Fireworks Displays
Firework Displays

My personal memory of the firework displays at Belle Vue is of "The Storming of Quebec", a drama which would not play well in Canada in the nineties. I strongly suspect that the modern day Quebecois would take offense at the routing of the French garrison by James Wolfe and his army of English troops and their Indian allies. In Manchester in the 50s it was a big hit and I cheered with everyone else when the English army came out victorious after a dramatic 30 minute battle for the Citadel. Maybe it even had a lasting affect on some of the people in the audience because I now live in Canada and my mate Bill wants to go to Quebec City because he's always wanted to see it after watching the firework display.

John Jennison started the firework displays at Belle Vue. They actually started in 1842 but the large dramatic productions were stimulated, as with many of the attractions at Belle Vue, by Jennison's visit to the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. It was on that trip that he visited a zoo in Surrey that had firework displays and on his return Jennison set in motion a plan to increase the scale of his displays. In true Jennison style he didn't go in for half-measures. He hired George Danson, who had worked for the Surrey zoo, to come and create the sets for displays that were re-enactments of important historical events. Danson constructed huge backdrops on the firework island that formed the setting for the dramas that were acted out by large casts of "extras".


It is said that most of the participants in the dramas were local people hired for the occasion and paid, in part, with some of Jennison's beer. Some of the "actors" though were Belle Vue employees. Janice Watts' grandfather was Syd Lane, a commercial artist who worked for Belle Vue in the 50s, and her family remembers him not only working on the set for "The Storming of Quebec", but actually having a part in it.

The scenery for the displays was built on the firework island and was known as "The Picture" and it was indeed huge, covering 30,000 square feet of canvas (see above). Across the small lake from the island, on which the action took place, Jennison built a viewing stand capable of seating an audience of 400.




However, I know that in my day the crowds were much bigger than that and most of the audience stood in the space between the lake and the viewing stand, a space once occupied by the outdoor dance floor (shown above).




The image above is shown here with the permission of Chetham's Library

At one point the Jennisons, who already had their own brewery, bakery, brickworks, and hotels, had a firework factory on site to produce the pyrotecnics for the shows.






Below:  Bernard Hastain painting the scenery for the 1929 presentation.  That year they painted a backdrop depicting Vimy Ridge.


The first of the large dramatic displays was "The Bombardment of Algiers". The scenery in the photograph at the top of this page was for the 1904 display entitled "The Attack on Port Arthur". The "Storming of Quebec" was acted out in 1954. The last of these displays was "Robin Hood" in 1956, after which the dramatic performances were replaced by more conventional displays. They continued in this form until 1969, when one of the reasons given for cancelling them was that they were frightening the animals in the zoo. Ironic really that this hadn't been considered in the previous 100 years.


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The photograph of Belle Vue is shown here with the generous permission of Graham Beech of Sigma Leisure. The photograph comes from the Chris Makepeace book, "The Villages of Manchester", which is available from Sigma Books. This photograph may not be reproduced, stored in a retieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means - electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise - without permission from the publisher. The Villages of Manchester is just one of a series of books with a shared theme of Postcards from the Past. You should check-out Sigma's fine collection of books.


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