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Belle Vue- the original British home of brass band contesting and greyhound racing...
Starting with the end...
The zoo closed in 1977 and the animals were scattered across the globe- to Holland, Spain and even Japan, but the dingos and bears were killed. The final animal, the elephant Ellie May, 15, was shot in 1979 (The writer of this text met Ellie May in 1964 when she was a tiny elephant).
The site remained open as "Belle Vue Leisure Park" with its amusement park. In 1977 the Scenic Railway did not operate, there were no boats on the lake, the miniature railway engines were sold. The ballroom was closed but pop music dancing remained at the New Elizabethan. By 1979 the amusement park was open at Summer weekends only and the famous water chute was finally closed down. The end of 1980 saw the end of the amusement park.
The last circus in 1985/86 was held in the Redgate Lane car park. The speedway stadium continued in use for speedway and stock car events until 1987. The Belle Vue Aces (speedway) moved to the Greyhound Stadium (where they had appeared in their first year 1928, while the Speedway Stadium was being constructed. Demolition of Kings Hall was delayed by two weeks to allow the last Belle Vue Brass Band contest to be held in February 1988. Part of the Redgate Lane car park has been taken into the Longsight Railway works and another part is now used by the Manchester ring road. Much of the site including the exhibition halls / suites and the speedway stadium are now a very large car auction site. There has been much housing development. A multiplex cinema was built.
The long running Brass Band contests have now been lost to Manchester, and have moved to Birmingham although they are recalled by a September day of brass band concerts in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall. Maharajah the elephant is is the Manchester Museum and his portrait is in Manchester Art Gallery.
So how did it start?
With a jobbing gardener in Stockport, in 1826, opening his gardens for once a week strawberries, increasing his trade with caged birds and an admission fee. He built a pub there. And needed a larger property. John Jennison took a six month lease on land at Belle Vue for a pleasure garden, and moved his birds there. The land he took a lease on was never fully developed. There were lakes where limestone had been removed. After six months he took out a 99 year lease. And so Belle Vue was born. The first advertisement appeared in 1837. Initial animals were not listed but probably rabbit, goat, fox and suchlike.
1842 saw the first modest firework display. Also in 1842, two railway stations opened- at Gorton, and on the Manchester to Birmingham line, at Longsight, near to Kirkmanshulme Lane (that station has now gone). The first circus appearance was 1846. Animals in 1847 included dingo, raccoon, deer, mongoose, armadillo and a bear. These were joined in 1851 by yak, porcupine and kangaroo. In 1851 Jennison visited the Great Exhibition in London, which inspired further expansions.
The firework displays became larger, based on the island and viewed from an elevated gallery holding 4000 spectators. In 1853 the Longsight railway station had been joined with sidings to hold 50 railway coaches for visitors to the gardens. 1853 marked the first brass band contest, to continue at Belle Vue until 1988- 135 years during which brass band contest rules commenced, brass band sections were introduced. The contest could draw a crowd of 25,000. One visitor in 1898 was so impressed that on returning to London he founded the National Brass Band Contest (and bought the magazine The British Bandsman). From 1900 the Belle Vue contests were known as the British Open and the London contest as the National.
In 1855 rail access was further improved with the opening of a new station, for many years known as "Ashbury's for Belle Vue"- an early form of sponsorship, as Ashburys was the nearby railway wagon builder who had paid for the station. They moved to Birmingham in 1902 but the station name survives. The next station now on the line, called Belle Vue, opened in 1875.
In 1872, the elephant Maharajah was alked down from Edinburgh, commemorated in a painting at Manchester Art Gallery. In due course once the elephnant had died, his remains passed to Manchester Museum. In 1887 Sunday concerts by Gorton Philharmonic commenced. The amateur orchestra played for a period from 1976 in Stockport Town Hall before rental fees drove them to Romiley Forum. At the turn of the century dancing was popular on an open air platform.
1903 marked a tram service down Hyde Road, terminating at Belle Vue. By 1905 expansion had taken the property to 68 acres within the walls and a further 42 acres outside. 1908 saw the first glimmerings of the amusement park with a hall of mirrors.
In 1925 the gardens passed out of the family to a limited company set up for the purpose. One of the three principal shareholders was the visitor who so enjoyed the brass bands in 1898, who now had an interest in fairgrounds (he designed the famous Margate Dreamland). Belle Vue now had fairground rides added to the collection, including some from the 1924 Wembley Exhibition. Flying Sea Planes, Caterpillar (The Caterpillar at Belle Vue was constructed by the Traver Engineering Company of Beaver Falls, Pensylvannia), Whirlpool, Dodgems. The slot machines / amusement arcades were leased out. The Ghost Train and Scenic Railway arrived the following year. In 1928 a miniature railway opened.
In 1925 the newly formed Greyhound Racing Association took a seven year lease on land at the Northern end of Kirkmanshulme Lane, and so the sport was introduced to the British public. The Gorton area had formerly known rabbit coursing until that had been stopped. The greyhound race track opened in 1926.
In 1929 a childrens amusement park was laid out - see-saws, roundabouts, donkey rides. Also built this year was a second scenic railway which became known as The Bobs (it cost a bob a ride, =5p) purchased from Buffalo, USA.
In 1928 the greyhound stadium was used fordirt track racing (speedway), under the auspices of a company controlled by Vivian van Damm (of the Windmill, London). A new stadium and track was erected for speedway use, opening in 1929 on the site of an athletic stadium. Athletics were moved to a former deer paddockat the Redgate Lane end. 1929/30 saw the first Christmas Circus in the Kings Hall.
With the Free Trade Hall in Manchester being bombed in 1940, the Halle Orchestra needed a new home until the Hall was rebuilt, and from 1943 (under Sir John Barbirolli) to 1952 the orchestra played in the Kings Hall, although the accoustics were not ideal, with the occaisional lion roar coming in, or the sparrows in the roof space.
1957 saw a new water chute, one of the most remembered rides of the period and the building of the Bavaria Suite. At this early point the increase in a motoring pblic and the nearness of Chester Zoo was hurting the zoo side, as feed costs rose and admission prices didn't. 1958 saw the demise of the ballroom by fire, risking the nearby lion house. Riflemen stood by but only one highly distressed lioness was shot. The total destruction of the building meant the loss of the Tudor Suite, Baronial Hall, Popular Cafe, two bars, canteen, five shops, a restaurant and the fireworks viewing stand. In February 1960 the new ballroom, the New Elizabethan was opened.
Meanwhile Longsight station has closed in 1958. 1960 saw the introduction of the Flea Circus which had to close in 1963 due to a shortage of human fleas. When the Stockport canal was closed in 1961 the Top Lake lost its source of water, and the site was used for ten pin bowling, work started in 1963. In 1962 ownership had passed to Fortes Holdings Ltd. In 1964 a new aquarium and reptile house were built - in the reptile house in 1972, the Royal Python bred for the first time in Europe.
In 1965 the Daily Herald, which had run the National Brass Band Registry since it was started in 1952, ceased, and Belle Vue became the new home. This registry connected brass players to bands and controlled who played for which band in contests- to avoid poaching and very short term lends of top players. 1969 was the last fireworks show. And from then on, attractions were reduced and attendees fell. There was an emphasis on the amusement park (although 60% of visitors had come for the zoo). The Bobs coaster (then listed in the Guiness book of records as the fastest gravity ride- 61mph) was demolished in 1971. The Scenic Railway closed in 1975.