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Belle Vue Miniature Railway – a beloved attraction remembered

We’re grateful once more to Jon Cocks, our Special Correspondent Belle Vue ‘insider’ for taking time and trouble to write – and to illustrate with his original photos (no reuse without his express permission, please) – another blog on his time at Belle Vue, this time on the miniature steam railway. Here’s Jon:

As I mentioned in my previous blog about the Belle Vue Scenic railway, I was lucky enough to work as a Ride Operator for the 1977 season at Belle Vue Amusement Park where I worked predominantly on the Steam Railway.

My association with Belle Vue began in January 1977 when I visited the Northern Motorcycle Show with a couple of friends.   This show was one of the major exhibitions in the Belle Vue calendar and as I remember was very well patronised by visitors and exhibitors alike and my friends and I had a great time.

Poster for the Belle Vue Northern Motorcycle Show, 1977

A programme for the show that attracted Jon to Belle Vue

As I was leaving the venue after the show, I noticed an advert at the gate for attractions in the Amusement Park which included a steam railway.   At the time I was quite interested in motorcycles and railways, so I decided to revisit Belle Vue that weekend.

The following Sunday, after catching three different buses from the other side of Stockport I arrived at the main gate on Hyde Road.  I bought my entry ticket at the turnstiles, walked past the New Elizabethan Ballroom, the Water Chute and then turned left by the Kings Hall where I found the “Railway Queen” and four coaches opposite the Elephant House.

I had my first ride on the railway which ran through part of the zoo, around the boating lake, passing through the railway station proper before stopping on the tarmac by the Elephant House.  The station proper was not in use in the winter months as the staff found that by parking the train by the Elephant House it was more easily seen by the Zoo visitors.

I got chatting to the driver who also turned out to have a keen interest in railways.  At the end of the day, he let me drive ‘Railway Queen’ from by the Elephant House back to the tunnel which of course made my day.  I must have driven satisfactorily as when I was giving him a hand to put the train away he mentioned that Belle Vue was looking for a ride operator for the Steam Railway that season.  He invited me to come and get some practice in over the next couple of weekends and meet the park foreman. The practice sessions must have been fine as I was then offered the Ride Operator’s job from Easter for the 1977 and sadly final season.

The steam railway first arrived at Belle Vue about 1928 when the ‘Railway Queen’ and some other equipment were bought from a small amusement park located at a country pub in Cheshire.  This engine, which was subsequently named ‘Railway Queen’ was designed to run on ’15 inch gauge’ track. She was built around 1924 by Albert Barnes & Co, an engineering company located in Rhyl, North Wales.   This company is also famous for building five other locomotives to the same design as ‘Railway Queen’, four for the Rhyl Miniature Railway and one for the miniature railway at the Dreamland Amusement Park in Margate, Kent.

Photograph of the 'Railway Queen' miniature steam locomotive in 1977. Copyright Jon Cocks.

The ‘Railway Queen’ Atlantic loco in steam in 1977

In all four steam locomotives ran on the Steam Railway at Belle Vue Zoo.  A second locomotive arrived about 1938 from the amusement park at Southend-on-Sea and was a similar size to ‘Railway Queen’.  It was originally called ‘Synolda’ and was built in 1912 by Bassett Lowke Ltd of Northampton for a country estate in North Yorkshire.  After the birth of the Prince of Wales in 1948, it was named ‘Prince Charles’ and was fitted with brass nameplates.

I did not have the chance to drive ‘Prince Charles’ during the period I worked at Belle Vue as the locomotive was out of use awaiting an overhaul.   At this time the engine was stored in the park’s engineering workshop at the rear of the main building on Hyde Road.

Photograph of the locomotive 'Prince of Wales' in the engineering shop at Belle Vue. Copyright Jon Cocks.

The locomotive ‘Prince Charles’ in the engineering shop at Belle Vue, 1977

As can be seen in the photos, ‘Prince Charles’ is in need of a thorough overhaul, and the pile of chairs in for repair shows the variety of work the engineers were called on to do.

Although mishaps on the Steam Railway were few, I was told by one of the older staff about a more notable one which I believe occurred sometime in the 1960s.  Apparently ‘Prince Charles’ was being driven too fast around the curve near the Elephant House and overturned on its right-hand side. I am not aware if any of the passengers or the driver were injured but ‘Prince Charles’ needed some extensive repairs.  The engine needed a new right-hand cylinder, coupling and connecting rods all of which were manufactured in Belle Vue’s engineering workshop. This photo shows the poor condition that ‘Prince Charles’ was in while stored the workshop and also the side rods which were replaced after the accident.  This repair can still be seen on the locomotive today, the rods on the left-hand side are original and are ‘fluted’ while those on the right-hand side made by Belle Vue are ‘plain’.

Photo of connecting rods of the locomotive 'Prince of Wales' in the engineering shop at Belle Vue. Copyright Jon Cocks.

The driving wheels and connecting rods of ‘Prince Charles’ as replaced at Belle Vue, 1977

I remember one day in the main season a gentleman from the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway in Cumbria introduced himself and asked where ‘Prince Charles’ was and if he could take a look at it.   As I had no passengers waiting I was able to take the gentleman to the engineering workshop to meet the Chief Engineer and take a look at ‘Prince Charles’. I left them to it and had to get back to my train as a few visitors were now waiting for a trip.   I was pleased to find out a few months later that after Belle Vue Zoo closed, ‘Prince Charles’ had found a new home in Cumbria at the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway where it can still be seen today carrying its original name ‘Synolda’.

Photo of the restored 'Prince Charles' in Cumbria as 'Synolda' in 1989. Copyright Jon Cocks.

The restored ‘Prince Charles’ in Cumbria as ‘Synolda’ in 1989

I believe the third locomotive also arrived in 1938  and like ‘Prince Charles’ had previously run at the Southend on Sea Amusement Park.  It was also built by Bassett Lowke of Northampton and was named ‘George the Fifth’. It was similar to ‘Prince Charles’ but smaller and less powerful than the other engines and does not seem to have been used much.  It was eventually stored in the engineering workshop and was thought to be lost until discovered and subsequently purchased by some railway enthusiasts in the mid-1960s. I mentioned this to one of the engineers, and he told me that ‘George the Fifth’ was not really ‘lost’ but it just became useful to store things on and lean things against until it was completely covered.  He also said if anyone had asked where the engine was he could have told them! ‘George the Fifth’ was eventually restored to working order and last ran at the Carnforth Steam Museum in Lancashire before that museum closed. The engine was sold around the year 2000 to the Hollywood film director Francis Ford Coppola and is apparently still in the USA and located on one of his estates.

Photo of Locomotive 'George V' at Carnforth, circa 1993. Copyright Jon Cocks

Locomotive ‘George V’ at Carnforth, circa 1983

The fourth locomotive to arrive at Belle Vue was called ‘Joan’ and originally ran on the Rhyl Miniature Railway. ‘Joan’ had been built in 1920 and was the first of the six locomotives built by  Albert Barnes & Co of Rhyl and which included ‘Railway Queen’. When the Rhyl Miniature Railway closed in 1970 the Belle Vue railway was able to borrow ‘Joan’ and two coal tenders as both attractions were owned by Entam Ltd which was part of the Trust Houses Forte empire.

Photo of locomotive 'Joan' outside the tunnel on the Belle Vue miniature railway. Copyright Jon Cocks.

Locomotive ‘Joan’ outside the tunnel on the Belle Vue miniature railway, 1977

‘Joan ‘ was needed as a spare engine because at the time the Belle Vue Railway ran two trains on busy days.  A reserve engine was needed in case ‘Railway Queen’ or ‘Prince Charles’ we out of use for repair. The extra tender was borrowed to replace the original one fitted to ‘Prince Charles’ which was not fitted with any brakes.   Due to the historical importance of ‘Prince Charles’ original tender we always ensured it was secure and undercover as some items of railway equipment had mysteriously disappeared and we suspected they had found their way to the local scrapyard.

Photo of the original tender for 'Prince Charles', being kept safe at Belle Vue, 1977. Copyright Jon Cocks.

The original tender for ‘Prince Charles’, being kept safe at Belle Vue, 1977

As I mentioned the Belle Vue Steam Railway used to run two trains on busy days.  One would be running around the circuit while the other was loading in the station.  When it arrived back it would stop just before the station for the passengers to get off.  The loaded train would then set off on its journey while the empty train drew into the station platform to reload.

There were enough carriages for two trains, four of them were built in the Belle Vue workshops and were made almost entirely of wood except for the ends which were fabricated steel.  The bogies, (the frame which held the wheels) were also made in the Belle Vue workshops also and were similar to the bogies used on the Rhyl Miniature Railway.

Photo of one of the carriage bogies made and run at Belle Vue under the carriages, 1977. Copyright Jon Cocks.

One of the carriage bogies made and run at Belle Vue under the carriages, 1977

By the time I started working at Belle Vue, there was only one of the Belle Vue built carriages remaining and it had been converted into a flat wagon.  The other set of carriages were more elaborate and had steel frames and were ‘articulated’ which meant two of the intermediate carriages could be mounted on one bogie.  I believe these were initially used at the Great Yarmouth Miniature Railway and came to Belle Vue from the amusement park at Southend. The Great Yarmouth Miniature Railway also had some closed carriages and a colleague mentioned that at least one arrived at Belle Vue but was not used regularly.  He also told me that when it was retired it had been used under the Scenic Railway as a storage shed but by the time I was able to search for it nothing was left. In this photo, the carriages are sporting their new colours for the 1977 season. Unfortunately, there has been a slight mishap here with the middle carriage becoming derailed while the train was being put away at the end of the day and no passengers were involved.   The wolves found this particularly interesting.

Photo of wolves admiring Belle Vue's miniature railway carriage stock, 1977. Copyright Jon Cocks.

Wolves admiring Belle Vue’s miniature railway carriage stock, 1977.

The engine and carriage shed combined were made up to look like a tunnel in a similar way to that used for the scenery on the Scenic Railway.  This consisted of a strong metal mesh which was sprayed with a concrete mix and when it had set it was painted to look like a rock. Quite a lot of scenery at Belle Vue was created in this way. The tunnel was also the engine and carriage shed and was where the engines were steamed up for the day.  The Steam Railway probably took longer than any of the other rides to get ready for passengers and it could take an hour and a half to get steam up after lighting the fire. As steam locomotives need a draught to draw the fire after ‘lighting up’, the engine shed was equipped with a steel pipe which fitted over the engine’s chimney and then went through a hole in the tunnel roof.  On top of the tunnel roof, there was an electric fan which would draw the fire until the engine had built up enough steam in the boiler to be able to create the draught itself.

Here ‘Railway Queen’ (left) and ‘Joan’ (right) are standing outside the tunnel,  the track on the right is the ‘through’ track while the one on the left is a siding where the spare engine was normally kept.  This shed had very basic facilities, as I have said there was an electric fan in the roof to help with lighting up and also a workbench and an inspection pit.  There was also a tap with a hose which was used to fill the engine’s tender in the morning and also to fill the wolves’ water trough.

Photo of 'Railway Queen' and 'Joan' outside the tunnel-cum-shed on the miniature railway, 1977. Copyright Jon Cocks.

‘Railway Queen’ and ‘Joan’ outside the tunnel-cum-shed on the miniature railway, 1977.

The Belle Vue Steam Railway lasted for nearly 50 years and must have carried thousands of happy visitors.  It operated in three different locations in the park, the first running down Longsight Avenue from a station at the rear of the Kings Hall.    Here we can see ‘Prince Charles’ about to leave the station by the Kings Hall with a full train in 1946.

Photo of 'Prince Charles' pulling a train of Belle Vue visitors in 1946. Copyright Jon Cocks.

‘Prince Charles’ pulling a train of Belle Vue visitors in 1946

The second route ran from near the New Elizabethan Ballroom and then alongside the Kirkmanshulme Lane side of the Great Lake towards the Lake Hotel.   The final location was a circular route running around the boating lake and partly through the zoo with the station at the back of the New Elizabethan Ballroom.  The Steam Railway officially closed at the end of the 1977 season in September but we were allowed to have a final day for staff in October. This involved steaming up both locomotives and running them ‘double-headed’ around the circuit.  I was pleased to be able to do the last ever trip when I drove ‘Railway Queen’ from the tunnel, around the circuit to the rear of the Kent Restaurant dropped the fire and put the engine finally away.

Our thanks to Jon once again. It’s a pity indeed that Manchester lost this splendid piece of miniature engineering. But Jon has more in store from Belle Vue in the ’70s, and we hope to bring you that before too long!

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2 Comments

  1. Susan & Peter Jenkins

    Brilliant – I’m sending the link to this to an aunt who will no doubt recall the engines and Belle Vue with nostalgia!

    • ferguswilde

      Thanks, and I hope she enjoys it enjoys it! Do invite her to post any reminiscences or memories here if she’d like – it’s very encouraging to know people are looking.