Wanted, A Few Useful People for the
Ghost Business: The Story of Victorian Showman Randall Williams
by Pauline Gashinski
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Number of Pages: 88
Publication Date: October 2011
Publisher: Pauline Gashinski
Randall Williams was born in Liverpool
in 1846. His career as a showman began with a small magic act, but
he was soon doing well enough that in 1873 (when he was just 27) he
was able to start his own ghost illusion show. That was a type of
stage show that combined theatrical representations with the optical
effect known as 'Pepper's Ghost.'
Randall toured with his 'Great Ghost Show' for more than 25 years.
It was part ghost illusion theatre, part variety show, and was just
the type of light entertainment that appealed to working class
audiences. Randall was also one of the first travelling showmen to
exhibit films in his show. The highlight of his career, however, was
when he was invited by the famous showman-entrepreneur, Imre Kiralfy,
to exhibit his show at the Victorian Era Exhibition at Earl's Court
in London in the summer of 1897. Randall's "original Pepper's Ghost"
thrilled audiences the entire summer and led to him becoming known
as 'The King of Showmen.'
Randall spent his entire life 'on the road' and was one of the
travelling show community's most outspoken activists. He was one of
a small group of showmen who met in Salford in late 1890 to organize
a protest against the Moveable Dwellings Bill. The bill was
introduced by child welfare reformer, George Smith, and was aimed at
regulating and controlling the gypsy population. However, had it
passed, it would have had dire consequences for all those whose
livelihoods depended on a travelling lifestyle. The story of the
showmen's fight with Smith over the bill, and how it led to the
founding of the Van Dwellers Protection Association (the present day
Showmen's Guild of Great Britain) at a meeting in George's Sanger's
Amphitheatre in London in 1891 has never been told before.
Randall's story is told against a backdrop of hundreds of
contemporary newspaper articles and advertisements spanning the
period from the early 1870s to the late 1890s. The various news
sources provided a unique glimpse at the culture of the travelling
show community during the late Victorian period. Anyone with an
interest in the history of travelling shows, ghost illusion shows,
early film exhibitions, working class entertainment, and 'life on
the road' during Victorian times will find this book appealing. It
will also be of interest to anyone whose ancestors made a living in
the fairground and travelling amusement trade in Britain (includes
sections on the Monte and Williams showmen).