Belle Vue Pyrodramas: an introduction

In the new Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery opening in Autumn 2022, we will explore Manchester’s many and sometimes surprising links with China. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, as Tracey Boyce shows from her research, local perceptions of China were shaped by Belle Vue Zoo’s pyrodramas. The re-enactments of battles and the destruction of the Summer Palace celebrated British imperialism – hardly surprising in the context of the time – and film footage of a pyrodrama depicting China will feature in the gallery, alongside more personal stories of friendship and reciprocity that are such an important part of this relationship. In part 1 of this guest post Tracey May Boyce, PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University, provides a brief history of the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens pyrodramas.

The Fire Spectacle takes place every day in Whit-Week, and every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday afterwards, the 5th of November inclusive, and during the month of August, also on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Guide to the Zoological Gardens, Manchester, 1911.

Three nights a week during the summer, for over one hundred years, the skies above Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in Gorton, Manchester, exploded with spectacular pyrotechnics. They accompanied dramas set against the backdrop of massive paintings, 300 foot wide and 60 foot high, depicting moments of imperial conquest, and were watched by thousands. Through their representation of peoples from other parts of the world, foreign landscapes and victories won by Europeans, especially Great Britain, the audience experienced the far-flung outposts of the British Empire, enabling them to connect with dominant ideologies of patriotism, imperialism and national pride. They offered an Anglo-centric view of the world, a world in which Europeans and/or Christianity heroically conquered other nations and civilisations.

Battle scene on old postcard
Section from the Firework Programme 1904, Attack on Port Arthur. F.3.21.13_03.jpg. Courtesy of Chetham’s Library, Manchester.

After the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, popular visual entertainments such as panoramas and dioramas competed to provide the most realistic and exciting representations of foreign lands and peoples. The founder of Belle Vue, Mr John Jennison, visited the London exhibition himself and whilst there, paid a visit to Surrey Zoological Gardens. It was here that he watched a unique and spectacular form of entertainment consisting of a battle drama played out against a huge trompe l’oeil backdrop and accompanied by fireworks. His grandson George, writing in 1929, noted:

These were no ordinary Fireworks; rockets there were a plenty, and squibs and petards, but there were cannon too and men fighting a mimic battle on a painted battlefield. John…saw his chance and took it. “I must have something like that”, he said.

George Jennison (ed., Zoe Willock), ‘John Jennison – Belle Vue : Relating the Making and Growth of the Famous Zoological Gardens, Belle Vue, Manchester…’, 1929, p.30

Thus began more than one hundred years of mimic battles and spectacular displays at Belle Vue, all noisy, exciting and mostly contemporary. The fire performances (pyrodramas) were free for visitors, which made them one of the highlights of the day’s entertainment at the gardens. They were incredibly popular for these reasons; however, they also served to bring current and historical events to life and were an informative and visual representation of moments of imperial importance. The pyrodrama was a theatrical spectacle that combined a panorama (painted backdrop) with fireworks and dramatic action.

This was a unique form of entertainment in Manchester, and communicated the imperial message to a new, mass, working-class audience. Belle Vue offered a lower admission price after 4 pm and on Saturdays, and together with the availability of cheap excursion train tickets, meant that the more sedate, middle-class daytime visitors were supplemented in the evenings by large numbers of working-class patrons. The visitors had the option of paying to watch the pyrodramas from a viewing gallery, whilst the rest watched free from the outdoor dancing platform.

From 1852 onwards the addition of these pyrodramas as an attraction in the gardens helped secure the future of Belle Vue, and its choice of imperial themes proved popular with its audiences, gradually becoming more elaborate and spectacular over the years. Many imperial battles and spectacular themes were re-enacted, and the lake in front of ‘firework island’ as it was known, often became the site of naval dramas.

A crowd of well dressed people gathering in open space in front of a building
Postcard of the Open-Air Dancing Platform, with the pyrodrama backdrop in the distance on the right-hand side. Unknown year. Belle Vue Gardens 791.M1. Courtesy of Manchester Central Library Archives.

As previously mentioned by Bryan Sitch in his blog, Belle Vue, Fireworks and an image of China, events in, and depictions of, China were the theme of many pyrodramas for more than seventy years. They included: The Emperor’s Palace and City of Pekin, 1861; The Storming of Port Arthur, 1895; The War in China (The Boxer Rebellion and the Siege of the Foreign Legations), 1901; The Attack of Port Arthur, 1904; The War in Manchuria – the Battle of Mukden, 1905; The Burning of Hankow, 1912; The Chinese War – the Storming of the Taku Forts, 1921; and The Sack of Pekin, 1932. Such a spread over time give us the unique opportunity to chart changes in depictions through the aesthetics and performance of ‘China’ in the pyrodramas, and some of these changes will be explored in the second part of this post.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. delaneyemma says:

    Such an interesting article, it’s fascinating to read about events in a bygone era and how venues and spaces have been used in the past. Interesting to see the links to China.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shelley says:

    This is so interesting, looking forward to the second part.

    Like

  3. Howard Taylor says:

    A fascinating insight into the popularity of Belle Vue as a source of entertainment and cultural activities. Look forward to seeing more.

    Like

  4. Fascinating – looking forward to seeing more. It’s interesting that half of the battles you mention had little to do with British imperialism.
    The Storming of Port Arthur, 1895 – Sino-Japanese War
    The Attack of Port Arthur, 1904 – Russo-Japanese War
    The War in Manchuria/the Battle of Mukden, 1905 – Russo-Japanese War
    The Burning of Hankow, 1912 – Chinese Nationalist Revolution
    So presumably people went to ‘witness’ exciting international events regardless of their connection with Britain.

    Like

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