Randall Kay Williams (17 July 1846 – 14 November 1898) was a Victorian showman noted for popularising moving pictures on British fairgrounds. The first known reference to films being exhibited in Williams' show was at Rotherham Statute Fair on 2 November 1896.
Williams toured Britain for 25 years, first with a ghost illusion show, and then with a bioscope. He reached the height of his career in the summer of 1897 when he exhibited at the Victorian Era Exhibition in Earl's Court, London. His show that year was designed specifically to pay homage to Queen Victoria's sixty year reign with a programme that included an "original Pepper's Ghost" performance, ‘animated photographs’ of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Procession (filmed 22 June 1897), and a Tableau vivant presentation representing the Queen surrounded by the flags of all nations.
Williams was also an outspoken advocate for the travelling show community and a founding member of the United Kingdom Van Dwellers’ Protection Association, the fairground trade organization known today as the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain.
Randall Williams was born in Liverpool on 17 July 1846. His father, Thomas, came from an extended family of travelling showmen with roots in Warrington. The Williams family toured amusements from the mid 1840s until the early 1900s. Their various interests included mechanical exhibitions, waxworks exhibits, photography booths, ghost shows, and cinematograph exhibitions.
Ghost illusion show
Williams' primary interest was the ghost illusion show he started in 1871. A ghost illusion show was a type of stage show that combined theatrical presentations with the optical technique known as Pepper's Ghost. Ghost illusions were popular in British theatres throughout the 1860s but did not appear in fairground shows until the early 1870s.
The travelling show’s adaptation of Pepper’s Ghost was typically a short stage play, consisting of three acts and a comic song - all done in about twenty minutes. The final act usually ended with a ‘transformation’ scene representing the final passage from this life to the next, and during which, at least one ghostly entity from the Spirit World made its appearance. The ‘ghost,’ a life-like, three dimensional and free moving apparition was the reflection of a living being (an actor) who was brightly lit up by limelight, and positioned off stage out of sight of the audience’s view.
Putting on the ‘ghost’ was a rather costly undertaking for travelling show proprietors. The essential requirements were a source of lighting (limelight), a large mirror, and a large sheet of plate glass upon which to reflect the images. The glass had to be erected so that it sat at a forty-five degree angle at the front of the stage and, it had to be housed in a box specially built for transport. The final component was a platform-type stage built high enough to accommodate the actors (the ghosts) who worked directly below and to the front of the stage, as well as the limelight worker, whose job it was to illuminate the actors whose images were reflected onto and through the glass. An enclosure or partition was erected around the front of the stage to prevent the audience from seeing all the activity that was going on below the surface.
Williams' show was part ghost illusion theatre and part variety show. The artists he employed included actors, song and dance teams, magicians, ballet dancers, mummers and comedians like the Great Little Titch. He also hired international acts such as The Brothers LaFayette (American tight rope walkers) and Professor Howard (an American illusionist). By the early 1880s, Williams' show had many of the same trappings as a theatrical touring company. The show’s crew in Manchester at the time of the 1881 census consisted of a number of actors, actresses, comedians, musicians and comic singers, as well as a set decorator and a dramatic author.
The programs for Williams' show varied, but audiences were usually treated to at least one melodrama and a comical farce or two. His show at the New Year’s fair in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1873, advertised a program of “a specially written adaptation of the late Chas. Dickens’s Christmas story of the Haunted Man;” “Gounod’s famous Opera of Faust and Marguerite;” “the tableux illustrative of the heart-stirring poem of Little Jim, the Collier’s Child;” “the thrilling legend of Adrian, the Avenger;” and the “Goblin’s Haunt, introducing the Gorgeous Transformation Scene.” Additional enticements included “the Seraph or Living Head” and other “Entertainment of Prestidigitation.”
Ghost illusions were the mainstay of Williams' show for almost a quarter of a century with the 'ghosts' making their final appearance at Nottingham Goose Fair in October 1897. Williams' show travelled under a variety of different names over the years including The Great Hobgoblinscope (1872 - 1885); Great Ghost Show (1881 - 1895); and Randall Williams Grand Electroscope and Mammoth Phantoscopical Exhibition (1896-1897).
Ghost show presentations
- The Haunted Man: Bolton New Year's Fair 1873
- Adrien the Avenger: Bolton New Year's Fair 1873
- Goblin's Haunt: Bolton New Year's Fair 1873
- Faust, or The Devil and The Doctor (in 3 acts) or Faust and Marguerite: Bolton New Year's Fair 1873; York Martinmas Fair 1880; Sowerby Rushbearing Festival 1886; Bingley Hall, Birmingham, 1886-87
- The Aerial Phenomenon: Pembroke Hall, Liverpool, Christmas 1874
- Chawbacon's Troubles: Pembroke Hall, Liverpool, Christmas 1874
- The Misanthrope: Pembroke Hall, Liverpool, Christmas 1874
- Death of Little Jim or Little Jim, The Collier`s Dying Child (based on the poem by Edward Farmer): Pembroke Hall, Liverpool 1874 ; Sowerby Rushbearing Festival 1886.
- Crackskull Abbey (a spoof on the antics of real-life fraudster, Arthur Orton, who masqueraded as the missing heir, Sir Roger Tichborne): Hull Fair 1874
- Pilots Grave: Peterhead, Scotland 1881
- Paddy Mile's Boy, or Ghost at the Wake: Peterhead 1881
- The Dying Fisherman’s Child: Peterhead 1881
- Mistletoe Bough: Chesterfield, 1884
- Fall of Khartoum (a melodrama depicting the death of General Charles Gordon at the Battle of Khartoum in late January 1885): Aston Fair 1885
- The Bells, "as played by Henry Irving" (The Bells was a three-act play by Leopold Davis Lewis. Henry Irving was the British actor most commonly associated with the lead role): Boston May Fair 1895
- The Colleen Bawn (based on a melodrama by Irish play-write Dion Boucicault): Boston May Fair 1895
- Faith, Hope, and Charity: Boston May Fair 1895
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin (accompanied by James Tipton's “Eva, A musically illustrated service compiled and arranged from Uncle Tom's Cabin"): 1896
- Adrian the Betrayer: Victorian Era Exhibition, Earl's Court, London 1897
Travelling showmen played an important role in introducing the new medium of moving pictures to the British public in the late 1890s. In fact, the speed at which the cinema took off in Britain was due, in large part, to the combined network of exhibitors (travelling showmen) and performance venues (the fairs and fairgrounds) that was already in place.
Randall Williams was one of the first showmen to exhibit films on the fairgrounds. The first known reference to a cinematograph exhibition in his show was at Rotherham Statute Fair on 2 November 1896. The following month, he was the first showman to exhibit films at the World’s Fair, an indoor fair held each year over the Christmas holiday period at the Royal Agricultural Hall in London. Williams' next stop after the World’s Fair was the Valentine's Fair at King's Lynn, Norfolk in February 1897, where it was reported that the "Randall Williams’ Cinematographe Pavilion did immense business."
Haydon and Urry, Ltd.
There is no record of the supplier of the projector used by Williams in the latter months of 1896, but by early February 1897, he was using one supplied by Haydon and Urry, Ltd., a London firm that produced cinematographs and films during the late 1890s. The company's involvement in the cinema trade was short-lived, but they are noted for supplying many of the first fairground film exhibitors.
Williams was the first showmen to use a projector produced by Haydon and Urry and his use of their machine (The Eragraph) came about as a result of three contributing factors: - need, availability, and timing. In early 1897, Haydon and Urry were in the process of developing their own film projector. The company had recently moved their offices and showroom to 353 Upper Street, Islington and were located just across the street from the Royal Agricultural Hall where Williams was exhibiting. Williams was already acquainted with one of the firm’s employees, James Monte (their chief film maker), having met him a year earlier at a showman’s annual supper committee meeting. By early February 1897, Haydon and Urry’s projector was ready for market and according to accounts from that time, Williams was in need of a new one. He had opened at the World’s Fair with an exhibition of films, but the projector he was using ("the Electroscope") had been condemned as a fire risk by London County officials. Getting a showman as well known as Randall Williams on board with their new projector was no doubt a major coup for Haydon and Urry. The firm applied for a patent (application no. 3572) for their cinematograph on 10 February 1897 - just as the World’s Fair was ending - and just five days prior to the opening of Williams' show at King’s Lynn at the start of the fairground season. The projector used by Williams at King's Lynn would have been the firm’s earliest model and, it was likely the same model he used throughout the summer, leading Haydon and Urry to claim in their advertising that their machine had been used “with unqualified success at Victorian Era Exhibition all Last Season.”
Williams was Haydon and Urry’s best known exhibitor, but their Eragraph projector was popular with numerous other early film show proprietors including Harry Scard (of Wadbrook and Scard fame); Albert and George Biddall; Alfred Reynold (Reynold’s Waxworks Exhibition, Liverpool); John Cooper; George Aspland; Charles Thurston; George Lewis; James Crighton; James Norman; George Williams; Walter Lear (Lears’ Pierrot Minstrels); M. de Montel; Signor Ernest Polverini; Hamilton Brothers (diorama exhibition); John Sylvester (Sylvester’s Circus); and Mr. C. A. James (World’s Fair Wax-works, Dublin).
Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee procession
Williams' main draw in 1897 were films supplied by Haydon and Urry of Queen Victoria's Jubilee Procession on 22 June 1897. The company opened its own film production studio in April 1897 and the Jubilee films (a series of six films) were produced by James and Richard Monte, two brothers employed by the firm. The films were exhibited at the London Pavilion the same night they were filmed and are believed to have been the first footage of the procession to be seen by the public. A second copy of the films was dispatched by train to Liverpool where they were exhibited by the owners of Reynolds Waxworks and Variety Exhibition on Lime Street within 24 hours of the procession having taken place.
Other films produced for Haydon & Urry by the Monte brothers included scenes of Henley Regatta, Lady Overboard, The Bride's First Night, and the funeral procession of William Terriss, an actor murdered by a jealous rival in December 1897.
- Queen of the Antipodes: World’s Fair, Royal Agricultural Hall, London, December 1896
- Fishery Exhibition: World’s Fair, London, December 1896
- The Czar in Paris: King’s Lynn, February 1897
- Serpentine Dance: King's Lynn, February 1897
- A Paris boulevard: King’s Lynn, February 1897
- A march past of the Royal blues: King’s Lynn, February 1897
- Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Procession: Victorian Era Exhibition, London, June 1897: Nottingham Goose Fair 1897
- Graeco-Turkish War film (a fake war film): Nottingham Goose Fair 1897
- Mdme Loie Fuller in a most beautiful Serpentine dance: Hull Fair 1897
- Village Blacksmith: Hull Fair 1897
- The teetotaller that got drunk - roars of laughter: Hull Fair 1897
- The old gardener - very humerous [sic]: Hull Fair 1897
- Express training coming into a local station, people getting in and out of the train: Hull Fair 1897
- Prize fight between Fitzsimmons & Corbett (likely Haydon & Urry’s The Great Fight – Knockout): Hull Fair 1897
- A young lady taking a morning bath (likely Haydon & Urry's Impromptu Bath): Hull Fair 1897
- Wrestling Match for Championship of the World: Hull Fair 1897
- On the benches in the park: Hull Fair, October 1897
- The unfaithful wife: Hull Fair, October 1897
- Bathing at Blackpool: Hull Fair, October 1897
- Sea at Storm: Hull Fair, October 1897
- The Queen’s carriage near St. Paul’s, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cambridge, Foreign Princes, Colonial Premiers, &c.: Hull Fair, 1897
- Local Animated Subjects: Malton Hiring Fair, 1897
- Funeral of William Terriss (filmed by Haydon & Urry): World’s Fair, London, 1897
- Snowballing Match: World’s Fair, London, 1897
- A film depicting the 1898 Spanish-American war: Manningham Feast, Yorkshire, August 1898
- Gladstone’s Funeral: London, June 1898
- Dr. Grace’s Jubilee Day at Lords: Nottingham Goose Fair 1898
The Van Dweller's Protection Association
Williams was one of the travelling show community’s more outspoken advocates. He organized several protests over the years against the railway companies over the rates they were charging travelling amusement caterers. He was also one of a small group of showmen who met at the Black Lion Hotel in Salford in late 1890 to organize a protest against the Moveable Dwellings Bill. The proposed bill had been initiated by child welfare reformer, George Smith, and was described as “providing for the regulation of vans, vehicles and tents used as dwellings.” It’s real intent, however, was to enact legislation aimed at regulating and controlling the gypsy population and forcing itinerant parents to send their children to school. There were some commendable aspects to the bill, but the showmen believed that if the bill passed, it would restrict their ability to travel and pose a serous threat to their livelihoods.
The showmen’s dispute with George Smith over the bill lasted another three years. Smith’s final attempt to regulate the itinerant population was a revised bill in 1894 for the “improvement of moveable dwellings,” but little became of it and Smith died less than a year later. The showmen’s opposition to the bill, however, left a lasting legacy. It helped shape a new alliance between the men and women who made a living with traveling amusements and led to them forming the United Kingdom Van Dwellers’ Protection Association at a meeting in Lord George Sanger's Amphitheatre in London on 12 February 1891. The new van dwellers association was the start of a new trade organization and it helped define those in the travelling amusement trade as a distinct group, socially and economically separate from other groups of travellers.
The Van Dweller’s Protection Association was renamed the Showmen’s Guild in 1900 and is known today as the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain. Williams was deeply involved in the Van Dweller’s Protection Association, both as a committee member and as one of the Vice Presidents for the Manchester Section.
Death and legacy
Williams' last show was at Freeman Street Market in Great Grimsby, Lincolnshire, where he died of typhoid fever on 14 November 1898. He was buried at Weaste Cemetery in Salford on 18 November with the funeral service being conducted by the Reverend Thomas Horne. Williams was survived by his long-term partner, Annie Radford Williams, daughters, Caroline and Annie, and sons, Randall, Thomas, Eddie Albert, and George. He was predeceased by his first wife, Mary Ann Hough, who died in 1884.
Following his death, Williams' main bioscope was taken over by his daughter Carrie and her husband, Dick Monte (former Haydon and Urry employee). They continued to travel the show as the Randall Williams Cinematograph Show until 1913 when it was destroyed by fire at Thirsk, Yorkshire. Williams' No. 2 show was taken over by his daughter and son-in-law, Annie and Reuben Williams. They travelled with their bioscope until 1906.