For nearly 150 years, Belle-Vue Zoological Gardens was one of the most continuously successful entertainment destinations in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1836 by John Jennison and by 1856 the collection included monkeys, kangaroos, rhinos, lions and bears, and even more animals joined after Jennison handed over the running of the zoo to his children in 1870.
One of the most famous arrivals was Maharajah the elephant, bought from an Edinburgh zoo in 1872 for £680. Maharajah was supposed to be transported to Belle-Vue by train, but having torn the roof off his compartment with his trunk it quickly became clear that another mode of transport would be required. The elephant, along with his trainer Lorenzo Lawrence, instead had to walk from Edinburgh to Manchester, a journey, which took ten full days but was apparently without incident apart from an alleged argument at a toll gate about the correct charge for an elephant.
Lawrence decided to stay with Maharajah once they arrived, and became the head elephant-keeper at Belle-Vue for over 40 years. Maharajah’s skeleton was preserved, and is now on display at the Manchester Museum.
At its peak Belle-Vue occupied over 165 acres and attracted two million people a year. All aspects of entertainment history could be found in the evolution of Belle-Vue. For years people from all over the UK were amazed at the sight of elephants, monkeys and camels in the zoo, were thrilled as they rode the fairground rides and rollercoasters in the amusement park, sang along to their musical idols in The King’s Hall, danced the night away with their first love, marvelled at the circus and saw Speedway champions racing to glory on the stadium tracks – Belle-Vue had it all and as a result of this, became known as, Showground of the World, and of course a showground needs a circus.
The Belle-Vue annual International Christmas Circus lasted for over fifty years and became a feature of the attractions at the world-famous showground. The capacity of The King’s Hall was five thousand and gave Belle-Vue the status of the leading venue in the North West, easily outstripping Blackpool’s Tower Circus.
Bertram Mills’ famous circus supplied many of the animal acts. They were amongst the most popular because large, aerial attractions such as the high wire acts were not possible in the confines of The King’s Hall. By the late 1950s, tigers, polar bears, elephants and camels would be joined by artistes from France, Germany and Italy as the cream of circus talent would be brought to Manchester by the then General Manager Jack Fearnley. There’s lots I haven’t covered including the period when Robert’s Circus came for a few years 1983, 84, 86 and 87 I think but I’ll leave that for another day.
Belle-Vue closed for good in the 80’s but lots of treasured memories still live on in the stories and artefacts of people that worked and lived there over the years.