The phenomenal Dr Price

28 February 2017

This portrait of William Price may seem out of place in our gallery, surprising visitors with its bizarre imagery. His fascinating story, one of medicine, religion and pushing boundaries, is even more unexpected. Sarah Bentley tells all.

 V0018010 William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893) MRCS, LSA, medical
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William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893). Oil painting by A C Hemming, 1918.

He looks down on all but the tallest visitor to our Medicine Man gallery, austere expression at odds with his flamboyant dress. A string of accolades and accusations usually follow the name William Price of Llantrisant: physician; eccentric; radical; Welsh hero; Archdruid; inexorable litigant; Chartist; costumier; pioneer of cremation. We don’t know quite so much about the two dappled goats at his feet.

The setting is South Wales, in the uplands familiar to me from childhood: sheep-cropped tussocky grass; flowers of gorse, rock rose and foxglove; the ruined grey tower of one of the Marcher castles that sweep this flank of Wales.

The artist A C Hemming was most likely commissioned by Henry Wellcome to depict this scene. If unable to ‘collect’ a significant historical moment in the form of an object, Wellcome would instead procure a picture of it. The flaming torch represents Price’s druidic kit, but it’s also a nod to the moment when the population of Llantrisant came out of chapel one winter’s evening in 1884 and saw William Price in full regalia on the hill above, setting light to a pyre containing the dead body of his infant son Iesu Grist, Druidic messiah.

This event, with its far-reaching consequences, has overshadowed everything in Dr Price’s life, but there are other stories to be told before we get to it.

Medical training

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Scarificator with six lancets used for blood-letting in the 19th century.

William Price’s father left Oxford a sane man and was set to become a parish priest in Glamorgan when he developed what is usually described as a ‘psychotic illness’. Eccentric behaviour – wandering naked, bathing fully dressed, pocketing adders – was accompanied by violent rages that his wife, Mary Edmunds, had to cope with. She had been a servant and their match had alienated her struggling family from the comfortable Price gentry; there was little help from them as William grew into an exceptionally bright young man with an interest in medicine.

He was fortunate to be apprenticed for five years, aged thirteen, to a local young and talented surgeon, Evan Edwards. After a year at London hospitals, William became one of the youngest ever Members of the London College of Surgeons in 1821.

Skilled surgical techniques, as practiced by Edwards, formed a significant part of nineteenth century medicine, but Joseph Lister’s developments in antiseptic surgery were some forty years away and contemporary accounts of operations carried out without anaesthesia chill us today. Medicine in general was still dominated by the Four Humours and treatments aimed to achieve their balance, such as purging or blood-letting.

The future looked promising for a highly skilled physician returning home, yet, sixteen years later, William is on the run with a price on his head, in exile in Paris.

The progressive Dr Price

Price was scathing of many of his fellow physicians, referring to them as peddlers of poison. Voltaire’s epigram “the art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease” comes to mind. His horror of smoking and meat-eating would have seemed as amusing to patients then as his theories about the ill effects of sock-wearing and the benefits of naked rambles.

The Glamorgan he returned to was changing: its growing Industries largely owned by English ironmasters; its workers in overcrowded and insanitary living conditions.

Price became physician to the Brown Lenox Chainworks and instituted a system whereby workers paid him a small regular fee when well and were treated ‘for free’ when sick: a prototype medical aid society. A later example, the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, became famous when Aneurin Bevan, introducing his 1948 legislation that established the NHS, said “All I am doing is extending to the entire population of Britain the benefits we had in Tredegar for a generation or more. We are going to ‘Tredegar-ise’ you.”

 William Price at Y Maen Chwyf. Colour lithograph by Newman & Co, 1861.
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William Price at Y Maen Chwyf. Colour lithograph by Newman & Co, 1861.

It seemed natural that Price, with his radical views and the trust of working men, would become a local Chartist leader, campaigning for the extension of the franchise.

Dean Powell describes how Price held meetings about the people’s charter at Y Maen Chwyf, a significant stone formation in Pontypridd: where Iolo Morganwg had organised a Gorsedd (convention of Druidic bards) many solstices ago.

Price didn’t trust the local Chartist leaders enough to take part in the 1839 March on Newport, but when the rebellion failed he was implicated and fled the country, £100 on his head.

In exile in Paris, Price would have an epiphany.

Enter the Druids

Greek and Roman accounts of Druids are somewhat contradictory and vague, frequently portraying them as frightening and barbarous. So it is surprising that, from the late seventeenth century, they start to be portrayed as wise, cuddly, nature-loving figures.

Ronald Hutton has described how growing nationalist sentiments of the period, together with revived interest in the classics by humanist scholars, piqued interest in the mysterious Druids. Wales, its language and sense of identity on the wane, needed Druids.

 “The druids; or the conversion of the Britons to Christianity”. Engraving by S.F. Ravenet, 1752.
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“The druids; or the conversion of the Britons to Christianity”. Engraving by S.F. Ravenet, 1752.

Just as John Aubrey, out hunting one winter’s day in 1648, had ‘seen’ as if for the first time the massive stones surrounding the village of Avebury and came to ‘read’ them as sacred druidic sites, self-proclaimed bard Iolo Morganwg believed he could decode lost knowledge about the Druids from medieval Welsh verse. Unfortunately, some forgery and quite a lot of laudanum were involved in Iolo’s method.

We don’t know exactly what the exiled Price saw at the Louvre that led to his epiphany, but he described it as a stone containing an ancient Welsh script that only he could decipher; its message was, in part, that he would father a Druidic messiah.

 Left: Image from Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures, 1719. Right: William Price in the costume inspired by it, on stage in 1884.
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Left: Image from Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures, 1719. Right: William Price in the costume inspired by it, on stage in 1884.

Dean Powell speculates that the stone might have been part of a temporary exhibition and notes that Price set great store by an engraving depicted above. This image is an Abraxas stone, a Gnostic amulet. Note its influence on the bardic ‘onesie’ William Price designed!

End times

In the 1880s, we find a still vigorous Price living in Llantrisant with local woman Gwenllian Llewellyn, some sixty years his junior. When she gives birth to a son, they name him Iesu Grist (Jesus Christ). The child is sickly, however, and dies at five months old. So we find Price high in his goat field one winter’s night in 1884, lighting a pyre. The intervention of horrified villagers and local constabulary prevents the child’s cremation and leads to Price’s arrest.

Price was fortunate to come before a judge sympathetic to the aims of the The Cremation Society of Great Britain. This was set up in 1874 to campaign for the legalisation of cremation, a practice the Church objected to on a number of grounds, not least because of how cremated bodies would fare at the Resurrection. Price would echo some of the Society’s arguments in his defence:

“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.”

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Chapel and crematoria at St Johns, Surrey, 1889.

Price was found not guilty and the verdict set a precedent. A crematorium at St John’s in Surrey, built in the 1870s but never used, was able to open, followed by the passing of the Cremation Act of 1902. Price himself was cremated in 1893. National Cremation Statistics show that in 1960 34% chose cremation over burial; by 2013 the figure was 75%.

In 1966, Price’s daughter, Penelopen, sister to a second and surviving Iesu Grist, unveiled stained glass windows in Glyntaff crematorium chapel near Llantrisant. The image of Christ’s resurrection was conventional, but “…to one side…was a pane containing a peacock, a creature whose flesh was, according to ancient myth, incorruptible. On the other was a phoenix, the legendary bird that rose again from its own ashes. The windows were a bid to make sense in coloured glass of the Church’s teachings about death, teachings in need of a new metaphor now that cremation was, for many, the gateway to resurrection and eternal life.” (from Carl Watkins’ The Undiscovered Country: journeys among the dead)

Sarah Bentley is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.