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Price, Williamfree

(1800–1893)
  • James Gregory

William Price (1800–1893)

by unknown photographer, pubd 1871

unknown collection; photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London

Price, William (1800–1893), physician, self-styled archdruid, and advocate of cremation, was born on 4 March 1800 at Ty'nycoedcae in the parish of Rudry, Monmouthshire, the third son of an impoverished Anglican clergyman, William Price (1760–1841), and his wife, Mary (d. 1844), an illiterate maidservant. After schooling at nearby Machen, Price was apprenticed to Evan Edwards, a surgeon at Caerphilly. His medical education continued in London, at St Bartholomew's Hospital and the London Hospital, and he qualified MRCS LSA in 1821. He returned to south Wales and became a successful general physician practising at Nantgarw, Trefforest, and Pontypridd, where he was the medical officer at the Ynysangharad works.

Price was interested in social and political reform and attempted to establish a national educational and cultural foundation by the ancient rocking-stone at Pontypridd in 1838. He became active in the Chartist movement in south Wales, leading the Pontypridd Chartists and playing a part in planning the Newport rising in 1839 by organizing the supply of arms, although he did not participate in it. He escaped briefly to Paris.

Price returned about March 1840 and continued to be involved in Chartism until the mid-1840s. He was the leader of a Pontypridd Provision Company, the first Welsh co-operative. Thereafter his enthusiasm for druidism and litigation consumed his energies and expressed a mental state which went beyond eccentricity into the realms of schizophrenia. Possibly there was an element of heredity, since his father had been insane from the age of thirty.

By the late 1840s Price was reported as wearing his famously bizarre ‘druidic’ clothing of green trousers and fox-skin headdress, long hair, and beard. He had developed an interest in druidism in the late 1830s, having earlier studied Indian religion and literature. He claimed in 1871, in Gwyll-llis yn nayd ('The will of my father'), a privately published pamphlet written in his own version of ‘ancient’ Welsh, to have discovered an engraved stone in the Louvre in 1839, which supported his extravagant theories and identification with an original ‘Primitive Bard’.

Newspapers reported Price's increasingly eccentric public behaviour, culminating in 1884 with the great controversy which brought him national notoriety, when he attempted to burn the remains of his infant son on Cae'r-lan Fields hilltop, overlooking Llantrisant (near Pontypridd), where he had made his home. The boy, the son of Price with his housekeeper, had been proclaimed by him the future messiah and named Iesu Grist Price (Jesus Christ Price). He was tried in Cardiff at the winter assizes of 1884 for the crime of cremation; the jury found him not guilty. The trial and Judge Fitzjames Stephen's judgment established the legality of cremation in Britain.

The judgment was hailed by hygienic promoters of cremation but Price's action was motivated rather by druidic beliefs. Some of his notions on health and hygiene were certainly advanced and unorthodox. He believed that the patient should pay only if his health was restored, rejected conventional medicines as poisonous, and condemned vaccination. Vegetarian from about 1848, he held that Abraham had been a cannibal, and claimed that the pyramids of Egypt had been constructed to destroy this trait. He refused to treat smokers, insisted on the washing of coins, and refused to wear socks.

The cremation and trial consolidated Price's reputation as an arch-eccentric, a reputation elaborated by local anecdotes and press interviews revealing his unorthodox views on marriage and death. He died at Llantrisant on 23 January 1893 in comparative poverty, having made detailed arrangements for his body to be cremated in cast-iron sheeting on Cae'r-lan Fields Hill.

Price had one daughter, Gwenhelion (born c.1841, styled by Price Hiarhles Morganwg, or countess of Glamorgan), with Ann Morgan of Pen-tyrch; his ‘druidic’ marriage to his housekeeper, Gwenllian Llewllyn of Llanwynno, produced three other children: Penelope Elizabeth, Iesu Grist Price (5 Aug 1883–10 Jan 1884), and a second Iesu Grist Price, born on 9 October 1884.

Price's eccentricity was the result of a combination of mental illness and radicalism. His bizarre behaviour and unwitting role in establishing cremation as a legal alternative means for disposal of the dead secured posthumous fame. The life of the ‘archdruid’ of Llantrisant has been explored in doctoral research and monographs, and dramatized in stage and radio plays. Fittingly, for a man who was immersed in Welsh culture, whether genuine or self-invented, and whose druidic activity can be seen as an assertion of Welsh identity, his druidic costume and other personalia are preserved at the Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff.

Sources

  • J. Cule, ‘The eccentric Dr William Price of Llantrisant, 1800–1893’, Morgannwg, 7 (1963), 98–120
  • J. Cule, ‘Dr William Price (1800–1892) of Llantrisant: a study of an eccentric and a biography of a pioneer of cremation’, MD diss., U. Cam., 1960
  • B. Davies, ‘Empire and identity: the “case” of Doctor William Price’, A people and a proletariat: essays in the history of Wales, 1780–1980, ed. D. Smith (1980), 72–93
  • ‘Ap Id Anfryn’, ‘Doctor Price of Llantrisant: the famous druid interviewed. Sketch of his life and adventures’, Cardiff Times and South Wales Weekly News (19 May–23 June 1888)

Archives

  • Museum of Welsh Life, Cardiff, artefacts incl. costume
  • NL Wales, map collection, photographic albums, and loose photographs
  • NL Wales, papers

Likenesses

  • A. Steward, oils, 1820–1821, Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagan's Castle, Cardiff
  • A. C. Hemming, oils, 1918, Wellcome L.
  • engraving (after photograph by Forrest, Pontypridd), repro. in Cardiff Times (26 May 1888)
  • photograph, NL Wales; repro. in W. Price, Gwyll-llis yn nayd (1871) [see illus.]
  • photographs, NL Wales, department of pictures and maps

Wealth at Death

£400 5s. 6d.: probate, 20 Feb 1893, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

‘comparative poverty’: Cule, ‘Dr William Price of Llantrisant’

J. E. Lloyd & others, eds., (1959) [Eng. trans. of Y bywgraffiadur Cymreig hyd 1940, 2nd edn (1954)]; R. T. Jenkins, E. D. Jones, & B. F. Roberts, eds., (2001) [with suppl. to 1940]