University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term > Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain: The Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester

Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain: The Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester

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In the Victorian period one of the most popular places where the public could see displays of wild skins was the zoo. Opportunities were plentiful. Thanks to the growth of empire, to improved transportation, as well as to newly opened routes to distant lands, it was now more possible than ever to collect and bring back creatures or their skins from far-away regions and put them on view before a population eager to see exotic animals and birds. According to one commentator, in the 1860s, throughout Europe, zoological gardens were being established at the rate of one a year. One of these establishments was the Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester, founded by a former silk weaver in 1836. This is a zoo that tends to receive minimal attention by those fascinated with either the history of Manchester or the history of zoos in Victorian Britain. Compared to the more established and intellectually prominent London Zoological Society Gardens, this provincial and transparently commercial (and very popular) institution, once located just three miles from the center of industrial Manchester, tends to be regarded as being relatively inconsequential. I suggest, however, that it is not a place to be overlooked, for Belle Vue in the mid to late nineteenth century offers a vital portrait of its surroundings. Rather than compete with places like the London Zoo, Belle Vue chose to present itself as an institution primarily dedicated to the celebration of its industrial and imperialistic context. Belle Vue was an extension of not only its neighboring manufacturing city but also the nation’s enthusiasm for empire. In this talk, I shall demonstrate Belle Vue’s commitment to its manufacturing and imperialistic context. Belle Vue Zoo both celebrated and replicated the industrial surroundings of Manchester. Looking at the zoo from a distance, people in the mid-nineteenth century would have remarked upon the establishment’s dazzling grounds, illuminated either by Belle Vue’s own gas works or by the electricity powered by its robust generators. They also would have caught sight of the zoo’s buildings, humming with the action of the steam-driven machines within. By utilizing the most up-to-date technology, Belle Vue was an extension of its neighboring manufacturing city. Furthermore, its founder encouraged the presence of the working classes. In addition to showing off the power of industry, Belle Vue Zoo also dedicated itself to glorifying Britain’s imperialistic achievements. As a consequence, it populated its grounds with powerful reminders of Britain’s economic, military, and political campaigns throughout the globe. The zoo’s collections of exotic beasts from Britain’s colonial territories placed its visitor in this larger international context. But even more dramatically – if not excessively, the zoo’s spectacular evening reenactments of recent battles, which demonstrated Britain’s superiority, created a dramatic set of imperialistic portraits. Begun in 1852, these shows distinguished Belle Vue from its competitors and insured the zoo’s financial success. With their display of technological wonders, these performances were extraordinary to watch. In this talk, in addition to demonstrating Belle Vue’s indebtedness to its industrial context, I shall describe several of these productions and show slides of the amazing sets built for these mock battles.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term series.

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