Like everyone, William Price came into this world naked. Unlike everyone, that’s how he walked around the hills near his home in Wales. If that wasn’t enough to irritate the clergy and the neighbors, the echo of his voice reading poetry aloud gave them more than enough to gripe about. And those weren’t his only irksome idiosyncrasies.
Price’s father was an Anglican priest, but he never earned his living from the ministry. Perhaps this gave William Price senior the courage to defy authority in his own way, by marrying his love, Price’s mother. By doing so, he was forced to forfeit a college fellowship since it required celibacy.
Defiance seemed to run in their genes. Father taught son to speak exclusively Welsh, but junior also became fluent in English and conversational in Latin and several other languages. Price didn’t start school until he was ten, but at age 13 he was pursuing a curiosity and studied privately with an apothecary.
When Price was 20 he refused to follow his family’s advice to be a teacher and went to London to study medicine. He began his practice at an iron works back in Wales. He became very sympathetic to the workers who were forced to endure dangerous conditions for very low wages. As a result he became a Chartist. Chartism was a movement that sprang from the working class in Britain. Members advocated election reform and social change. At this time, it was wrong for a Christian to participate in political matters as it meant being too involved with worldly affairs.
Price had already proven himself disloyal to the Church, and he was involved in the Newport Rising in 1839, a march demanding release of Chartists who were imprisoned. The leaders of the march were charged with treason and sentenced to hanging. Price fled to Paris to escape a similar fate. There he became a practitioner of Druidism, a mystical philosophy believing nature is sacred, and a self appointed archdruid.
THE DOCTOR IS IN When Price returned to Wales he resumed his medical practice, which was as controversial as he was. He believed in preventing illness with a vegetarian diet, exercise and fresh air. He had contempt for other doctors who he claimed only treated symptoms, and he refused to treat patients who smoked. He also was opposed to vaccinations.
Price’s diagnoses and treatments were also unconventional. He told one woman who complained of headaches that her hat was too heavy, and he counseled a farmer who was afflicted with stiffness to wash away accumulated grime. Price’s prescriptions were herbal medicine aimed at treating the causes of illness along with some druidic chanting. He was known as a brilliant surgeon but rarely performed operations. Often he treated his patients for free, only accepting payment if they confirmed being cured.
The doctor’s personal eccentricities continued to be worthy of gossip. When he did clothe himself, his typical outfit consisted of bright red trousers and a red shirt. He wore a fox-skin headdress with the legs and tail hanging down past his shoulders and the fox’s head resting on top of his white hair. His beard was over a foot long. He refused to wear socks believing they were unhygienic. He washed every coin he was given. Again parting ways with Christian doctrine, Price advocated free love and was against marriage because he believed it was a form of enslavement for women. As a druid he was also against burying the dead, convinced that a decaying body polluted the environment.
PRACTICING WHAT HE PREACHED Price was a man who lived by his beliefs. When he was 80 years old, he took up with his housekeeper, Gwenllian Llewellyn, who was 60 years his junior. Three years later they had a son. This was Price’s second child; he had also fathered an older daughter. Perhaps out of pure defiance, he named the son Jesus Christ.
At the age of five months, the son died. Price was determined to follow the druidic ritual of cremation even though it was illegal in Britain. He prepared his son’s body, wrapped it in linen, put it in a casket and set it on top of a pyre. The authorities didn’t appreciate this contempt, snatched the child’s body off the growing flames and arrested Price for illegally disposing of a body while his neighbors threw stones at his house.
Wearing his habitual costume accessorized by a tartan shawl, Price defended himself in court. He asserted that burial was a waste of good land, polluted the earth, water and air and presented a danger to living creatures. The judge bought his argument and ruled in his favor, declaring that cremation was not illegal if it wasn’t a public nuisance. Since Price had cremated his son on his own property, he was acquitted. This was the precedent ruling that led to the 1902 Cremation Act that finally made cremation legal in Britain. Price was then free to cremate his son’s body properly.
In 1884 Price, aged 84, and Llewellyn had another son which they also named Jesus Christ. Three years later they had a girl, Penelopen Elizabeth. Both children survived.
WHAT A WAY TO GO Price wrote into his will in 1891 that his body should be cremated. He specified that he be put upright in his uncle’s old chair and placed on top of a cord of wood and two tons of coal. He wanted to be cremated at noon and have his ashes scattered to help grow grass and flowers.
In 1892 Price fell from a carriage when the horse slipped on ice, but he recovered from his injuries. One year later, however, he took a turn for the worse and died. His habitual drink was cider, but on his death bed, when presented with his favorite beverage, he spoke his last words, “Give me champagne!”
Price’s family sold tickets to his cremation, and it is estimated that a crowd of 20,000 witnessed the ritual. Because Price was such a controversial, eccentric personality, when the fire was exhausted, attendees picked through the ashes for souvenirs.
QUESTION: Do you think it is more important to do things to fit in or to express your individuality?
© 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved