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July 2013 Item of the Month

Dr William Price: an unwitting pioneer of the cremation movement

Amongst the printed material within the collections of the Cremation Society of Great Britain deposited with Durham University Library’s Special Collections are a number of items relating to Dr William Price. Price was a man whose many eccentricities attracted attention both during his lifetime and since.

One item in the collection is a pamphlet entitled The late Dr. Price, (of Llantrisant) the famous arch-druid. Sketch of his life and adventures. Also programme of exhibits to be seen in the Druid’s Rest, in “Old Cardiff” Exhibition Building, 1896. A journalist writing under the pseudonym Ap Idanfryn produced this pamphlet after Price’s death in 1896 and it contains a number of interviews with him. Price was of imposing appearance as Ap Idanfryn recounts. “What I had read of him, of course, led me to expect that his attire would be anything but orthodox, but even the most wild pictures that I had imaginatively drawn of him fell far short of the actual reality … For a time I was speechless, but when I screwed up courage to address him, and to acquaint him with the object of my visit, his features relaxed and the ferocious, piercing look gave way to a kind smile, which at once dispelled any fears I had entertained as to my bodily safety”. By the time Idanfryn met him Price was in his late eighties but still tall and active. He constantly wore what he believed to be the costume of a druid “Upon his head he wore a huge fox-skin, the tail and legs of which dangled like so many tassels among the snowy locks of his hair, which he allowed to grow in plaits of extraordinary length. A white tunic, covering a waistcoat made of scarlet cloth and ornamented with brass buttons, encircled his body, while his trousers were composed of a green cloth with scarlet stripes, the portion of the cloth above the boots being cut in Vandyke fashion”. Perhaps even more unsettling was the sight of a three year old, Price’s son by his housekeeper, who was also wearing a large fox skin on his head. It was this extraordinary interest in Druids that was probably most significant to contemporaries but Price, almost unwittingly, played an important part in making cremation legal in England.

Price was born on 4th March 1800 in the parish of Rudry in Glamorgan, the son of an impoverished Anglican clergyman. After apprenticeship to a surgeon he made his way to London and upon his qualification practised as a doctor in various towns in Wales. It was during this time that he became involved in the Chartist movement and was appointed the leader of the Pontypridd district. Price did not take part in the Chartist rising at Newport in 1839 but was still sought by the police who believed that he has supplied arms for it. He escaped to Cardiff where, disguised as a woman, he was apparently escorted onto a Liverpool-bound ship by the very police inspector who was searching for him. After a short exile in Paris, where he claimed to have become friends with King Louis-Philippe, he returned to Wales and developed an obsession with everything Druidic. Price became a figure of notoriety in Wales becoming involved in a number of lawsuits. Some of his ideas such as his vegetarianism were treated as absurd and he particularly antagonised conventional opinion by rejecting the institution of marriage. It was one of his children by his housekeeper, fathered when he was in his early eighties, who led to his involvement in cremation. This child, named somewhat controversially Iesu Grist or Jesus Christ Price, died in infancy in January 1884 and his father decided to conduct the boy’s funeral according to the Druidic rite, which he believed involved cremation. He prepared a pyre comprising a barrel of paraffin in Caerlan Fields overlooking Llantrissant. In the presence of a large and unfriendly crowd and several police officers he set alight to the body which was wrapped in napkins. At this point the crowd attempted to attack him but were held back by the police who removed the body from the fire.

An inquest was held on the child and found a verdict of natural causes but Price was made to stand trial at Cardiff assizes for the cremation and after conducting his defence in an impressive fashion was acquitted. The judge ruled “I am of the opinion that a person who burns instead of burying a dead body does not commit a criminal act, unless he does it in a manner to amount to a public nuisance at common law”. Previous to this incident public and religious opinion had been against cremation which was seen as a pagan rite and conflicted with the idea of the resurrection of the body. Lord Justice Stephen’s judgment was critical in confirming that there was no legal impediment to cremation. William Price himself died in January 1893 and was cremated at Caerlan Fields according to his instructions. The crowd was estimated at 20,000 people and the atmosphere was reverential and orderly in distinct contrast to his son’s ceremony. It is certainly significant that between the funeral of Price’s son in 1884 and his own in 1893 the first crematorium in Britain, at Woking, had begun operating. Constructed in 1878 it was not able to function until February 1884 when Jesus Christ Price’s cremation proved the process to be within the law.

An extraordinary collection of Price’s possessions went on display in Cardiff after his death, most oddly including his right foot which survived the cremation. His druid costume and various other artefacts are to be seen today at the Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff.

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