Alf Ball was born into a family who travelled and lived around Hull. His father William Ball was a travelling auctioneer and his children followed him into the travelling life under a variety of occupations. Alf Ball was born in 1864, ten years after his oldest brother Joseph; other siblings included Elijah, and John Henry who married Emily Smith and described himself as an auctioneer and Gypsy.
Alf Ball began travelling a shooting gallery, and later presented boxing shows in his booth. He married Elizabeth Cannard of Bedford and in 1883 they had a son, William Alfred, whilst in Stafford. Their show was a two-wagon show with a barrel organ on the front. What was actually exhibited in this show before 1897 is not known, however by 1895 Thomas Green of Leeds had supplied an electric light engine (1769), for the show. In 1897 Alf Ball followed the example of Randall Williams and started to exhibit moving pictures. He used his old show and changed the name to The Great American Biascope Animated Pictures. As well as opening in London, he attended Oxford, Abingdon and Banbury.
In 1899 the light engine was sold to George Green and another newer engine may have taken its place. The old trumpet barrel organ was also later replaced with an 87-key Gavioli. Professor Alf Ball, as he titled himself, bought his bioscope and dyograph exhibition to Oxford St Giles Fair in the September of 1899 and was again present in 1904 when he exhibited in the company of five other bioscope proprietors, which included Thurstons and Twigdons.
In January, 1906 Alf Ball took delivery of a new Burrell engine (2788) 'Alfred the Great'. At this stage Ball was based at High Street, Deptford. During 1906 the show underwent considerable renovations after much of the showfront was destroyed whilst travelling on the London and North Western Railway. The show had been put on the South Eastern Railway at Stroud, and Ball was hoping to exhibit the show at another venue before going on to Oxford St Giles Fair. When the traction engine Alfred the Great broke down, he asked the railway company to take the show straight on to Oxford. However sparks from the engine set fire to the show front, causing £75 worth of damage to the carved work and paintings. Smiths of Peckham were commissioned to repaint the scenes and Andersons of Bristol reinstated the carved work on the waggons.
Alf Ball regularly attended Mitcham Charter Fair and in 1906 his show was the venue for the public protest meeting against the abolition of the fair. Despite legal representatives and speakers from the Showmen's Guild the showpeople were unsuccessful and they lost their place on the Upped Green the following year. Alf Ball was unable to present his show in his normal position, and he instead attempted to open his exhibition on some waste ground on London Road. As a result of this he was arrested for causing an obstruction which resulted in a court attendance and a £16 fine.
In 1907 a new show with 110 key Gavioli was supplied by Savages, known as the Lyceum Theatre of Pictures and Varieties. The carved work was described as Louis XIV style, and the front was 33' 4" wide and 16' 8" high. On Monday 4th July in 1910 the show was struck by lighting and totally destroyed by fire. Alf Ball had been exhibiting his show at Tilbury Dock in Essex and had retired to bed on the Sunday night. His living carriage was alongside the show and so he was awoken by the flames. He and his son rushed out in their nightshirts to try to save what they could, but they were unable to do much to prevent the flames from spreading and destroying everything with the exception of the back wagon. A report and photograph of the remains appear in the World's Fair of 9th July, 1910. When the family opened at Mitcham Charter in August the show had been patched together with a replacement organ on long term loan from Chiappas, and a projector and films donated by Professor Lloyd. The World's Fair collected a subscription to help compensate Mr Ball.
The show continued to travel until 1914 when the decline in popularity of the bioscope shows caused them to disappear from the fairground. The 110 key Gavioli, which had been supplied by Chiappa was returned to the firm when the show ceased travelling. It was rebuilt and presumably painted with a new art nouveau front. Alfred the Great was sold to Pat Collins in 1914 and the rebuilt organ was sold by Chiappas's to Billy Nichols to go in his Gallopers in 1925.
World's Fair 27-9-13
World's Fair 9th July 1910.
Merry-Go-Round Vol VII No 1. March 1951. London Area