Reilly and the Pomona Gardens: Ambition or revenge?
A major venue for the entertainment of the people of Manchester was the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens. Opened in 1836 by John Jennison it was a significant expansion of his earlier activities in the “leisure industry”. He was an entrepreneur and part-time gardener who sold produce to the public from his gardens and, together with his wife, developed a small aviary on their site known as Strawberry Gardens, near Adswood, Stockport. They moved to a site of 36 acres, between Kirkmanshulme Lane and Hyde Road, and began to develop a zoological garden in addition to their early offerings – an Italian garden, a lake, a maze and hothouses. By 1839 they had elephants, lions and other exotic animals. The popularity of the gardens grew rapidly and by 1842 a railway station opened near Belle Vue which increased its accessibility to the wider public. This meant that instead of being the preserve of the better off, who could visit in their horse drawn carriages and partake of genteel entertainment, more and more working class folk began to visit which led to friction and resentment on both sides.
In 1846 a rival venue opened alongside the River Irwell at Cornbrook in Hulme. The Beardsley brothers developed gardens to which the masses were brought by steamship, along the river, by and omnibuses. The firework displays were one area of fierce competition but, it would seem, that Belle Vue was winning in the popularity stakes and that the fortunes of Pomona were fading
This was the context in which, according to the memoirs of George Jennison (1) something happened which seriously challenged the future of Belle Vue. At some point, between the mid 1840s and 1860s yet to be defined, he alleges that:
“For some reason, good or bad, a certain Mr J Reilly was refused admission to the Belle Vue Ballroom in the select period after the fireworks. The circumstances annoyed him so much that he said “I’ll take Pomona and set up in opposition”, and he kept his word.”
Apparently, the Jennisons had sought to preserve a polite atmosphere in the ballroom by excluding the “hoi polloi” and perhaps regarded the artisan Reilly as one of them. But Reilly was a man of ambition and social aspiration, judging by his achievements, and clearly resented the rejction. It may have fuelled his ambition but, as we do not know the date of the incident, it is unclear how long the rentment burned until he was able to take his revenge. But he bought the Pomona Gardens from the Beardsleys in 1868, and made a great success of it for the next 20 years.
1. Jennison, George, M.A., F.Z.S. “John Jennison – Belle Vue – Relating the Making and Growth of the Famous Zoological Gardens, Belle Vue, Manchester etc” Berwick Lodge, Disley,1929. (Edited and annotated by Zoe Wilcox, Manchester Metropolitan University ).
Damage following the explosion at Roberts, Dale Co, June 22nd 1887 (Images reproduced courtesy Manchester Libraries)