23.11.12

WELSH WIZARD

Dean Powell. Dr William Price: Wales’s First Radical. Amberley. 2012

Did you know that Jesus Christ died on the 21st June 1963? This particular Jesus Christ was Jesus Christ or Iesu Grist Price, the second and surviving son of Dr William Price, the subject of this book. It was the circumstances surrounding the death of disposal of his elder brother, who bore the same name, which finally made his father nationally notorious. This was his cremation of the infant in the hills above Llantrisant in January 1884, an act and the subsequent trial, leading to the legalisation of cremation in Britain. After the death of his father, his mother (who was nearly 60 years young than the old man) renamed the boy with the old family name of Nicholas.

Naming your son Jesus Christ and then cremating him suggests a fair degree of boldness and eccentricity. Eccentric would be rather an understatement for Dr Price, for as this book shows, he was always someone who ran against the tide of conventional opinion. He developed from perhaps a somewhat avant guard surgeon, through the Chartism of his early middle age, to the religious radicalism of his later years. Like many in the Celtic revival he tried to reconstruct the philosophy of the Druids, and like the rest, these Druids came far more from the Romantic imagination than the fragments contained in the classical history books. Price’s interpretation was more eccentric than most, and others of the fraternity, such as the poet and journalist Owen Morgan, tended to look down on his version of Druidry.

Indeed Price had far more in common with other religious radicals of the mid-19th century than any traditional Druidry; his eccentric dress, promotion of free love, nudity, vegetarianism, alternative medicine, going about without socks, increasingly eccentric dress, being symptomatic of such groups. Had he lived 130 or so years later he would have been a prototypical hippy, and indeed we can often see the same journey of disappointed political radicals into the realms of alternative religion in the 1960 and 1970s, a phenomenon also associated with the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the 1640s and 1650s, when Levellers and Diggers ended up as Quakers or Fifth Monarchists.

Like many middle class would-be radicals, Price was by no means consistent; he remained friends with the local industrialist family the Crawshays, and kept up correspondence with the likes of Lady Charlotte Guest and Lady Augusta Hall for many years. He was also obsessed with the idea that he descended from the last native Prince of Wales. He was also hugely litigious, involved in court case after court case both as plaintive and defendant. This and his increasingly rambling speeches and letters, the latter full of the capitals and underlinings so beloved of cranks (though it isn’t recorded whether he ever used green ink!), raise the suspicion that he was not entirely sane, a suspicion deepened by that fact that his clergyman father was hopelessly insane for much of his life. Unlike his father however, Price was able to function as a doctor for much of this time, did not suffer from the social withdrawal associated with schizophrenia, and was remembered with affection by his children.

He is one of those people whose reputation has fallen and risen again, once highly popular in his locality, then reviled for the cremation and his wild behaviour, now a local hero, with at least two statues in his honour and regarded as the pioneer of cremation.

This is a meticulously detailed book and is clearly the product of a great amount of research. I feel it could have done with some editing, particularly of the very lengthy accounts of Price’s court cases, and could definitely do with an index. It should be of interest to anyone with an interest in Welsh culture and history. -- Peter Rogerson


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