Chartist, surgeon, heretic, Archdruid and pioneer in the legislation of cremation in the British Isles, Dr William Price was undoubtedly one of the most flamboyant, romantic and revolutionary characters in Welsh history.
Famed healer, crusader of reform, exiled political activist and a sparkling, dynamic, eloquent man who blazed progress and controversy by outraging a conventional society, there was much more to Price than his radical attitudes to cremation.
History has often portrayed Price as an eccentric healer whose obsession with druidism resulted in his outrageous act of blasphemy by cremating the remains of his infant child.
Dr William Price was 84 years of age when he committed his son's body to the “cleansing flame but history has conveniently forgotten his great achievements up until that moment and although the passing of the Cremation Act is due to Price's historic court case there was much, much more to him than his attitude towards the disposal of the dead.
Dr William Price by Alexander Steward c.1821
Born in 1800 in the village of Rudry near Caerphilly and poverty stricken in his youth, Dr Price's father was an insane priest although Price remarkably studied medicine and became a surgeon in London at the age of just twenty-one.
On his return to Wales he was befriended by the rich Crawshay ironmasters and gained the role of surgeon of works at their Treforest Tinplate Works, also becoming physician to the workforce of the neighbouring Brown Lenox Chainworks.
It was there that he created an embryonic social healthcare service, before beginning a life-long obsession with neo-Druidism, a cult influenced by the fabricated manuscripts of Welsh historian Iolo Morganwg. Along with his fellow druids Price practiced his faith religiously on Pontypridd's famous Rocking Stones where he masterminded the idea of creating the first Museum of Welsh Life.
All that is left of the failed project today are the two striking gatehouses, better known as Glyntaff's Round Houses which have become an iconic part of the local landscape. With its failure came his new obsession for political reform and was soon appointed Leader of the Charist movement in the Pontypridd and Rhondda valleys.
Although he didn't “march on Newport” in 1839 following distrust between himself and John Frost, the Welsh Leader of the movement, Price was a militant individual who went ahead and armed himself with a cannon. Given his standing in society and his eloquent ringing speeches made to massed political rallies he had the power to mobilise an army of workers for the cause.
Instead he was exiled to France, only returning some months later to continue his work with the Chartists by creating the Ponty-y-ty-Pridd Provision Company, the first known Cooperative Society in Wales and pre-dating the recognised original society of this kind by almost twenty years.
Dr William Price depicted as the "Primitive Bard", 1871
What followed was a penchant for litigation and trials for perjury and manslaughter along with his delight in Welsh language and culture for which he was considered a master scholar, Price was clearly a maverick, rebellious character. Whether it was his efforts to support a National Eisteddfod in Wales, raise funds to build a second bridge over the River Taff at Pontypridd, mix with the gentry in champagne balls and study Eastern Religions, Greek and Egyptian obelisks and hieroglyphics with the outlandish Francis Crawshay, Price never had a quiet year to reflect on his achievements.
When he wasn't fighting for better wages and improved health care for the working man, he was defending the plight of the unmarried mother. A believer in vegetarianism and free love, he fathered several daughters in his middle age, always hoping for a first-born son that he prophesised would eradicate Christianity from Britain and return the druidic religion to its rightful prominence.
Dr Price moved to Llantrisant in 1871 and on his 83rd birthday he held a druidic marriage with his 22-year-old housekeeper Gwenllian Llewellyn of Cilfynydd. All of his hopes and dreams came to fruition when a son was born who he incredulously named “Iesu Grist” (Jesus Christ) Price, claiming he was the new druidic Messiah.
On his death at five months Price's actions to cremate the body in his new hometown of Llantrisant caused widespread notoriety in the international press. He fought and won the landmark court case unrepresented and his success was used to pass the Cremation Act of 1902. He fathered illegitimate children with a housekeeper sixty years his junior and died sipping a glass of champagne at the age of ninety-two. His own pre-arranged open air cremation welcomed more than 20,000 people to Llantrisant.
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