Belle Vue Pyrodramas

Several of the letters published in the Ashton Reporter from the men of the 9th Battalion Manchester Regiment make reference to “Belle Vue”, which was a famous local amusement park in West Gorton, Manchester. For example, take the letter written by Private Tom Littleford, to his mother, and published in the Reporter on Saturday July 17, 1915:

 “Private Jas. Ryder has had one or two narrow escapes. One day, when they were taking us in the trenches, a bullet took his hat straight off his head, and another bullet lodged in the overcoat, which was strapped on his back. Both night and day shrapnel shells are bursting around us. Talk about Belle Vue, it isn’t in it. When we were at home they called the Territorials England’s last hope, but we are England’s first aid at present”.

But in this case, the references to Belle Vue were specifically comparing the real world experience of battle they were now witnessing first-hand to those re-enacted in “Pyrodramas” at Belle Vue that they and their friends and family had seen together in happier times.

Belle Vue Main Entrance 1953
Courtesy Chetham's Library, Manchester

The founder and driving force behind Belle Vue was John Jennison (1790-1869) who bought the original 36 acre site, off Hyde Road and Kirkmanshulme Lane. Belle Vue opened in 1836, expanded over time and eventually occupied 165 acres. At the height of its popularity, 2 million people visited every year.

Belle Vue Plan 1892
By Foreign and Commonwealth Office Collection (Contributed by: The University of Manchester, The John Rylands University Library)

In 1851, Jennison, visited the Great Exhibition in London and whilst there, paid a visit to Surrey Zoological Gardens. It was here that he witnessed a ‘stupendous Diaphanic Panopticon’, which portrayed the horrors of war. Described in publicity of the time as a ‘gigantic panorama’ it measured 200 feet in length, and had figures 15 feet in height, and ‘was ‘the first ever attempted.’ Constantly looking for new ways to attract the public, on his return to Manchester Jennison formulated a plan to dramatically increase the quality, and expand the scale and visual impact of his own static panorama displays.

Edwardian Visitors to the Static Panorama
Courtesy Chetham's Library, Manchester

He envisioned large firework shows presented against the backdrop of a huge painted canvas representing a famous historical or contemporary event. He hired George Danson, (of Messrs. Danson), who had created the Surrey Zoological Gardens panorama which so impressed him, to come to Manchester and create the sets for the Belle Vue Pyrodramas. Danson constructed enormous backdrops, 300 feet wide and 60 feet high, hand-painted in the open air by professional artists who, for the rest of the year, worked in the Royal Opera House and the theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane. These backdrops were then installed on the “firework island” that formed the setting for the dramatic orchestrated shows, punctuated by fireworks and acted out by ever larger casts of actors. So successful were the Pyrodramas that Danson, and his sons, Thomas and Robert Danson, would come back to Manchester and paint them for each of the next 44 years.

Belle Vue Zoological Gardens Handbill, 1900 Season
Courtesy Chetham's Library, Manchester

Pyrodramas were included in the price of admission and visitors could watch from what used to be an open air dance floor or could pay extra to watch from an elevated viewing platform. The Pyrodramas were spectacular and turned out to be immensely popular, watched by tens of thousands each year, and their addition as an attraction in the zoological gardens helped secure the financial future of Belle Vue.

Battle of Blenheim, 1907 Season
Courtesy Chetham's Library, Manchester
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The first of the Pyrodramas was “The Bombardment of Algiers” in 1852 and the sequence of shows through 1926 are outlined below:

List of Representations at Belle Vue Manchester from 1852-1924
Courtesy Chetham's Library, Manchester
Year Pyrodramas
1852 The Bombardment of Algiers
1853 The Storming of Seringapatam
1854 Burning of Moscow
1855 Siege of Sebastopol
1856 The Storming of Malakoff
1857 The Siege of Gibraltar
1858 The Storming of Delhi
1859 The Temple of Janus
1860 The Storming of the Badajoz
1861 The Emperor’s Palace & the City of Pekin
1862 The Battle of the Nile
1863 The Relief of Lucknow
1864 The Siege of Charlestown
1865 Earthquake at Lisbon
1866 Carnival of Rome
1867 Storming of St. Jean d’Acre
1868 Battle of Trafalgar
1869 Storming of Magdala
1870 Capture of Quebec
1871 Bombardment of Strasburg
1872 Napoleon Crossing the Alps
1873 The Spanish Armarda
1874 Battle of Waterloo
1875 Capture of Coomassie
1876 The Prince at Calcutta
1877 The Fall of Alexinatz
1878 The Fall of Plevna
1879 The Afghan War
1880 Burning of the Tuilleries (City of Paris)
1881 Battle of Navarino (Fought in 1827)
1882 Carnival of Venice
1883 Battle of Tel-el-Kebir (Egypt)
1884 Siege of Constantinople, 1453
1885 Siege and Defence of Khartoum
1886 Storming of San Sebastian
1887 City of London
1888 Siege of Malta
1889 Storming of the Bastille
1890 Storming of Cairo
1891 Battle of Inkerman
1892 Battle of Cape St. Vincent
1893 American Indian War
1894 Siege of Granada
1895 Storming of Port Arthur
1896 Battle of Alma
1897 Matabele War
1898 Storming of Dargai
1899 Battle of Omdurman
1900 Siege of Ladysmith
1901 Siege of Pekin
1902 Battle of Paardeberg
1903 Capture of Gibraltar
1904 Attack on Port Arthur
1905 Battle of Mukden
1906 Storming of the Kashmir Gate, Delhi (1857)
1907 Battle of Blenheim, Aug 13th, 1704
1908 Defence of Mafeking
1909 Bombardment of Alexandria
1910 Battle of Manchester
1911 The Relief of Lucknow
1912 Burning of Hankow
1913 The Balkan War – Battle of Lule Burgas
1914 The Battle of Kandahar
1915 The Battle of the Marne
1916 War in Flanders
1917 The Battle of the Ancre
1918 The Fight for Liberty
1919 Mons 1914-1918
1920 The Capture of Jerusalem
1921 Chinese War – Storming of the Taku Forts
1922 Storming of Kotah (Indian Mutiny 1858)
1923 The Redskins
1924 Mexico
1925 The Cannibals
1926 Reign of Terror

By 1923 the themes of the Pyrodramas changed from well-known military actions to less militaristic depictions, not wholly surprising after a run of 70 consecutive annual shows, and perhaps reflecting a change in public appetites after the great war. The last Pyrodrama produced at Belle Vue was “Robin Hood” in 1956.

In 1925, Belle Vue Zoological Gardens was sold to a London-based syndicate and during the 1950s it was purchased by the hotel and catering conglomerate, the Forte Group. As anyone of a certain age from Manchester can tell you, Belle Vue continued to be quite a popular local destination and an amusement park, miniature railway and speedway racing were added to the list of attractions. But by the 1970s, Belle Vue entered a death spiral as other more popular public attractions became available and attendances dwindled. Belle Vue finally closed for good in 1979.


[1.] Chetham’s Library, Manchester
[2.] “The Belle Vue Story”, by Robert Nicholls. ISBN: 9781852160708