Belle Vue Zoological Gardens was a large zoo, amusement park, exhibition hall complex and speedway stadium in Belle Vue, Manchester, England, opened in 1836. The brainchild of John Jennison, the gardens were initially intended to be an entertainment for the genteel middle classes, with formal gardens and dancing on open-air platforms during the summer, but they soon became one of the most popular attractions in Northern England. Before moving to Belle Vue, Jennison, a part-time gardener, had run a small aviary at his home, the beginnings of the zoo that over the years grew to become the third-largest in the United Kingdom.
Jennison set out a small amusements area in Belle Vue during the 1870s, which was expanded in the early 20th century to become what was advertised as the “showground of the world”. Popular rides included the 60 mph Bobs roller coaster and the Scenic Railway. Other entertainments included grand firework displays from 1852 and an annual Christmas circus from 1922. Music and dancing were popular attractions in Belle Vue’s various ballrooms. The Kings Hall, opened in 1910, housed the Hallé Orchestra for several years and hosted concerts by artists such as Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Nat King Cole, The Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Led Zeppelin.
Catering for visitors at Belle Vue was on an industrial scale, ranging from the late 19th century hot water rooms, which accommodated up to 3,000 diners each, providing crockery and hot water for those who brought their own picnics, to more upmarket themed restaurants. Belle Vue became a part of the caterer and hotelier Charles Forte’s business empire towards the end of its life in the 1960s. Although he made some improvements to the zoo, Forte’s interests lay in developing the gardens’ dining and exhibition facilities. The Kings Hall was then the largest exhibition space outside London, but competition from the G-Mex exhibition and conference centre in central Manchester led directly to its closure in 1987.
At its peak Belle Vue occupied 165 acres and attracted more than two million visitors a year, up to 250,000 of whom visited over the Easter weekend. The zoo closed in September 1977 after its owners decided they could no longer afford its losses of £100,000 a year. The amusement park remained open on summer weekends until 1980. The land was sold in 1982, and the site finally cleared in 1987. All that remains of Belle Vue today is a greyhound racing stadium and a snooker hall built in the stadium’s car park.