, and dug several air raid shelters thoughout the gardens. After these tasks were completed an "eerie silence" was said to have fallen over the place.[30]

The Zoological Gardens were quite prominent in Manchester Corporation's war plans and as such various agencies within the Corporation had quite specific plans for the Gardens. The Manchester Emergency Committee insisted that keepers were issued with rifles just in case any dangerous animals escaped if the Gardens were bombed. The task was organised by George Wilson who was also ask that there also be a night shift so that the animals were covered 24 hours a day. A list of dangerous animals was drawn up which consisted of 13 lions, 6 tigers, 2 leopards, 1 cheetah, 2 tigons, several bears and 3 other small cats. Two poisonous snakes were also considered but it was decided that they would most likely die due to the low autumn temperatures. In spite of the fact that the zoo administration managed to convince the Police Chief Constable and the Emergency Committee that danger from the animals was minimal, primarily due to the fact that the perimeter walls were so high, the role of sharp-shooters was taken away from the keepers who were replaced with soldiers carrying Tommy Guns.[30]

Permission to re-open was not received until Friday 15 September 1939. Due to limited publicity very few people attended the Gardens the next day. Nobody was allowed to be admitted if they weren't carrying gas masks. Several of the Garden's activities ceased by the end of September, including the firework displays, the Railway Carnival and the September Band Contest. The Speedway was initially affected but was quickly back up to normal functioning, as the speedway bikes ran on wood alcohol (known as dope), and so were unaffected by fuel rationing. The Broughton Rangers' football matches stopped and did not re-commence until 1945. All the wrestling and boxing matches were also cancelled.[30]

Animal stocks were increased by the addition of animals from other zoos that had been forced to close. Initially the Zoo was given favourable food rationing quotas which had the effect of many people making requests to the zoo to look after their domestic pets. Unfortunately, due to the varied food and quantity requirements of the zoo, their preferential treatment came to an end by the end of November. Certain foods became totally unavailable and the price of others increased dramatically.[30]

The 1939 Christmas Circus also became a casualty of war. A large number of the foreign acts were marooned in their own countries and the German acts didn't perform at all. For some unrecorded reason all administration was taken on by ringmaster, George Lockhart. The 1939/1940 performance season was initially limited to three weeks then further extended by an additional week and the traditional show for under-privileged children was cancelled. From a practical standpoint the circus lighting became problematic for the blackout rules of the day, though these problems were surmounted by the use of low-level strip lights lighting the travel ways between the Kings Hall and the Hyde Road entrance. Additionally buses were allowed to pick-up and drop off right at the door of the Kings Hall.[30]

The Garden's administrators spared no effort to make the 1940 season a success. They managed to achieve this in several ways, the most notable being the use of patriotism as a means for publicity. For example, in June 1940 free meals were offered to Dunkirk evacuees, then a Service of Thanksgiving for the successful evacuation was given in the speedway stadium. Serving members of the armed forces received half-price admissions. Members of the local Home Guard were issued, from the firework display armoury, 1866-vintage Snyder rifles.[30]

Food supplies for the animals continued to be a problem and imaginative methods had to be used as a workaround. Bananas were impossible to obtain and the supply of fish was problematic. As a result the keepers were forced to experiment. The sealions became casualties of the food shortage when their keepers attempted to feed them strips of beef soaked in cod liver oil. Although they seemed to thrive on this diet unfortunately their digestive system was not able to deal with the unusual food and ultimately they died of stomach ulcers. On the other hand the lions revelled in their new diet of green-coloured horsemeat. Likewise the monkeys enjoyed their new diet of boiled potatoes. Similar to the sealions, the birds of paradise (lack of millett) and the penguins (lack of fish) died due to their inability to adapt to the new make-do diet. Vegetables were not in short supply though, as the Garden staff grew their own lettuce, cabbage and carrots in the Kitchen Gardens. Growing Canary seed was also attempted.[30]

Although Manchester was heavily bombed during the Blitz, the Gardens only received minor damage. The scenic railway had been hit by an incendiary bomb, the Reptile House was damaged by shell splinters from ack-ack guns which also caused the death of a bull bison. Although not as a direct result of the bombing, a giraffe died when the roof of the Camel House partially collapsed. This was as a result of reduced maintenance of the zoo buildings. By 1943 the majority of the keepers had been called up and the management had been forced to employ casual workers – some of whom were dismissed for stealing horsemeat. Further animals died due to human error and indirect events. All of the tropical fish died when an inexperienced gas fitter mistakenly turned off the gas supply to the heating system. A strike at the gasworks caused intermittent gas supply to the heating for the aviary, the monkey house, the lion house and the aquarium. This resulted in the deaths of several animals including a lioness called Pearl and her entire litter of cubs.[31]

Financially, the war was very beneficial for the Gardens. Profits steadily increased each year, and the Company made several claims for compensation for the requisitioning of their facilities. They were granted £4,000 in 1941 and £7,242 in 1942, although in gratitude for the latter the Company presented the Civil Defence Service with a new mobile canteen. In 1941 the Kirkmanshulme House site and parts of the Hyde Road and Redgate Lane car parks were requisitioned by Manchester Corporation and converted into allotments.[32]

In January 1941 the General Manager, George Wilson, died after having served in the job for 16 years. One of the Company Chairmen, H. F. B. Iles took on the additional role of General Manager after Wilson's death. He was assisted by new Managing Director, former speedway manager, Mr E.O. Spence. His old job was filled by his secretary, A. S. Hart, an appointment that made her the UK's first female speedway manager.[32]

Trusthouse Forte (1963–1977)

In September 1962 Charles Forte purchased the majority share in Belle Vue (Manchester) Ltd. In February 1963 an additional offer was made to the minority shareholders to purchase their shares for the sum of 15/3d (15 shillings and 'thruppence') per share. By the end of 1963 Charles Forte and his company Forte Holdings Ltd had become sole owner of Belle Vue.



The closure of Belle Vue Zoological Gardens was announced on BBC Radio at 10:00 am, 4 August 1977. The news report told that the Gardens would be closing their doors for the last time on 11 September 1977. The 24 keepers were informed an hour before the news report went on air. The reason given for the closure was that the company could no longer afford to cover the losses of approximately £100,000 per year. Before the Zoo finally closed at the end of August 1977, a number of non-poisonous reptiles were stolen from the Reptile House. The only animal to be recovered was a 10-foot (3.0 m) python, which was found in some nearby foliage.[33]

A 15-year-old elephant named Ellie May had acquired an undeserved reputation for being dangerous, after having been mistaken for another elephant, which made it extremely difficult for her to be sold. Her food costs became difficult to justify, but Peter Grayson, the last Zoo superintendent, refused to have her put down. Although Grayson left the Zoo in January 1979 he returned frequently to care for Ellie May, who was left as the last animal at the Zoo. In the following February Rotterdam Zoo agreed to take her, and plans were made to transport the elephant to the Netherlands. Ellie May refused to budge however, and quite suddenly, overnight, she developed pneumonia and heart failure. Grayson and veterinary surgeon David Taylor felt that she would not recover, and decided to call in a marksman who euthanised Belle Vue's last animal.[34]

Public reaction to the Zoo's closure was one of relative indifference, with only a few small protests. Although the official closing date was 11 September, the doors remained open to visitors – at a discounted admission price – until early November, by which time most of the animals had been sold for an estimated £100,000.[33]

Gardens and amusement park

Initially, when the zoo closed, the company announced that the gardens and the amusement park were to be expanded with "new active leisure pursuits". By 1978 the site was being called "Belle Vue Leisure Park" and the first thing to happen was the Tropical River House was converted to a skateboard arena as an attempt to cash in on the new craze that had come from America. A few months later the arena was moved to an area outside the New Elizabethan exhibition hall. It turned out to be bad investment as demand was now virtually nil.[35] In 1977 the closure of the London Festival Gardens in Battersea, London prompted the company to buy the "Jetstream" ride from them and although it had been installed it did not actually open until a year later. An announcement that the long-closed Scenic Railway was to be restored and reopened did not come to fruition.[36]

There were other non-zoo attractions that closed in 1977 including the boating on Firework Lake, the Lighthouse Bar and MiniLand. The miniature railway was also closed. One of the locomotives, named "Joan" and formally of the Rhyl Miniature Railway was leased to Sir William McAlpine as he was an enthusiast of miniature trains. A short while later Sir Charles Forte presented the Bassett-Lowke locomotive "Prince Charles" to the Eskdale (Cumbria) Trust. They restored the engine and changed its name back to "Synolda", which was its original name when running on the Sand Hutton Miniature Railway. It now resides in the railway museum at Ravenglass who occasionally dust it off and give it a run on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway.[36]

In 1979 the amusement park was leased to the main concessionaire, Alf Wadbrooke, although by then the park was only open at weekends during the summer season and it was patently obvious that it was dying. The long-promised resurrection of the Scenic Railway had not happened and the water chute had closed. In August 1980 Wadbrooke was given notice to close down the park by 26 October 1980 and to have all his equipment removed by February 1981.[27]

In October 1980 the old Jennison-era "Belle Vue Smithy" (located behind the old aviary) was also closed, as it had seen little use since the zoo closure, and the smithy's 200-piece tool set was sold.[27]

End of a 140-year history

The opening of the G-Mex centre in 1986 dealt a severe blow to the viability of Belle Vue's exhibition halls. The site was sold and the remaining buildings replaced with an large car auction centre. Very little remains of Belle Vue today, and there is nothing left of the original gardens and amusement park, which are now an industrial and residential area.[37] The Belle Vue Speedway moved to the nearby greyhound racing stadium, located at the top of Kirkmanshulme Lane, where it had started life in 1929.[38]

"When it closed, Belle Vue left a gaping hole in the heart of the region that has never been completely replaced. It gave people a focal point, something to be proud of, a place where they could take their families and be sure of a great day out at a reasonable cost."[39]

See also


  1. ^ There was a story of an incident on the walk where it seems there was an argument at a tollgate. The crux of the argument being the question of what was the appropriate charge for the elephant when there was no entry for "elephants" on the toll rates chart. Maharajah's answer to the problem was to lift the gate off its hinges. Although the incident is considered to be apocryphal, it was the subject of a painting called "The Disputed Toll" by Heywood Hardy.


  1. ^ Cronin & Rhodes 1999, p. 8
  2. ^ Stackhouse & Hyams 2005, p. 5
  3. ^ a b Hylton 2003, pp. 118–119
  4. ^ a b Nicholls 1992, p. 3
  5. ^ Kidd 2006, p. 46
  6. ^ Nicholls 1992, pp. 3–4
  7. ^ Nicholls 1992, pp. 4–5
  8. ^ Nicholls 1992, p. 5
  9. ^ Cronin & Rhodes 1999, p. 7
  10. ^ a b Nicholls 1992, p. 7
  11. ^ Nicholls 1992, p. 6
  12. ^ Nicholls 1992, p. 12
  13. ^ a b Stackhouse & Hyams 2005, p. 11
  14. ^ Hardy, Heywood. "The Disputed Toll, Heywood Hardy". Manchester Art Gallery. Retrieved 12 January 2010.  
  15. ^ Nicholls 1992, p. 82
  16. ^ Nicholls 1992, p. 23
  17. ^ Nicholls 1992, p. 38
  18. ^ Nicholls 1992, pp. 22–24
  19. ^ a b Nicholls 1992, pp. 28–29
  20. ^ Nicholls 1992, p. 29
  21. ^ Nicholls 1992, p. 30
  22. ^ Stackhouse & Hyams 2005, pp. 35–36
  23. ^ a b Stackhouse & Hyams 2005, p. 36
  24. ^ "Bobs, Belle Vue Park". Rollercoaster Database. Retrieved 2007-11-22.  
  25. ^ Stackhouse & Hymans 2005, p. 55
  26. ^ Stackhouse & Hyams 2005, p. 56
  27. ^ a b c d Nicholls 1992, p. 78
  28. ^ Stackhouse & Hymans 2005, p. 57
  29. ^ Barbara Gibson (2000). "Focus on the Oral History of the Circus by Barbara Gibson". National Life Story Collection Issue 5, Winter 2000. The National Sound Archive. Retrieved 2007-11-24.  
  30. ^ a b c d e f g h Nicholls 1992, pp. 43–44
  31. ^ Nicholls 1992, pp. 44–45
  32. ^ a b Nicholls 1992, p. 45
  33. ^ a b Nicholls 1992, p. 74
  34. ^ Nicholls 1992, p. 75
  35. ^ Nicholls 1992, p. 76
  36. ^ a b Nicholls 1992, p. 77
  37. ^ Stackhouse & Hyams 2005, p. 124
  38. ^ Stackhouse & Hyams 2005, p. 106
  39. ^ Stackhouse & Hyams 2005, p. 125
  • Cronin, Jill; Rhodes, Frank (1999), Belle Vue, Stroud: Tempus, ISBN 0-7524-1571-9  
  • Hylton, Stuart (2003), A History of Manchester, Chichester: Phillimore and co Ltd, ISBN 1-86077-240-4  
  • Kidd, Alan (2006) [1993], Manchester: A History, Keele: Keele University Press, ISBN 1-85331-028-X  
  • Nicholls, Robert (1992), The Belle Vue Story, Manchester: Neil Richardson, ISBN 978-1-85936-128-3  
  • Stackhouse, Heather; Hyams, Daniel (2005), Belle Vue – Manchester's Playground, Manchester at Heart, Manchester: First Edition Limited (Manchester Evening News), ISBN 1-84547-092-3  

External links


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