Remembering Belle Vue: Where the world came to Manchester

The popular destination of Belle Vue, first opened in 1836, and has been described as a place where “the world came to Manchester”.

Its zoological gardens, theme park, speedway, and circuses attracted people from across the country and its doors welcomed famous idols, like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones.

Ex-assistant ape keeper, David Gray said he had the privilege of enjoying Belle Vue as a child and as an adult.

David, 67, said: “I grew up in North Manchester and my family and I would walk to Belle Vue at least once a year to spend the day there. It was such a wonderful place and even as kids you didn’t mind walking that distance.

“One day I remember being there and just thinking, ‘I’m going to work here one day’. It was like a premonition.”

David Gray is now a community co-ordinator at St Francis Monastery, Gorton

After working as a psychiatric nurse, David landed a job as an assistant ape keeper at Belle Vue in 1976

He said: “During my time in mental health, I found that people got better if they had an animal companion.

“Just being around them helps reduce anxiety and they also act like someone you can communicate with, in a funny kind of way.

“While I was working at a smallholding hospital project, there was a patient who hadn’t spoken for several years. One day I just found him talking to one of the goats whilst he was tending to it.

“It was such a massive breakthrough and I knew I had to work with other animals to try and understand this.”

David, community co-ordinator at St Francis Monastery in Gorton, said he learned a wealth of information at Belle Vue, which helped him later on in life.

Susie (left) and Jo-Jo the gorillas. Credit: Barry Hargreaves

He added: “It helped me understand lots of things that have come into use, like talking people off roofs, leasing with gang members and being a family negotiator at prison during the Strangeways prison riots in the 1980s.

“I never aspired to work with the great apes but I was so glad that I did. When I found out, my heart just swelled.

“I very quickly realised that they have a level of intelligence that we don’t really take notice of. We see ourselves as being at the top of the animal hierarchy but we’re not actually. That was one of the most valuable things I was taught. We’re not superior, we’re all of equal value.

“You have grown up with all these stereotypes of apes, like Tarzan, the human who leads the apes and then, when you come face to face with gorillas and chimps you come face to face with your own prejudices. You begin to respect what they are and it changes you.”

Cockatoo at Belle Vue. Credit: Barry Hargreaves

David also said that working with the apes at Belle Vue came in good use when encountering danger.

He added: “I was respectfully weary when I worked with the animals. Having total focus was really important if you wanted to engage with them. You had to show in your body language that you weren’t there to hurt them but to help them.

“There was a pack of wolves at Belle Vue with an alpha male, who was the head honcho of the group. From time to time I would go and feed them.

“I would take a heavy-duty plastic tray of raw meat to the enclosure. My colleague would lock me inside and as soon as they knew food was coming, they would form a semi-circle in front of you. This is what they do when they’re hunting.

“I had to look into the eyes of the alpha male and slowly lower myself as if I was making an offering. When I stepped backward to leave the enclosure, I had to maintain that eye contact and attention until I was safely out and the gate was locked again.

Belle Vue was home to fearsome animals like lions and tigers. Credit: Barry Hargreaves

“You couldn’t show fear or a sense of superiority because the main aim was to win over the trust of the animal. It was an amazing thing to experience.

“Every day spent with the animals was totally awesome, it was like being on hallowed ground.”

David, who now lives in Salford, said he developed a love of animals from an early age.

He added: “I had always been interested in animals and I was always the one walking around with all the neighbours’ dogs.

“Some years ago, I was diagnosed with Asperges Syndrome. As a child, I felt that human beings couldn’t understand me, but animals could.

“There’s something special about the non-judgemental acceptance that animals offer human beings. It helped me understand childhood and I grew up with a profound empathy for animals. I’m forever grateful that they helped me translate that relationship to humans.”

Circus performances were just one of many events that were held at Belle Vue. Credit: Barry Hargreaves

The zoo closed in 1977 before the whole place was shut ten years later, but David remembers Belle Vue as having been much more than just a zoo and amusement park.

He said: “Having the playground for the world in the middle of the workshop of the world was just amazing. I’m not a well travelled person but at Belle Vue, the world came to Manchester.

“There were things at Belle Vue that reflected Manchester’s diverse culture. There was music, food, art, and culture from all over the world.

“You had the speedway, wrestling, banqueting, dancing; it was all there.

“It was accessible and exciting, and you were mixing with the most famous people of the day. It had such a rich history. Harry Houdini visited, and even Sitting Bull came to Belle Vue with Buffalo Bill’s European tour.

Credit: Barry Hargreaves

“Belle Vue helped people grow up with a sense that anything was possible. It was a place in the community where people walked as equals. People who thought they had no sense of purpose could find it at Belle Vue.”

To join the discussion on Belle Vue and share your own stories, you can visit the ‘Re-Membering Belle Vue’ Facebook page.

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