Giving up the Ghost

In 1946, Rachel Low and Richard Manvell, co-authors of ‘The History of British Film’, were in receipt of a letter from Randall Williams, fairground ghost-showman and, reputedly, the first person ever to exhibit moving pictures on a British fairground. He wrote of his early days in the business, and, in particular, of his film-making experience with the London based firm of Haydon and Urry.

It was a remarkable letter to have received, not solely because of the content, but because Williams had died back in 1898. This is an attempt to trace the career of the real Randall Williams, and unravel the mystery of the fake ‘Randall Williams’. It is also an attempt to examine the phenomenon of the ‘ghost-show’ itself, and investigate the reasons why successful ghost show operators like Williams were among the very first to switch to the new attractions of ‘moving pictures’.

There’s nothing like Pepper to spice up a story

Randall Williams gave his first commercial moving-picture demonstrations on Christmas Eve, 1896, at the Agricultural Hall, Islington, on the opening afternoon of the annual ‘World’s Fair’, to be more specific, within the huge canvas and wooden-bearded auditorium of his famous ‘Grand Phantascopical Exhibition’.

The Agricultural Hall had been erected by the Smithfield Club in 1861/2 as a showplace for livestock and agricultural machinery, but from the outset had also accommodated a variety of other regular arena events, including dog-shows, bull-fights, walking-matches, and George Sanger’s circus. In the winter of 1873/4 the lessees established an annual, Christmas ‘World’s Fair’. Intended as ‘Old Bartholomew under cover’, it had grown over the years into a major event. Its vast glass-domed 500 x 220 ft interior accommodated international circus artistes, who performed in a large centre-ring, and an array of fairground ‘walk-up’ shows and living wagons, which stood in the shadow of an enormous Christmas tree. In 1896, the ‘Fair’ was at the height of its popularity, attracting upwards of 1,000,000 visitors throughout its six week run.

Randall Williams had been attending the event for the full span of 23 years – first with his ‘Great Ghost Show’. His later ‘Grand Phantascopical Exhibition’ had become something of an institution.

Regulars must have registered some surprise then, when, on arrival at the Hall in 1896, they discovered that this familiar show had been given over – not in part – but in its entirety and for eternity, to the exhibition of ‘moving pictures’.

Randall’s performances at the ‘World’s Fair’ were well patronised by the public, although only receiving the most cursory of mentions in both ‘The Era’ and ‘Islington Gazette’, two London papers, already jaded by ten months of cinema-exhibition.

Only on taking to the road was the show’s true impact significant. On 15 February 1897, the exhibition opened at the King’s Lynn Valentine Day Fair. (The 14th being a Sunday). This is what the Lynn Advertiser said of its appearance there …. ” About the best and most up to date of the entertainments is that of Randall Williams, who in a tent splendidly lighted by an electric arc lamp, exhibits some excellent ‘living pictures’ by means of a cinematograph apparatus. The collection including a serpentine dance, the Czar in Paris, a Paris boulevard and a march past of the Royal blues” According to Stephen Worfolk’s booklet ‘The Cinema in Lynn’ the projector was placed somewhat precariously in the midst of the crowd. The audience were asked to refrain from lighting matches, but this was only so as not to interfere with the impact of the pictures.

It is likely, but by no means certain, that the projector used by Randall Williams for these early shows was a prototype machine, built by the slot-machine manufacturing firm of Haydon and Urry of 353, Upper Street, Islington. Williams certainly championed their ‘Eragraph’ machine later in 1897, although this particular model did not go on sale until April of that year.

Also in April, 1898, the firm established their own film production plant, employing three brothers – Richard, James and George Monte – all with some knowledge of professional photography – to produce actuality footage and become showmen-demonstrators.

It was as chief film and equipment supplier that Richard Monte probably came to know Randall Williams, and, more to the point, fell – not only for the travelling showman’s way of life – but also for Randall’s 17-year-old daughter, Carrie, whom he married.

On leaving King’s Lynn the show travelled to other fairs, going from strength to strength, many competitors following its lead. Some showmen like Randall, were successful; others struggled. That’s showbusiness.

However, within all this an important question remains. Why did Randall take the plunge into ‘moving picture’ exhibition so wholeheartedly in 1896, whilst still at the height of his success, as the King of ‘ghost-show’ proprietors?

A show-form which had for over 25 years come to represent the creme-de-la-creme of ‘walk-up’ shows. I would suggest that the answer lay in the past, rather than the present

In an interview with a correspondent from ‘The Chums’ magazine, in 1895, Randall had spoken of his early childhood. Born in St. Martins Street, Liverpool, on 17 July, 1846 to Thomas Williams, a hawker, and his wife, Sarah, he had run away from home whilst still a boy and joined several travelling shows. He eventually saved sufficient money to invest in a small conjouring exhibition and later, in the 1860’s, a ‘ghost-show’. ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ – the well know, phantom producing device – employing a piece of inclined glass to reflect an otherwise hidden figure into a staged dramatic situation – was first presented at the Royal (Regent Street) Polytechnic in December of 1862, as a special effect in a short playlet, based on a short story – ‘The Haunted Man’, by Charles Dickens.

Henry Pepper, manager of the Polytechnic had worked closely on ideas suggested by a mechanical engineer, Henry Dircks, to produce this stage-application of a (for the most part) naturally occurring phenomenon.

It proved such a draw over the Christmas period that its inventors, Dircks and Pepper, extended its run and, soon after, developed the attraction into a three act production for the main 500 seat, auditorium. It ran for 15 months and took 12,000 pounds. For a period of some ten years thereafter, Pepper worked on various other, advanced manifestations of the effect, which were staged both in the ghost’s ‘spiritual’ home and also on tour, in Britain and France.

During this period the effect was also made available for re-production by legitimate theatres under patent-licence. Though, with just a few notable exceptions, most serious theatricals viewed it as little more than a cheap magician’s trick. Much the same thing was said of cinema of course – and as with cinema, conjourers and other showmen were among the first to take a look at the ghost, and see whether it had any potential for them.

Randall Williams, recalled seeing ‘the effect’ for the first time in Manchester, possibly in 1863, when it toured there. And here again we have a reaction reminiscent of those accounts of visits made by showmen to pioneering cinema shows.

“When it came to Manchester I went to the Hall, got a front seat and saw how things worked – the people lying down, the mirrors, lights and all the rest of it. After that I brought it out myself, and it went extremely well – so well I bought a new showfront which cost me 500 pounds.”

Although the ghost-illusion or to be more precise ‘ghost-drama’ was to be frowned upon by serious ‘theatricals’, it flourished under the specialist attentions of hall-showmen such as Gompertz, and particularly fairground-showmen like Williams. Here, quite possibly, because it was, in effect, a timely distillation of three of the most popular, old, existing, fairground showforms – namely – the theatre booth, the conjouring show and a wide and ever-changing array of up-to-date optical curiosities.

Amongst these, most commonly, the peep-show, moving panorama, camera obscura and all manner of improving magic lantern exhibitions. In 1801 Paul de Philipsthal, a German, caused a stir at the Lyceum Theatre in London, with his Phantasmagoria – (literally a ‘gathering of ghosts’). Such exhibitions – staged most spectacularly by Robertson in Paris in the 1790’s – incorporated multiple-image and back-projection techniques, projectors on rails – and images painted on glass, in which characters were made to stand-out in relief against matt-black backgrounds. Phantasmagoria themes were invariably supernatural, sometimes delivered purely as entertainment, and sometimes as pseudo-scientific ‘exposes’ of charlatan-priests and their methods’.

When Philipsthal hit London, Gothic horror was already in vogue, both in popular literature and drama, and the obvious draw of the phantasmagoria soon paid off. And in much the same way as its successors – Pepper’s ghost and cinema – fell next into the hands of leading conjourers and itinerant fairground operators.

The conjourer Gyngell was one such fairground afficionado of Phantasmagoria. In old prints his great show is often seen standing alongside that of the then master ‘walk-up’ showman – the portable theatre of John Richardson.

Although Richardson owned an enormous show, with a spectacular boardwalk and a full programme of entertainment, when attending crowded fairs, he always kept his performances short – very short. Most lasted about fifteen minutes, or, in other words, about as long as it took him to gather a fresh crowd and evict the encumbent audience from within.

Richardson was unconcerned about pleas of value for money. For he firmly believed that as long as audiences copped the swordfight and the ghost, they would feel they had had their moneysworth. Richardson’s belief in ghosts, when ghosts were at their height, is self evident from the titles which adorned many of his playbills …. .’The Monk and the Murderer’, or the ‘Skeleton Spectre’, ‘Donald and Rosaline’, or the ‘Spectre of the Rocks’, ‘Agnes of Bavaria’ or the ‘Spectre of the Danube’ …. and so on.

Although the ferment of this spectral obsession had occurred some twenty to thirty years before Randall Williams’s arrival as a major player on the fairground scene in the early 1870’s – still the legacy remained.

Richardson had died back in 1836, but ‘Richardson’s show’ was still very much in evidence, under new management. It often appeared at the Agricultural Hall in the 1870’s. Similarly, the word ‘phantasmagoria’ had by now slipped into the English language. Even though the old style of presentation and it’s images had become somewhat sanitised by the 1830’s, and its multiple-projection systems, more rational – in the form of that more genteel and edifying form of transformation-entertainment, know as the ‘dissolving views’.

Indeed in 1838, when the Royal Polytechnic Institution opened its doors for the first time – a sort of Victorian version of the Science Museum – its attractions included a theatre – wherein could be seen regular demonstrations of the ‘dissolving views’ perpetrated by its inventor and former slide-painter for Philipsthal, Henry Langdon Childe. And in that same building, in 1862, Professor Pepper’s famous ghost …. aka ‘the new phantasmagoria’. Although Williams may well have established his ‘ghost-show business’ as early as 1863 – with little regard for Pepper’s patent – the first verifiable mention of the Williams show that I can find was its appearance at the ‘Worlds Fair’ of 1873/4, when he advertised the show as being ‘direct from the Polytechnic.’

The following year he had a rival at the Hall, George Wall with his ‘Grand Phantascope. Other fairground operators soon entered the ‘ghost-show’ business: George Sinclair Freeman BIDDELL (1848 – 1909), and later William BIDDELL, with their ‘Phantospectra Ghostodrama’ shows. William CLARKE & Sons, with their ‘Phantom Spectre Ghost Illusion’, later ‘Al Mammoth Ghost Pavilion’. Colonel PARKER’S Genii, Ghost and Goblin Show and also, notably, CHIPPERFIELD, CODONA, MACKNEY, Captain PAYNE, Jim PERKINS, RADFORD and CHAPPELL, Horace HOLLOWAY and Alfred WADBROOK.

Few descriptions of the internal workings of ghost-shows survive. Arthur Sellman’s booklet ‘Travelling Shows and Roundabouts’, publ. 1975. is the best of them. In a nutshell, although the ghost was the gimmick, such shows were primarily theatre booths and provided much more than just a quick sketch with a phantom in it. Many offered a full programme – as with the later Bioscope booths – of variety acts, conjouring and invariably a comic finale, in which ghosts, goblins and other characters would appear from everywhere.

Purely from a technical standpoint the ‘ghost-show’ suggested a natural environment for the new medium of cinema. A large dark auditorium employing operators with some skill at handling projection equipment, and possibly limelight, and a structure already having an air of mystery and the fantastic about it.

And one clue as to why ghost-showmen may have effected the changeover so readily is suggested in the unpublished biography of another theatrical-booth proprietor, film-maker and pioneering Bioscope showman William Haggar of South Wales, who said of his decision to turn to film, that – ‘unlike actors the films could be put back in their box after the performance’.

However, I would suggest that these things, in themselves, constitute insufficient reasons for such a decisive step. I believe that experienced showmen such as Williams, whilst appreciating that cinema was something new, also recognised its potential through its associations with the other popular showforms of the past.

Unfortunately, the great showman Randall Williams was unable to be a part of the great ‘golden-age’ of Bioscope entertainment, for within months of his daughter’s marriage to Richard Monte, he tragically died of typhoid fever, in rented lodgings in Grimsby on 14 November 1898.

Immediately after this Richard Monte – one of Randall’s two trustees – took over full control of the show and also assumed Randall’s name. An act which – compounded by the unreliable and widely contradictory claims made by Monte from the 1930’s through until his death in the 1950’s – has led to much confusion amongst film historians delving into the true history of the real Randall.

Richard and James Monte continued with Randall’s show until 1906, when they acquired another, larger show. On 24 January 1913 this show was destroyed by fire at Thirsk. Monte eventually settled in Canvey Island and opened several cinemas in the area. Although ‘ghost- shows’ per-se declined with the coming of the cinema-show, the public’s preoccupation with ‘ghosts’ and even the concept of ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ remained.

In about 1910, Oskar Meester introduced his ‘Alabastra Theatre’ at the Apollo Theatre in Berlin. This was the Pepper effect, but utilising film of actor-figures – projected into miniature stage settings. The effect ended up, like its ancestor, on the fairgrounds.

Within film itself ‘ghosts’ have been a recurring item, from G.A. Smith’s short ghost- subject films of 1898/9, via ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’ to ‘Ghostbusters’ and the animation movie ‘Caspar’.

On the British fairgrounds the ‘ghost-show’ became the ‘haunted house’ (c. 1908) and later the ‘ghost train’ … And ultimately, using a whole gamut of original ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ effects, the Haunted Mansion’. Just check out your own friendly, and ever-popular, neighbourhood Disneyland.

This feature was originally written by Mervyn Heard and appeared, with permission, on the now defunct in 2002.