- Belle Vue Disasters-


The Belle Vue Zoological Gardens were a feature of Manchester life for nearly 150 years, so it should be no surprise to hear that those years did not pass without the odd down-turn in fortune. In fact, there were a number of rocky moments along the way.


The Fire of 1958

On January 17th, 1958 a major fire devastated the Ballroom block, destroyed Syd Lane's studio, and resulted in the loss of 5,000 of Fred Bonelli's musical scores. What started out as a small blaze soon took a strong hold on the wooden structure of the ballroom and by the time the fire brigade arrived it was already too late to save the structure.

The fire was so well advanced that the prevailing winds threatened to carry the flames to nearby animal houses, and Belle Vue staff, led by Matt Kelly, got busy evcacuating animals that could be moved. Unfortunately, one of the houses closest to the fire was the Lion House and evacuation of the big cats, under those circumstances, was ourt of the question. The fire brigade did its part by playing their hoses on the Lion House to minimize the chance of the flames jumping the gap, and armed policemen stood ready to shoot the animals should the fire spread. The lioness "Judy" was so distressed that it was felt necessary to shoot her but in the end the fire was stopped before it spread and none of the other animals were killed. The fire had reached to within a foot of the Lion House before the fire brigade finally had it under control.

The total cost of the damage was estimated to be 250,000 and the whole block including ballroom, cafes, shops, bars and the firework viewing stand were lost. Also consumed in the fire was the outdoor dance floor, which was at one time used as a roller skating surface.

The structures could be rebuilt but Fred Bonelli lost a great number of the musical scores he had created and the commercial artist Syd Lane lost his studio and a great deal of the work he had stored there.


The 1960 Break-In

On 7th April 1960 three teenagers broke into the park and attacked a number of animals. Using their heavy boots they kicked to death two swans, geese, ducks, nine penguins, two pelicans, a Chinese gander and a crowned crane. A number of birds were left alive but seriously injured and eggs were taken from nests.

The event was quite emotive and the lawyers representing the youths argued that their clients were unlikely to get a fair trial under the climate of hostility that existed. In the end, the three boys (aged twelve, thirteen and fourteen) were convicted on five charges and sent to an approved school for three years.

Three weeks prior to the attack, Syd Lane, the park's commercial artist, had taken photographs of the very birds which died that night. Here are the photographs, donated by his granddaughter Janice Watts.


The Fire of 1964

In October of 1964 another fire broke out in the park. This time it was in the northwest corner close to the speedway stadium in the Cumberland and Windermere Suites. The fire required that a bingo game in the nearby Kings Hall be abandoned and 3,000, probably highly disgruntled, people were evacuated. The fire spread to the nearby stadium but fortunately not to a number of tanks holding diesel fuel. However, the electrical substation was damaged and this resulted in a blackout of parts of the garden and nearby homes. Four fire engines responded to the fire and a total of 75 firemen. Two of the firemen were injured in the fire.

Robert Nicholl's, in "Looking Back on Belle Vue", reported that, "The Cumberland and Windermere Suites were rebuilt by the following September, after work had been delayed by a shortage of building materials and bad weather. The total dining area could accommodate 1,500 if the suites were combined with a new suite, the Kendal. Each had its own distinctively designed bar. The Windermere Bar had a nautical flavour, whilst the Cumberland Bar was adorned by Victorian bric-a-brac and brassware collected by Morris Marshall and Jack Fearnley from antique stalls. The Kendal Bar was in the Mexican style. Each of the new suites had its own sprung dance floor, stage and air conditioning, and could be divided from the other suites by moveable soundproofed screens."

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