William Price

William Price

Pen T'y Cae Clettwr, Llantrisant, Glamorgan, Wales

Name

Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

William Price

Head

W

81

Physician, M.R.C.S

Wales

Gwenllian Llewellyn

Daur

U

21

 

Wales

Margaret Griffiths

Servant

U

20

Domestic Servant

Wales

Doctor Price has no time for the idle, for the luxuriant, for the comfortable. The floors of his house are stone and wood. The chairs are plain, blunt, and practical, like his opinions. He has returned from an inspection of his herd of cattle, refreshed by the cold and flinty air. The locals are in awe of him, as well they might be of a man descended from the royal scions of Wales, a man well-versed in the Cymmerian language, and fluent in others as well. And let them beware his sharp tongue. He will not treat any patient who smokes tobacco; he is violently opposed to vaccination. Nor, if you possess an immoderate income, will you expect to be let off lightly. If you are poor, on the other hand, Doctor Price will only charge you if he fails to cure you. No cure, no fee. Any coin you pay him, he will wash. And you must expect outbreaks of candour. On one occasion, he has told a woman suffering from a headache that her bonnet is too heavy; on another, a farmer complaining of stiffness has been told that he must wash away an accumulation of grime. At present, Doctor Price, who is a direct descendant of Rhys ap Gruffyd, the twelfth-century leader of the uprising against the Saxons - that is to say, he is the son of the said Lord Rhys - is in a towering good mood. A fortnight earlier he has marched ceremoniously from the streets of Treforest to the Rocking Stone on the hillside above Pontypridd, carrying a colossal, silken red flag. There, witnessed by many others, he has waited until mid-day, and has spoken with magisterial authority to the sun. But then he is an Archdruid. He has worn his familiar garb: a white robe, and beneath the robe, bright red trousers and a red shirt. On his head, as has been his custom for decades, he has worn a head-dress. It is made from an entire fox-skin, the tail and legs hanging down below his neck and around his shoulders, the fox's head projecting above his white head. His body is thin and lithe; his hair is pure white and plaited; his beard is over a foot long. With him is new companion, Gwenllian, a small woman, intense and devoted, sixty years his junior, and destined to bear him his heirs, so he devoutly hopes. They will inherit his birthright. He is William Price. He is as old as the century. And he is also 3,700 years of age.

William Price was born on March 4th, 1800, in the village of Rudry, near Caerphilly, the fifth of seven children. His father was an Anglican priest of the same name, but one who never had a living, and who later failed to recover his wits after a spectacular fall from a window. His mother was a maidservant, Mary Edmunds; Price's father had lost a fellowship at Jesus College by marrying Mary, since the fellowship required celibacy. The defining moment of the younger William Price's life was yet to come, but he had already made his mark as a youth. He was brought up to speak only Welsh, although by the age of twenty, he was fluent in English, good at Latin, and starting to be conversant with other languages, too. During his school years (he first went to school in 1810), he was already becoming known for his eccentricities, the principal one at that stage being an addiction to reading poetry as he walked the local countryside - naked. From the age of 13, he studied with an apothecary, Evan Edwards, in Caerphilly. At 20, rejecting family advice that he should teach, he moved to London, where he gained entry to the Royal College of Surgeons, qualifying successfully in 1821. He returned to the valleys, and by the mid-1820s, he was the doctor at Treforest iron works, where industrial injuries would occupy much of his time.

It was the start of a stormy decade. Price, who had a sharp brain and a facility for making speeches, was one of the leading lights in the Chartist risings (which were fiercer and more physical in Wales than in England); he was the head of the Pontypridd branch. He compared the Whig and Tory parties to card players who regularly disposed of their well-thumbed packs - that is, they treated people with disdain, whilst concentrating on their own profit. In 1838, his anger had been fuelled when he had started a subscription fund to open a scientific and cultural establishment - to be housed in a gigantic tower - which would enable the study of the ancient British way of life. He persuaded local worthies to raise only a wholly inadequate £130, and he subsequently castigated the rich people of the area, and beyond, in London, for the profligacy of their expenditure.

In Monmouthshire, the Chartist rising of 1839 was ruthlessly put down as an armed insurrection; the authorities plainly had wind of the plan, and soldiers opened fire on the three or four thousand miners who arrived in Newport, in the first instance to free some imprisoned locals. There were twenty-four deaths, and twenty-one charges of high treason. Three death sentences were commuted to transportation. Price, however, was not in the crowd that marched on Newport; he had time to make a getaway, to France, via Cardiff and Liverpool. It is at this point that tales about Price begin to become fanciful. He is supposed to have escaped, disguised as a woman (Prive was short). More more far-fetched is the tale that he shared a drink with the captain when they put ashore, and that Price threatened this captain later. On his arrival in Paris, he said to have met the Citizen King, Louis Phillippe, to have been close friends with his brother-in-law, a Captain Phelps, and to have seduced (or at any rate, undressed) Phelps' 16-year-old daughter, to have met the poet Heine. These stories, with their sniff of scandal, their dose of Flora Macdonald, and their dash of celebrity, are as untrue as his alleged later meeting with Marx. Price may have helped them along with stories of posters seeking his arrest. The very idea of his impersonating a woman is attractive gossip because it is so far beyond plausibility - although it is the least unlikely..

By 1840, Price was back at the ironworks. He continued to be involved with the Chartists, in particular in setting up the first co-operative company in Wales. However, it was in this decade that his interest in the druid movement grew, and the scholars of his Sunday morning Welsh classes carried special sticks with secret letters and markings on them. The political activism spilled eerily into eccentricity. He commanded respect, but he also attracted hostility. He could not have helped his cause with his parenthood, with Ann Morgan, and probably in 1844, of a daughter, Gwenhiolen. He declared himself against marriage. He declared himself a vegetarian. At an eistedfodd in Pontypridd, he declared his two-year-old daughter Iarlles Morganwg' - the Countess Of Glamorgan. It was a title the young girl grew up to believe in, as she plainly believed in her father whole-heartedly. By the time she was a teenager, Price was using her as his legal counsel in his favourite obsession: litigation.

There seems no doubt that Price, in his paranoid pursuit of the law, was schizophrenic. His argumentative streak increased, his court cases became wilder, his clothing more extreme. His beard was waist-long; his hair the same, only tied in Chinese-style plaits. He wore green trousers, a green jacket fancifully knotched and scolloped, lined and pointed with bright scarlet, and adorned with numerous small gilt buttons bearing devices. And to cap it all, the foxskin, with three tails dangling behind him. Yet his reputation as a healer, and indeed as a man of considerable intellectual skill, made him a formidable, almost untouchable figure. Besides which, the logic he laced with bizarre references to druidical heritage was still fierce and true. The authorities on whom he launched his verbal assaults were all too frequently guilty as charged. Their excessive wealth was as fraudulent as his own fantasies were fantastical. There are two worlds, he wrote, the world of the master and the world of the slave... There can never be peace until the world of the mansion, the master and the exploiter is abolished.

The earliest case in which Price was involved appears to have been a land dispute, in which he and his brother sought to prove that their father, who had died, had been insane when he signed over some property. There is a confused story that Price conducted an exhumation and post-mortem on his father to prove his point, rumours of which scandalised the chapel-goers about him (it is remarkable that Price maintained his head on his shoulders in so passionately religious an area of Wales). Post-mortem or not, he won the case, only to have it overturned on appeal. His later cases, many in the small claims courts, over trifling sums and alleged slights, were nevertheless memorable for their eventfulness. In 1859, Price refused to swear on a bible, because it contained a map of Judaea which he was not prepared to vouch for; and refused to swear on a second because it contained someone else's name. The third bible met with satisfaction. This case (in which he was a witness) led to a subsequent accusation against him of perjury. He met the charge with one of his own - that court officials were guilty of extortion (they had overcharged him for some fees). The jury found Price not guilty. The loud cheers which accompanied this verdict indicated Price's iconic as well as iconoclastic status. Odd he may have been, but anyone who could run rings round the law received the respect of the community.

Uncertainty over the outcome of a land case in 1861 led him to retreat to France again. It had been in Paris in the late 1830s that he claimed to have seen a stone in the Louvre, which was marked with curious hieroglyphics. Price, who referred to the stone as The Will Of My Father, claimed to have translated it. Now, from Boulogne, in his sixties, he wrote letters and had arranged for pamphlets to be distributed, which declared that he was the principal inheritor of the bardic tradition, and that (amongst other matters), the Greek language was actually Welsh, and that Homer had come from Caerphilly. It was now that he declared himself to be the son of Rhys ap Gruffyd.

Towards the end of the 1860s, he is alleged to have had an affair with the wife of a London physician, who briefly moved in to his home near Llantrisant, before beating a retreat in the face of his delusions. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, however, Price continued to play a respectable part in the community as a healer and patron of the arts, and a supporter of the miners in their 1871 strike. He is discovered helping a production of Othello to be staged in 1874; he is in evidence at eistedfodds. He was accused of the manslaughter of one of his patients in 1873, and was once again found not guilty (there was certainly an exhumation in this case). Price is also reported to have attempted a transplant of a calf's bone into the crushed leg of a miner (who later died); what is interesting here is his anticipation of future medical advances. He was also an early advocate of homeopathy.

Shortly before the 1881 census, Price had fallen out completely with the druidical hierarchy. His wild theories (and his singing) were too much for them. At the same time, he contrived to scandalise the local community yet again, by taking a lover sixty years his junior. This is the Gwenllian Llewellyn described as his daughter in the census entry (an entry which looks like the work of an enumerator, possibly with scurrilous intent). She was not his daughter (Gwenhiolen, his one child, was running a farm near Cardiff, and had followed her father's views on marriage by living with a mining engineer called Thomas Williams). However, Gwenllian's arrival was to provide Price with what would become his most remarkable achievement of all.

In late 1883, Gwenllian gave birth to the first of three children fathered by Price. With even more instinct for outrage than usual, the delighted Price named his new son Iesu Grist, that is, Jesus Christ. But the druidic heir apparent died, aged only five months, in January 1884. Price was determined to give his son the appropriate druidic rites for his passage to the next world. And so when the Llantrisant villagers issued from chapel on Sunday night, January 18th, they saw the beginnings of a blaze. Price had tenderly wrapped his son in linen, and placed him a cask into which he had poured paraffin. The villagers, intoxicated with outrage, surrounded Price, retrieved the barrel, and ensured that Price was arrested. An inquest showed that the child had died of natural causes - from teething problems. This did not prevent a mob from attacking Price's house with stones (Gwenllian, at the time at home on her own, defended herself with pistols and the baying of four of Price's angry dogs until the police arrived).

Yet Price now stunned his detractors by winning the case against him. Dressed in his customary garb, with a royal tartan shawl as well, he heard the judge declare that cremation was not illegal if it did not constitute a public nuisance - and Price had attempted to cremate his own son on his own land. It was a landmark ruling, and paved the way for the 1902 Cremation Act. The litigious doctor had made his mark on history. His son's cremation was duly completed. Nor was this end of Price's story. A little later in 1884, he disrobed at a Cardiff art exhibition, until he had revealed a red, closely-fitting costume, on which there was a multitude of green letters. He wore no socks (wearing socks was something else he deemed unhealthy). And at the end of the year, Gwenllian gave birth to another son. He too was called Iesu Grist. In 1887, she bore him a new daughter, Penelopen Elizabeth. Both these children survived.

Price drew up his will in 1891. In it, he dwelt upon the arrangements for his own cremation. He instructed Gwenllian that when I shall cease to be in my present tenement called or baptised by the name of William Price she should take up my old tenement clothed as she may find it and put it up in a sitting position in the old chair of my late uncle Hugh Jones... and deposit it on one cord of wood and two tons of coal... with the face of the pile saturated with paraffin. He ordered his cremation for noonday and ordered that his ashes be sown to grow grass and natural flowers. In 1892, he fell from a carriage when a horse slipped on ice. He made a remarkable recovery, but a year later, in January 1893, he began to slip away. By now his first daughter Gwenhiolen was also living in Llantrisant, and she helped to nurse him. Price, whose habitual tipple was cider, called to Gwenhiolen to Give me champagne! These were his last words.

His cremation drew a crowd of twenty thousand. Tickets were sold. Supplies of beer were quickly exhausted. Price's body was encased in an iron casket he had himself devised. It was followed by Penelopen, red-shawled and in traditional Welsh costume, and Iesu Grist, the boy being dressed in clothing designed to make him look like miniature of his father - green, red, in breeches, and with a fox-skin head-dress. Behind them came Gwenhiolen, also in traditional Welsh costume, and Gwenllian in a black cloak. After the fierce conflagration, onlookers scrabbled in the ashes for souvenirs.

Price had spoken out against capitalism, against traditional medicine, against meat-eating, against the church, and against marriage. In 1896, however, Gwenllian married a licensed victualler called John Parry, and they moved to Dock Street in Newport. Young Iesu Grist was quietly given a new name - Nicholas. Penelopen - present at the unveiling of the statue to Price in Llantrisant - was a piano teacher. Their mother Gwenllian (who started a new family with Parry) died in 1948. Over a century after Price's death, in 1986, it was adjudged by the high court that she had not completed her task as an executrix, and over £50,000 was granted under his will. Nicholas, the inheritor of the Cymmerian line, became a policeman in Reading.

Price's relics are on display at the Welsh Folk Museum. Unfortunately, his head-dress has been consumed by beetles.

Sources:

A Welsh Heretic, by Islwyn ap Nicholas, Ffynon Press, 1973

William Price, article in Morgannwg , Vol. 7, by John Cule

Empire And Identity: the Case' of William Price, by Brian Davies

(published in A People And A Proletariat, ed. David Smith, Pluto, 1980)

Dr. William Price and old Llantrisant, by Brian Davies, Beddau, 1982

William Price: saint or sinner?, by Cyril Bracegirdle, Llanrwst, 1997

Dr. William Price, A Study Of An Eccentric (unpublished PhD thesis) by John Cule

conversation with John Cule

T'y Clettwr, 1890s Iesu Grist and Penelopen on left

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