One of the Library’s largest and most used archival collections is that relating to Belle Vue Zoo and Pleasure Gardens. Belle Vue, which was founded in 1836 by jobbing gardener and silk weaver John Jennison, was one of the North West’s principal centres of entertainment, reaching the height of its popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Belle Vue provided entertainment on a vast scale. It combined the country’s premier provincial zoo with a host of other attractions including grand firework displays, re-enactments of celebrated battles, brass-band concerts, an amusement park, a circus and speedway, and exhibition halls. There was a boating lake with paddle steamers, a scenic railway, music and dancing in various ballrooms, and any number of sporting events.
At its peak, the attraction occupied 165 acres and received over two million visitors per year. It has been fondly remembered by many generations of Mancunians, in particular for the popular rollercoaster ride known as the Bobs, and the celebrated zoo animals which included Consul, the chimp who wore a cap and jacket and smoked a pipe, and Maharajah the elephant who walked from Edinburgh to Manchester in order to take up residence at Belle Vue.
Following the sale of the gardens in 1925 the Jennison family deposited a wealth of archival and printed material relating to the origins and growth of the complex. Since then the Jennison material has been supplemented by a number of other collections that cover the subsequent history of Belle Vue up to its closure in the 1970s, including those of Robert Nicholls and R.T. Talbot.
Today, very little survives of the splendour that was Belle Vue. Much of the site has been developed for residential and business use, with only a greyhound racing stadium, snooker hall and cinema remaining as traces of the extravagant pleasure gardens that once graced the area.
To search for digitised Belle Vue items, please go to our archival and manuscript catalogue. The search ‘Belle Vue’ will bring up a large number of hits; you could also try searches such as ‘speedway’ ‘monkeys’ or ‘boxing’.