Dr. William Price (4 March 1800 – 23 January 1893) was a Welsh physician and a famous eccentric, best known for introducing cremation to the United Kingdom.
He was born in Rudry, between Newport and Caerphilly in South Wales. As a child, Price caused consternation by walking the high hills around his home naked. In 1820 he went to study medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. He also studied in Caerphilly. Price became fluent in Welsh and English and conversant in Latin and other languages. By the mid-1820s Price was a Doctor at Treforest Iron Works, a position that enabled him to see at first hand the effects of poor working conditions, low pay, daily danger, accidents, exploitation and conservatism and gave him a strong interest in Chartism as it came to its peak.
He was a prominent Welsh Chartist and was forced to flee to Paris, France, after being involved in the Newport Rising of 1839. He was an equally prominent Druid and exponent of 19th century Druidic traditions, appointing himself as archdruid. By the following year however, he returned to South Wales and in 1841 his first child, a daughter, was born.
During his life, Price’s list of behaviour and characteristics included being a fanatical walker and a strong supporter of conservation , wearing a fox-skin headress, never wearing socks (which, he thought, were unhygienic), refusing to treat patients who were smokers and washing every coin he received as he considered them a major source of cross-contamination. He was also a vegetarian, saying that eating meat “brought out the beast in man”. Price did not believe in marriage, which he saw as the enslavement of women and also disliked the capitalist coal mine owners and the all-powerful local gentry. He was also a supporter of the local miners in several strikes during the 19th century.
Price was also responsible for the building of the famous “Round houses” in Pontypridd. He convinced a local builder that he owned the land and these round houses were to be the gateway to his mansion. He neither owned the land nor a mansion.
Pioneer of cremation
However, Price is remembered chiefly as the performer of the first legal cremation in the United Kingdom, which took place on 18 January 1884, when he attempted to burn the body of his dead five-month-old son, Jesus Christ Price (in Welsh: Iesu Grist ap Rhees /ˈɪɛsɪ griːst ap r̥iːs/) who had died eight days previously of teething problems. The infant was the illegitimate son of Price and his housekeeper. As part of his druidic faith, William Price believed that burial was a sin against the earth and felt that cremation was a much better option, even though this was widely thought to be actually illegal in Britain at the time.
Price made no attempt to disguise his actions, and publicly declared that he would burn the body on a pyre of coal on a hillside overlooking Llantrisant. When he started to perform the Druidic lamentations, he was watched by a crowd who were largely opposed to the act. Shortly after Price lit the pyre, the corpse was snatched from the flames and Price was arrested for illegal disposal of a body.
Price was prosecuted, but successfully defended himself in February 1884, claiming that “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 creatures”. He was dressed in his foxskin cap and a white Tunic in court at the time. The judge at the Cardiff Assizes, Mr Justice Stephen, agreed that, under English law, an action wasn’t illegal unless it was specifically proscribed. As the existing law made no explicit reference to cremation, the practice was therefore legal. The case set a precedent, which led to the Cremation Act of 1902. In 1885 the first official cremation took place at Woking. Ten cremations then took place in 1886. In 1892 a crematorium opened in Manchester, followed by one in Glasgow in 1895 and one in Liverpool in 1896.
Before his own death, on the night of January 23, 1893, Price fathered a second son (Born at the end of 1883) and a daughter (Born in 1886) with Gwenllian Llywelyn, his partner. His final words, when he knew that he was near death, were “Bring me a glass of Champagne” (Price normally drank cider). He drank the champagne and died shortly after. On January 31, 1893, William Price was cremated on a pyre of two tons of coal, in accordance with his will, on the same hillside overlooking Llantrisant (photo). It was watched by 20,000 people.
A statue of Price was unveiled in Llantrisant in 1982, depicting the doctor in his characteristic fox-skin headdress, arms outstretched.
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