Randall Williams was one of the greatest travelling showmen of the Victorian age and gained fame for his "Ghost Show" and for the use of early cinematic projection. He was known as the "King of Showmen".
Randall was born in Liverpool in July 1846. He was the son of a travelling showman, Thomas Williams of Warrington and his wife Sarah (nee Glassbrook) of Wigan. Randall's birth coincided with the summertime fairs held on Liverpool's Lime Street. At the time of the 1861 census Randall was at St Helen's, aged 14 and travelling in a van with his parents and sisters Alice and Louisa. In October 1865, Randall was presented for the first time at Hull Fair. He had a small conjuring act. At some time in the late 1860s Thomas and Randall founded Flat Iron Showground on Chapel Street Salford, opposite the Flat Iron Market.
In August 1870, Randall, aged 24, married showgirl Mary Ann Hough at Bradford, Yorkshire. She was 18 years old and the daughter of Henry and Caroline Hough, travelling swing proprietors. In the 1870s Randall became interested in exhibiting a "ghost illusion" show after studying the set up for "Pepper's Ghost" when it came to Manchester. It consisted of projection lights and mirrors to create the effect of ghostly entities. They were popular in music halls from 1863 and by the early 1870s a number of showmen had adapted the technique for use in fairground shows. By 1880 Randall's show was a well established and well known attraction throughout England, Scotland and Wales. In September 1874, Randall and Mary Ann were blessed with their first daughter Annietta (Annetha), but she was to die of bronchitis, aged 1 year and 5 months, when they were at the Bury March Fair. Fortunately, in November 1876, their second daughter Sarah, was born, in Darlington.
In December 1876, Randall was travelling to Sheffield over the Pennines when the convoy was held up by snow for six days. Whilst witnessing a train passing through the Woodhead Tunnel, Randal decided that in future he would travel by rail. However, he was to have a 20 year battle with the railway companies about railway fares. They wanted to charge 9d per mile and he argued for 6d per mile. In January 1878, Alice was born at Barton-upon-Irwell, but sadly she died of tuberculosis 18 months later. In April 1879 Annie was born in Hulme and in November Randall was advertising accommodation to showmen in Quay Street, Manchester.
On 5th July 1880, the couple's fifth daughter Caroline, was born at the Greenock Fair and in the 1881 census, the family was living at 66, Quay Street, Manchester. During that year they were at Liverpool in May, Peterhead (Aberdeenshire) in September, Hull in October and Bacup in December where sadly, Sarah died of bronchitis, aged 5. Randall was at Preston Guild Fair in August 1882, but later that year, whilst unloading a caravan at Dewsbury Great Northern Railway Goods Yard, his leading actor George King was crushed and killed. In 1884, Randall's wife Mary Ann, died at their home in Lower Byrom Street, Manchester, at the age of 33. She was buried at Bury Cemetery with Annietta, Alice and Sarah. Annie was 5 and Caroline was 4 years old. In the late 1880s Randall met and married "Red Annie", daughter of George Radford and a popular parader on fairgrounds. They were to have five sons.
In 1889, a number of prominent showmen including Randall, convened a meeting at the Black Lion Hotel, Salford and formed The United Kingdom Van Dwelling Protection Association (the forerunner of the Showmen's Guild). In 1890, he was advertising his "Grand Phanta-scopical Exhibition" a very elaborate ghost show. Randall's first son, named Randall was born in November 1890, but he too died of bronchitis in March 1892 in West Hartlepool, aged just 16 months. In July of that year, his second son Thomas Randall, was born at Southwalk. Also in July, Randall had engaged "Little Titch", the smallest comedian in the world and was advertising that 1,000 people could be comfortably accommodated at his show. In April 1893 he advertised that he wanted to sell "the largest and grandest Ghost Show on Earth, size 50 feet at the front and 80 feet at the rear", at Trafford Road Fairground, Salford. In July of that year his third son Henry was born at Southwark.
In 1894, Randall acquired an "electric light engine" and in February 1895, he was at the London World Fair in Islington, where his fourth son Albert Edward was born. In January 1896 he was unanimously elected as Chairman at the Showmen's Annual Supper and Ball in Islington. In September he was at Southwark where his fifth son George William was born and in October he was at Nottingham showing "the first moving picture show called the kinetoscope". 1897 was Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee and Randall was heavily involved with the planning and running of the Jubilee Exhibition in London. He also acted as Agent for USA gymnasts "Le Favette Brothers". In October he was at the famous Goose Fair in Nottingham with his "Electroscopic and Mammoth Phantoscoptical Exhibition" showing animated photographs of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.
In 1898, Randall was honoured by being elected as Vice President of the Van Dwellers Association. Later at Kings Lynn, he and five others convened a meeting regarding the insurance of equipment, where they formed the Travellers Insurance Company. However, in October, in Grimsby he became dangerously ill with typhoid fever. His doctor prescribed a long rest, but he died of pneumonia on 14th November. He was 52 years old. Annie was left to raise 4 young sons on her own.
The funeral took place at Weaste Cemetery on 18th November 1898. Great crowds of Manchester and Salford people lined the route and there was a large gathering of showmen at the cemetery. The service in the Church of England chapel and at the graveside in plot F was conducted by Rev.T.Horne, Chaplain to the Showmen's Guild. On the Sunday following the funeral hundreds of former patrons wended their way to Weaste Cemetery to see his grave.