Randall Williams

Randall Williams, the 'King of Showmen', was one of the first showmen to introduce moving pictures to the fairgoing public. When his already famous Grand Phantascopical Exhibition opened on Valentine's Day in King's Lynn, to the surprise of showmen and fair-goers alike, it was advertising a new attraction - moving pictures. However, he had already anticipated the popularity of this new phenomenon on the fairground. At the World's Fair Exhibition in December 1896 he had converted his elaborate ghost show for the exhibiting of this latest novelty. The early films shown in this exhibition booth included Louis Fuller and the Serpentine dance, the Czar in Russia and a selection of Lumiere films. As early as 1890 Williams was travelling his Phantascopical Exhibition advertising it as the greatest ghost show in the world. However, there may be an element of truth in the advertisements and hand bills which further advertised the fact that 1,000 people could be comfortably accommodated. As well as the illusions, Williams gave variety acts in the show, and incorporated the tricks he had learnt from his first conjuring act that he had originally presented on the fairgrounds.

Until his death in 1898 Randall Williams kept one step ahead of his fellow showmen and the ex-ghost show could be found exhibiting at the October Fair in Hull and the Sheffield Christmas Fair in 1897. Randall Williams died in November 1898 whilst attending Grimsby Status. His funeral was extensively covered by local and theatrical press and the 1899 Hull newspapers carry a tribute to his shows which had always been the major attraction at the annual October fair.

During his lifetime he was perhaps the most famous showman of his day and instrumental in the founding of the United Kingdom Van Dwellings Protection Association, in 1889, the forerunner of today's Showmen's Guild. After his death his show continued to be presented by his son in law, Richard Monte, and his brother James Monte. Realising the reputation of the name Randall Williams, the two brothers travelled under the Williams name, with Richard Monte in later years often being mistaken for the original showmen. The name of Randall Williams continued to be displayed on the variety of bioscope shows that the brother travelled. The shows were constantly adapted and converted to keep the Williams name ahead of the latest innovations on the fairground.
In 1906 Richard Monte and James Monte Williams acquired a larger show built around a 110 key Gavioli organ. The facade featured automatic coloured light changes, as well as a simulated second organ mounted above the 110 key instrument. It was claimed at the time to be the largest and most powerful organ in the world. In 1907 the show incorporated the Gaumont Chronophone and advertised this latest novelty as singing and talking pictures at Hull Fair in October.

The famous name of Randall Williams disappeared from the front of the cinematograph show he had originally pioneered in 1913 when a disastrous fire destroyed the whole show on 24th January 1913, when the show was standing on Thirsk Market Place. Richard Monte continued to travel on the fairs until finally settling down in Canvey Island and opening a chain of cinemas. However the firm of Randall Williams never achieved the success and notoriety that it had held in the nineteenth century. For thirty years or more Randall Williams shows had dominated the skyline of every major fair in the country; his funeral in Manchester in 1898 was attended not only by notables of showland but also by hundreds of local people who had patronised his shows from the first conjuring booth, until its final presentation in the form of moving pictures.