As a family they lived a rather poverty stricken existence, depending on poor relief and donations from Price relatives to survive. Young William, as his father before him, showed remarkable promise as a self-educated scholar and soon benefited from some formal education at a day school in the village of Machen. Unable to speak a word of English until the age of 10, as Welsh was the language of the home, the boy blossomed at the day school run by Mr Gatward under the Lancastrian Principle, and was even offered a teaching role by his thirteenth year.
Price was eager to follow a career in medicine, possibly in the hope he could treat illnesses like those experienced by his father or his two infant brothers who had passed away. He also saw the dramatic effect industrialisation was having on the South Wales workforce locally with long-term sickness or victims of accidents. It may be that he was influenced by the success of his extended Price cousins, some had married into the Wedgewood porcelain dynasty and one had become the private surgeon for King William IV.
He became an apprentice to a young surgeon named Dr Evan Edwards in Caerphilly, the grandson of William Edwards, a local builder turned preacher who built the landmark Old Bridge at Pontypridd. Edwards was a brilliant physician, an expert in operating on victims of facial cancers and well documented in the Lancet. For five years Price flourished under his tutelage and progressed to study at one of Britain’s foremost medical schools, the London Hospital in Whitechapel. It was there that he witnessed once more the appalling sicknesses and widespread epidemics suffered by the lower classes who often lived in unsanitary, overcrowded houses in London’s deepest East End.
As a student and surgical dresser to some of Britain’s foremost surgeons, particularly Edward Grainger and John Abernethy, Price excelled and became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in October 1821 at the age of just 21. When considering his unfortunate upbringing, it is remarkable that he achieved such success and although Price was often ridiculed for his beliefs throughout his life time there is no evidence to doubt his abilities as a first-class surgeon. He was exemplary and people often overlooked his idiosyncrasies, of which I can assure you there were very, very many, because he was such a gifted healer.
On the completion of his studies he established himself in South Wales, renting a farmhouse called Porthyglo and opening a surgery in the vicinity of Craig yr Helfa near the small hamlet of Newbridge – now better known as Pontypridd.
At the time the area was experiencing rapid population growth due to increasing industrialisation. It would be several decades before coal, the precious ‘black gold’ led to the expansion of surrounding valleys like the Rhondda, but South Wales was a heartland for another hugely profitable industry at the time – iron.
The Taff Valley’s growth was largely due to the opening of the Glamorganshire Canal in 1794 which connected the interests of the iron capital of the world, Merthyr Tydfil, under the ownership of the Crawshays to their docklands at Cardiff. On the banks of the canal lay Treforest, regarded as a frontier town of the period.
Using his influence and possible family ancestry (a distant relative, Thomas Price was a founder of the mighty Penydarren Ironworks), Price became surgeon of the Treforest Tinplate works, part of the Crawshay empire and within a short period he was elected surgeon at the other main employer of the area, the Newbridge Chainworks or Brown Lenox Chainworks. This is where the Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel visited personally to order the chains and the anchors for some of his great ships and bridges.
Price was a self-made man. His rapid progress from medical student to surgeon of a workforce of thousands and a growing community was astonishing. He was an incredibly influential man, charismatic, charming and eloquent, who gained respect and admiration in the communities where he administered his expertise.
Price also enjoyed the opportunity to mix with the gentry, enjoying the champagne balls at Cyfarthfa Castle in Merthyr. Over the years his friendship with Francis Tydfil with his employers, one of the Crawshay sons, and manager of the Tinplate Works at Treforest, blossomed. Together they enjoyed many of the same beliefs and interests, particularly eastern religions, Hinduism, Greek mythology, Egyptology and the growing cult of neo-Druidism that was becoming increasingly popular in Victorian Wales. They were also both incredibly popular with the local female population, with Francis, already married and the father of several children, impregnating 28 women in the Treforest area alone!
Price and Crawshay cemented their friendship when in 1841 Laura Crawshay, the ironmaster’s wife, came close to death whilst in childbirth. At a time prior to antibiotics and anaesthetic, Price’s decision to perform a Caesarian section would undoubtedly lead to either mother, baby or both not surviving the ordeal. Laid on the kitchen table in Forest House, Laura underwent the traumatic surgery at the hands of Price who was both fast and accurate and despite all odds remarkably saved the lives of both mother and child.
Price will be remembered as a kind and deeply caring individual who felt very strongly about the impact that industrialisation was having on the health of the working classes. In equal measure he condemned injustice, often seeing through the Victorian façade for what it really was. He fought hard for better conditions and became a pioneer in creating a social health care system. Whilst at the Newbridge Chainworks he formed a service whereby workers paid him when they were well and he treated them for free when they were sick.
Such an organisation became increasingly popular throughout the Welsh coalfields, resulting in the establishment of medical societies, such as the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society which greatly influenced the town’s proudest son, Aneurin Bevan when forming the National Health Service. Outspoken in his beliefs, Price argued many fellow practitioners were nothing but ‘poison peddlers’, making their money selling drugs and profiting off the sick rather than tackling the cause of the illness. Price advocated natural medicines wherever possible, vegetarianism, healthy food, fresh air, exercise and refused to treat smokers.
Price was also something of an early feminist, arguing that marriage enslaved women, denied them property, rights and independence. He was quick to admonish the non-conformist deacons and ministers who spouted their fire and brimstone from the pulpit at the plight of the unmarried mother. Although given his support of free love, it may seem ironic that he was probably the reason some of them were pregnant in the first place!
Price was passionate in many other ways, particularly in his love for Wales, her language, culture and history at a time when she appeared lost. This was a period when the sense of Welsh identity was at its lowest ebb, the people and their language considered inferior by the growing middle class English-speakers who came to the principality as noveau riche colliery owners and ironwork managers. The Welsh psyche was damaged and while it fuelled the British Empire through rich mineral resources, its culture and sense of ‘Welshness’ diminished. Price’s knowledge of Welsh history was vast. Sadly, much of it was due to his zeal for the manuscripts of antiquarian Edward Williams (1747-1826), a stonemason of the Vale of Glamorgan known by his bardic name of Iolo Morganwg.
Iolo, whose great contribution to Welsh culture, was the creation of the Gorsedd or bardic throne at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, fabricated much of his evidence in an effort to re-ignite an interest in its celebrated past. In doing so, Iolo, himself a follower of the work of archaeological pioneer and Stonehenge expert William Stukeley, claimed Glamorganshire, from where he took his bardic surname, was the epicentre of the Welsh people and where her Druidic ancestors had ruled the early Celtic society before annihilation under Roman rule.
Recognising the ancient standing stones and burial tombs of the county as druidic temples and shrines, Iolo used his druidic cult to great effect, claiming that druidism and the bardic tradition was uniquely Welsh. In doing so he attempted to portray Wales as a ancient cultural heartland that could rival Sir Walter Scott’s vision of Scotland. Price was one of an army of disciples who believed Iolo’s every word with scholars taking almost a century to realise he had fabricated much of his work – possibly during periods when his addiction for laudingham was at its worst.
Owing to Iolo’s influence, the ancient lodges of druidism opened with remarkable frequency, along with bardic circles and poetry societies who pledged to preserve and enhance Wales’s literary history. Such organisations were vitally important to inspire the Welsh people at a time when they needed it the most. As the country experienced so many periods of social unrest, with the Newport Rising, Merthyr Riots and Rebecca Riots as a perfect example, central government became concerned over the education system in Wales and a public inquiry in 1847 took place. It led to the Reports of the Commissioners, compiled in three large blue-covered volumes becoming known as Brad y Llyfrau Gleision or the Treachery of the Blue Books claiming the Welsh were ignorant, lazy and immoral due to their use of the Welsh language and nonconformity. A furious reaction ensued.
Price was part of a growing Welsh conscientious that wanted to change public perceptions and promote Wales and her attributes. He was joined by Lady Charlotte Guest (1812-1895), an ironmaster’s wife who painstakingly translated the Welsh legends, The Mabinogion, into English to provide a world view of the rich folklore of the Principality. Her colleague, Lady Augusta Hall (1802-1896) or Lady Llanover, was equally as passionate about Celtic studies, establishing eisteddfod competitions and reinventing the image of the pure Welsh lady in national costume with a prize-winning essay. As for Price he was determined to showcase Wales with a museum of its own, choosing a mountain view above Pontypridd as the location. It was here that an ice-age stone glacier stood. Known locally as Y Maen Chwyf or the Rocking Stones, the new Circle of Bards at Pontypridd gathered for druidic ceremonies and eisteddfod events there (with Iolo Morgannwg also appearing on one occasion).
It was here that Price, the great orator, began to hold court with a whole range of fellow neo-druids, from clockmakers and publicans to milliners, journalists and more famously one Evan James who wrote an ode to the doctor prior to penning Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the Welsh National Anthem.
In 1839 Price began a fundraising campaign for £1,000 to build the ten-storey museum on the mountainside, but failed in his endeavours through lack of support. When he learned of Parliament’s £40,000 investment in a new stable block at Windsor for Queen Victoria’s horses his outspoken beliefs for political change came to the forefront and with continued letter writing, public meetings and newspaper reports highlighting his radical attitudes, he was soon recognised by The Chartists.
The political reformers, devoted to their six points of Parliamentary reform needed inspiring leaders like Price. Knowing his influence over such a large workforce which could, in theory see him mobilise an entire army of his own, appointed Price as leader of Pontypridd and surrounding valleys. For months he gathered support, apparently using Welsh language lessons as a cover for gun-training. It was also said he owned seven parts of a cannon in preparation for action.
A militant supporter of the cause he also recognised that lack of planning could result in its downfall. His failure to support Welsh chartist leader John Frost, whom he distrusted, on his ‘march on Newport’ to create a republican town, was correct given the dreadful failure of the plot and the dramatic consequences that followed. Fearing his influence over the masses, the local magistrates and constabulary searched for Price. Escaping to France for several months until the Chartist investigations were over, an obsessive Price embroiled himself still further in druidic legend. It was during a visit to the Louvre in Paris that his apparent life-changing moment came.
Claiming it was something of an epiphany, he spoke eloquently of the day he viewed a large 2,000-year-old Greek stone in the ancient collection. Covered in hieroglyphics and portraying a figure he claimed was the Primitive Bard Addressing the Moon, Price said only he as a druid could read and understand the words on the stone. Such a claim saw him later write a small book on the subject, entitled Gwyllis Fy Nhad, The Will of My Father. In it he prophesised that his first-born son would be a new Messiah, but not of Christianity. Instead the second coming was a child of druidism that would sweep modern religion from the British Isles and re-establish its pagan ancestry. Price went so far as to copy the design of the figure, commissioning a copy of the costume which he often wore when lecturing the history of the ancient Briton.
On his eventual return to Wales in 1840 he continued to support the Chartist movement, recognising how some of his ‘workforce’ were being boycotted by shopkeepers for their political activism. It led to him establishing the Pont-y-ty-pridd Provision Company, the first Co-operative Society in Wales, which continued for several years until becoming defunct, probably due to Price’s generosity in offering too much credit.
By this time he became much more flamboyant in his dress, growing his black hair below his shoulders as an ancient druid had possibly done. Wonderful outfits were tailor-made, the bronze buttons depicting portrayals of the goats that he kept on his farm. His crown was the body of a fox, its legs dangling over his shoulders, an emblem he believed of a healer in pre-Christian Britain. Few realise that although he was remarkably colourful and larger-than-life he wasin fact just five foot, five inches tall.
Price, the rebellious maverick was a great philanthropist, supporting fundraising efforts for the elderly, sick and for orphans. He helped raise donations for the building of the Victorian Bridge over the River Taff in Pontypridd, a growing market town where he also promoted and financed a professional theatre company to perform Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ to the masses.
His determination to open a museum to showcase Welsh history, literature and culture continued for almost 20 years. Eventually he succeeded in commissioning the building of the two gate-houses, now listed buildings and known as the Round Houses of Glyntaff. Although the land, part of Lady Llanover’s estate, was rented by him, it was a disagreement with her husband, the formidable Benjamin Hall MP, (Minster of Works for building the clock tower at the Houses of Parliament and arguably the reason why its bells are called ‘Big Ben’) who wished to build a tramroad on the land to access a proposed new colliery at Bryntail, that Price’s project failed once and for all.
Price’s aspirations to father a son didn’t dwindle with the passing of time. In fact he fathered three daughters by three different women in just a few years. The surviving daughter by his housekeeper Ann Morgan (1817-1873) was incredulously named Gwenhiolen Hiarhles Morganwg (Gwenllian, the Countess of Glamorgan) Price (1841-1928). She accompanied her father to frequent court hearings over the coming years as Price developed a new obsession for litigation.
It allowed Price, the blatant showman, to find an arena where he could literally express his furore against the establishment, often causing absolutely chaos in the court by refusing to swear oaths on Bibles that allegedly contained inaccurate maps of Judea within, or turning to his infant daughter and naming her ‘my learned counsel’. However, Price always defended himself brilliantly and with extensive knowledge of the legal profession, became an awkward litigant. He often won in the court room, some of the cases ranging from small-debt and claims for estates to charges of perjury and even manslaughter.
His energy, despite advancing years, is truly breathtaking and quite literally there was never a quiet moment. However, a change came in 1871 when he decided to leave Treforest, the Tinplate Works, Chainworks and his surgery for a new life in the medieval hilltop town of Llantrisant. Although in decline, the town was recognised for its rich heritage, in particular the fact that it was once a sophisticated Celtic community as far back as the sixth century and therefore in Price’s eyes, a true Druidic settlement.
It was in this remarkable little town with its dwindling market, unclean streets and quarrelsome families that he opened a new surgery at his home of Ty’r Clettwr and on his eighty-third birthday took the hand of a new love and performed a pagan marriage ceremony at the Rocking Stones in Pontypridd.
His partner, the niece of a patient in Llanharan, was Gwenllian Llewellyn (1859-1948). The daughter of a farmer from Cilfynydd, and almost 60 years his junior, Gwenllian was able to realise all his hopes and dreams for a new druidic Messiah came with the birth of their son on August 8th 1883. Believing the child deserved a name that the world would recognise and worship, he named it Iesu Grist or (Jesus Christ) Price. Sadly, less than five months later he suffered a convulsion and died in his father’s arms on 10th January 1884.
What followed was the well-documented event of an open-air cremation on East Caerlan, the dominating hill overlooking Llantrisant’s quaint, unplanned town. On a Sunday evening he met Gwenllian at the Cross Keys public house. She passed the baby’s corpse to him wrapped in flannels and with his paraffin cask climbed the hilltop, which he owned and began a pagan ritual of his own.
The question is why did he do it? Was it because of druidism? After all, evidence on Salisbury Plains confirmed the druids had cremated their dead and as a society that worshipped the sun, moon and nature, may have believed that burial was a pollution of their beloved earth. This is more likely his reason.
However he was clearly well aware of the aspirations of the Cremation Society of Great Britain, formed a decade earlier by Sir Henry Thompson (1820-1904) who argued it was necessary to grant cremations as overcrowded cemeteries could clearly cause widespread diseases. It would also prevent premature burial and reduce the expense of funerals. One of the founder members of his Society was none other than Rosemary Crawshay, the relative of Francis, whom Price had socialised with many times at Cyfarthfa and quite possibly had discussed the topic with him.
As Price, dressed in white, held his ceremony that cold, wintry evening, he was aware that congregations of the town’s chapels and churches were leaving evening service and would have seen the flames dancing on the hilltop. Some 300 reached the summit and when a local constable kicked the cask, revealing the baby’s corpse roll onto the ground aflame, the mob flew into a fury. One can only imagine the impact that event had on these God-fearing simple town folk.
The landmark court case that followed under the expert hand of Justice James Fitzjames Stephen (1829-1894) drew hundreds to the Glamorganshire Assizes in Cardiff. Somewhat enamoured with Price the radical, Stephen had spent time in India and witnessed a traditional Hindu open air cremation, whilst also sympathising with the plight of the Cremation Society in Britain.
Price, in his wonderful outfits, defended himself throughout the two-day trial as he faced the charges of cremating a baby before an inquest could be held into its death and causing a public nuisance by holding an open air cremation. The trial provided the weighty support the Cremation Society needed to finally see their Act become law.
His words ring with such truth as he proclaimed to the court room: ‘It is not right that a carcass should be allowed to rot and decompose in this way. It results in a wastage of good land, pollution of the earth, water and air, and is a constant danger to all living things.’ On being found not guilty, Price demanded the return of his son’s body. Initially the response of the Llantrisant townspeople was unfavourable as famously one evening they heard Price chopping food for his cattle. Believing he was destroying the corpse, they attempted to break into his stable, leaving Price, still agile despite his age, escape to his home to find the windows smashed and his now pregnant Gwenllian holding back the crowd with a pack of Irish wolfhounds and a pistol in each hand.
Determined to the last, Price eventually cremated his child at East Caerlan in March 1884. The police constables watched from the ruins of the old Norman castle, once the prison for Edward II. The once-angry mob paid their respects in a peaceful manner and to commemorate the event Price had 3,000 bronze oval coins minted, which he sold at 3d each.
The press coverage of Price’s court case was widespread and one such avid reader of the case wrote a serial for a Saturday journal which he entitled ‘The Bloodstone Tragedy’. It was none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, written a year before ‘A Study in Scarlet’ welcomed a famous detective to the world of literature.
It wasn’t the only time Price was celebrated on paper. Through his friendship with the notorious Dr Richard Anderson of Carmarthen, forever dressed in Wild West costume and known as ‘Evans a Crogwr’ for he had once been a hangman, he visited his home of Fernhill. It was the same farm immortalised in words by Dylan Thomas who, on realising Price had also visited the family home, wrote a dark and macabre short story entitled ‘The Baby Burning Case’ which was later published.
As for Price and Gwenllian, they had two further children. The first was born a few months after the court hearing and named Iesu Grist II (1884-1963). He was followed two years later by Penelopen Elizabeth (1886-1977). It was one winter’s morning in January 1893 that Price stood alongside those two children at the doorway of his Llantrisant home and said: ‘I will lay on my couch and I shall not rise again.’ On 23rd January Gwenllian, kneeling at his side, suggested he drank some cider. Price whispered: ‘No, give me champagne.’ Enjoying his favourite drink he laid back, looking into the eyes of his young lover and gently passed away.
Price had left strict plans in place for his own cremation and it was Gwenllian who fought the establishment to ensure it went ahead as he had wished. After securing the support of the local constabulary, magistrate and even the Bishop of Llandaff (who although demanded a Christian service agreed to change the order to include the term ‘I commit this body to fire’ for the very first time), Gwenllian oversaw the plans for Dr Price’s own cremation which took place on 31st January 1893.
Nine tonnes of coal were delivered to the spot on the summit of East Caerlan where two walls and an iron grid had been built to hold the coffin, which was specially made at a Blacksmith’s shop in nearby Brynsadler. With everything in place Gwenllian followed the doctor’s instructions and issued tickets for the event! In total 20,000 people ventured to Llantrisant from 4am that morning. By noon every one of the 27 pubs in the town had run dry of ale as a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Price was carried from his home, followed by his family members all dressed in Welsh costume.
Dr William Price had hoped Llantrisant would be the location of the first fully-functional crematorium in Wales. Although that was not to be, it was fitting that Glyntaff was chosen as the location in 1924 as it was in the proximity of his former surgery, the Roundhouses and the Rocking Stones.
Today, more than 200 years since his birth, Dr William Price deserves to be remembered in Welsh and British history as one of the most remarkable individuals ever to have lived.