Belle Vue International Circus
Belle Vue International Circus

George Jennison first introduced a circus at Belle Vue in 1922, but it was less than successful. The circus reappeared at Christmas in 1929.

The ringmaster was the famous George Lockhart, resplendent in his top hat, white gloves and red tails. Lockhart was known as the "Prince of Ringmasters" and was a feature of the circus for the next 43 years. He retired at the age of 90 in 1972.

Whilst he died in 1979, and of course the Kings Hall and the rest of Belle Vue went under the wrecker ball and was turned into a Wimpy housing estate in the early 80s, George Lockhart is commemorated in the naming of Lockhart Close in the new estate. In fact Lockhart Close runs into Ellen Wilkinson Crescent.

As a child in the 1950s Christmas meant pantos at the Ardwick Hippodrome and the Belle Vue Circus. The high point for me was always the big cats. As an adult I regard circus acts as animal abuse but as a child the idea never entered my head. I used to love to watch my Dad's mate Bill as foreman overseeing his work crew as they assembled the steel walls of the cage that ran around the inside of the circus ring and was topped by a pagoda style net. Then the excitement as the lions, tigers and even black panthers growled their way along the cage tunnel that ran from the main cage through the entrance arch to that mysterious world behind the curtain that George Lockhart guarded.

Ironically, two of the lions in Martin Lacey's lion act, featured in the 53rd and final circus (see opposite), had been born in the Belle Vue Zoo.

All the circus acts entered the stage through the arch-like entrance where Lockhart stood during the act. Up above the arch on a sort of balcony sat the orchestra led by Fred Bonelli. Bonelli was much more than the circus musical director.

In fact, he directed the music delivered at various events within the entertainment centre, including dances at the Elizabeth Ballroom. Bonelli died in 1968 a few days after collapsing during a circus matinée.

Among the strategies employed to promote the circus over the years was a Circus Van, decorated on-site and used to spread the word about the event throughout the city. Below are photographs of the van decorated by Syd Lane.

In 1981 I was on a study leave attending the University of Durham and for the first time since 1967 I was in Manchester for Christmas. We took our 3 year old daughter to see a regional panto, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and then to the 53rd and final Belle Vue International Circus. The Kings Hall was almost the only building remaining on the site and the developers were already well established.


Following the final closure of the park and the demolition of the Kings Hall, the Roberts Brothers staged a circus in 1982/83 in the Speedway Stadium. The following year they were back but this time they used the Exhibition Hall car park as their venue. In 1984/85 the Hoffman Circus pitched a tent on the Hyde Road car park. They came back in 1985/86 but this time used the Redgate Lane car park. This was the last of the circuses on the Belle Vue site.

The photograph below is a bit of a puzzle. It clearly shows a circus tent on the Redgate Lane car park but the Longsight Entrance buildings are still intact. They were demolished in June of 1985.

picture courtesy of Les Cotton


Circus Acts

"Congo, whose real name is Peter Morrissey, started his career with Bertram Mills as a boy clown. Since then he has somersaulted throughout Europe. Congo's gorilla parody is presented by his attractive wife, Nadia. Her family have their own circus in Belgium where last year folk came to feed Congo. "

"The Belgian-born Chabro Trio are making their British debut at Circus Belle Vue. Carmen, her husband Pierre, and their daughter Yvone all reckon Chico is the cheekiest poodle in the business. You'll see him hitch hike his way round the ring on top of Atlas, the troupe's rather friendly pony. "

"Harry Belli's tiger Byla, his horse Bulle, and dog Jimmy are the best of friends. They form the basis of this most unusual act which has been seen all over Europe and in South America. Harry has his own circus in Holland; that's where Byla, Bulle and Jimmy first became pals."

"A colourful fiesta of Spanish pigeons fly to the outstretched arms of attractive Miss Wendy. She needed plenty of patience to encourage her bird to sit quietly on the top of a sword, balanced precariously on a dagger's edge...held between the teeth. The pigeon's slightest movement could upset all."

"Bobby Roberts reckons his pigs are like people...only more temperamental. Maybe that's why no other Englishman has yet managed to train pigs. As piglets Bobby paid a tenner a time for his pedigree Berkshires. Now they are the only performing pigs in Britain, and worth £400 apiece. Prize porkers indeed."

The images above and the collection of coloured images below are shown here with the permission of Chetham's Library.


Animal Acts

The following images come from a scrapbook that belonged to Matt Kelly, the famous Head Keeper at Belle Vue and passed to me by his son.

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