Manchester Histories Festival

Belle Vue Pleasure Gardens Oral Histories

Monday 20 March 2017

As Gorton Monastery hosts a 2 day event on Belle Vue on Sun 19th and Mon 20th March, Jane Donaldson writes about the oral history recordings that formed part of the Manchester Histories exhibition in 2014.

The Belle Vue: Showground of the World exhibition was a collaboration between the National Fairground and Circus Archive and Manchester Histories and part of a wider project on Belle Vue Pleasure Gardens. It was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of Manchester Histories Festival (MHF) in 2014.  The exhibition celebrated the heady days of Belle Vue Zoological Gardens looking at the Zoo, Circus, Sports, Entertainment and Funfair. There were other events and projects that took place around the exhibition and this included an oral history project.Full colour drawn front cover of a Belle Vue Guide featuring a tiger walking through bushes and the words The Showground of the World.

At its height, Belle Vue attracted over 2 million visitors a year.  Founded in 1836 by John Jennison, at its peak it occupied over 165 acres and attracted two million people a year. People flocked to the Gorton site for the zoo, circus, fair, speedway, dancing, boxing, wrestling, fireworks and music for over 150 years.  The exhibition focused mainly on the 1950s until it closed in the early 80s as it was decided that this would be the period which would bring back memories of people’s time there. Black and white photograph of queues waiting to get into Belle Vue in 1946 Image courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives

Everyone involved in the exhibition would be inundated by tales from people they met who had memories of their visits to the Showground, and the passion and love that came across as they recounted theses tales was a pleasure to hear.There were so many stories, of bands that played, of sneaking in, the buses that went there, the dancing, feeding the hippos-the list went on and on.  Even younger generations told stories from their relatives and it seemed that everyone had a story to tell of Belle Vue, whether they came from Manchester or had visited it from another part of the UK.visitors pore over Belle Vue material from over the years. photo courtesy of Jack Hatton

Prior to the exhibition in 2014, a number of interviews were taken by volunteers in order to provide content for the listening devices that formed part of the exhibition.

The volunteers were able to take part in a workshop led by Fiona Cussons (then at MMU) in order to gain the skills needed to conduct the interviews.  Individuals had been identified who would provide content in order to support the five different areas of the exhibition. Speedway racers, sign riders, people who worked in the entertainment buildings, sideshow performers, DJs, photographers, wall of death riders, collectors, From the workshops, and with basic information provided, the volunteers were able to go off, devices and questions in hand to meet with interviewees and find out more about their fascinating times at Belle Vue.

Black and white photograph of 7 members of Belle Vue Aces Speedway standing with one sat in the front on a bike from 1963. Image courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and ArchivesAmong the recordings you can listen to Derek Adrian, who worked at Belle Vue with his dad, first as sign writer then moving on to creating fibre glass for the speedway bikes, who recalls the arrival of Jonah the whale. Pat Pearson talks about working on the Globe of Death. She also worked at the box office, married one of the senior staff and lived on-site, Bernard Collier, who used to ride for the Speedway Aces at Belle Vue mainly in the 1970s, and many more recalling memories of fairground rides, fireworks, dancing, brass band competitions, the flea circus, the Top Ten Club and the music and bands that performed at Belle Vue.

The interviews collected were then edited by Karen Gabay and transferred onto handheld devices that visitors could use to further enhance their exhibition experience.  This provided another aspect to the exhibition and further bringing to life the items in the cases to reinforce the love of all things Belle Vue.

During the festival, more interviews were taken and these included many of the stories that people wanted to tell, their memories lifted by seeing the items in the exhibition. The recordings were due to be deposited with the North West Sound Archive, but soon after the exhibition, the Sound Archive announced its closure.  As a lot of the North West Sound Archives were moved to Archives+ at Manchester Central Library and they agreed to take on the recordings after they had been catalogued.Full colour poster for Belle Vue Gardens Manchester

The items are now available to listen to at Central Library on listening devices for visitors to hear and are accessible during the library opening times. They have been made available via Soundcloud.

More information in the exhibition including some clips from the recordings can be found here.

A selection can be found on the Archives+ Soundcloud and the catalogue can be sccessed through the Sound archive pages of Manhcester Central Library

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