WHO THE FOLK are Dean Powell and Dr William Price?
‘WHO THE FOLK’ is my new regular feature for ‘WHERE THE FOLK’ in which I interview various experts from around the country regarding Welsh history and folklore.
The following is an interview with Dean Powell- author, historian, guest speaker, tour guide and compere, being the first of my interviews, conducted in February, 2022. I met Dean when visiting the town of Llantrisant for my previous post, WHERE THE FOLK did the “Mad Doctor” go to Burn the Baby Welsh Messiah?. Dean kindly agreed to meet up again to talk about his books, the history and ghostly tales of Llantrisant and the great-but-eccentric surgeon, Dr William Price…
RW: Well thank you for taking the time to speak with me today, you’re obviously a very busy man and very popular, from what I’ve seen!
DP: Oh, I don’t know about that… that’s why I’m in PR, makes me look better than I am!
RW: Haha! Well people are very friendly around here though, aren’t they?
DP: Yes they are actually, it’s a nice community, a nice place to live. I grew up here, it’s a close-knit community and we’ve had a lot of support in getting the Guildhall Heritage Centre set up and running.
RW: Ah well, you’ve answered my next question, actually- I was going to ask if you grew up here or not, or of how you ended up in Llantrisant. So you’re born and bred here, are you?
DP: Right, so I’m born and bred in Llantrisant, 49 years ago. I grew up here and went to the local primary school, an old Victorian school where my own great-grandparents had gone as children. It had re-opened as a Welsh medium school in 1976 and I was in the first class. My parents aren’t Welsh-speaking, but it became a second language for me. I don’t speak much of it now because there aren’t many Welsh-speakers in Llantrisant. Not as many as where you’re from, I can imagine…
RW: Aha yes, well, I am from Caernarfon!
DP: Yes, well, there you go!
RW: It’s English-speakers we struggle to find up there.
DP: Haha! Yes, well, I was recently up at Rhyd Ddu and got to use my Welsh, which was lovely. Well anyway, I was educated in the town and grew up to be a Freeman of Llantrisant, which means that my family has been here for a heck of a long time! They were all Freemen, it was handed down the bloodline of many families from the 14th Century.
It gives us the right the graze cattle and horses out on the common- I have not got any cattle, by the way! But I am Clerk of the Town Trust and my job is to look after the land and the rights of all the Freemen of Llantrisant. So, along with running the Guildhall I’m very much involved with the town here? I was a local journalist here, edited the Pontypridd & Llantrisant Observer newspaper here for a long time and wrote several books on Llantrisant and helped restore this building as well, raising one and a half million to open a local heritage and visitors’ centre.
I just feel that Llantrisant is a small town with a big story. It’s what I keep telling people? It needs to be told, and that’s what we do here, really, as diversely as we can, through guest speaker evening, children’s fun days, educational visits, tours, concerts and medieval fayres and of course, with the exhibitions themselves, the most popular of which is that of Dr William Price…
RW: Ah! Yes, well, as you know, I originally came here for Dr Price, but I agree with you- Llantrisant is a small town with a big story to be told, and I kind of opened Pandora’s Box by coming here, I’m not gonna’ lie to you!
DP: Haha! Yeah!
RW: But, actually, there are a couple of things you mentioned there that I want to ask you more about before we move on to Price… the Freemen of Llantrisant and the setting up of the Guildhall… seeing as you’re well-acquainted with those worlds, can you talk more about them? How about we start on the setting up of the museum…?
DP: Sure, yes… well, the Guildhall was first built in 1346. 1346 is one of those dates that everyone remembers if they’re from Llantrisant. It was one of those years where big things happen in our history. 1346 was the year that the traders of the town were given a charter by the Lord of Glamorgan. Hugh Despenser III, and he recognised that Llantrisant, deserved this charter, which basically gave the traders the right to sell their wares in the local market without paying a tax. This freedom helped them become a far more economically buoyant town. It also gave them the right to charge traders from outside Llantrisant for the right for trading in their market. As such, they became known as the “Free Men of Llantrisant”.
But they also had a whole range of additional powers, eventually gaining the right to vote in parliamentary elections, which was a position eagerly sought. And of course, the right to graze cattle out on the common, which we’ve done for centuries since. We’ve never grazed sheep there. As such, the common also has very unique biodiversity. We’re introducing marsh-fertility butterflies there at the moment. And because it’s never been grazed by sheep, the fauna and the flora is quite unique for this part of South Wales and is now covered as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It covers around 240 acres of pasture land, that we maintain, as well as other plots of land, such as a little hilltop called Y Graig.
And it all comes under this charter, handed down over generations to the sons and sons-in-law of the local Freemen. Although, it isn’t as simple as saying that just because you’re a Freemen, that you’re family were here in the 1300s, because sometimes it was given as a gift, often to the apprentices of Freemen. Although, I reckon some of us may like to claim that we’ve been here for a long time! My family have certainly been here for at least three hundred years, I know that much. Whether or not we were here before then, I don’t know. But in any case, these Freemen traditions were carried on through the generations. At one time they ran the town and became perhaps a little too powerful, in my opinion- I don’t think they’ve always been the most honest men, dare I say it.
RW: Not very popular with the locals, then?
DP: No. You see, because they also governed the town, they also had the power to hold Court Leet, which was basically a Court system, so they also dished out punishments and convictions. But they lost this power in the 1880s. Queen Victoria’s parliament created district councils- what we know today as democratic local governments- and they classed places like Llantrisant as “Rotten Boroughs”, as they called them, and they lost most of their power. One of the rights they did maintain, however, was the right to enrol a son or a son-in-law as a future Freemen, as long as they’re over twenty-one years of age. So, they set up a charitable trust called the Llantrisant Town Trust. I mean, we enrol twenty, thirty, maybe even forty new Freemen every year, and they can be anywhere in the world now. Any race or country you can think of, we have a Freeman there, probably! There’s about 1,200 Freemen around the world… it’s still a tradition that people like to hold in the family because it gives them a sense of belonging, I think, and a connection to their ancestry. I think the debate of whether or not we introduce “Freewomen” is one that will raise its head before very long, because we’re one of the few that hasn’t already enrolled women yet. Which is, you know- we’re very much embedded in the tradition of the Freemen here, but things move on as well.
RW: Can you see it happening in the next few years?
DP: Oh I think so, yes, definitely! And I’d be supportive of it, too! So the Freemen have been very much involved in the town for many years, and one other tradition they upkeep is that every seven years, they “beat the boundaries” of the old borough which is a seven-mile walk, in a tradition called the “Beating of the Bounds”. They would make this walk holding their silver mace, which is older than the House of Commons. It’s a 17th Century silver mace and a really treasured, pride and joy for the Freemen. We usually attract around 15,000 people to Llantrisant for the day.
RW: Oh, wow!
DP: Oh yes, it’s a hell of a big event, especially for a town with only about ten parking spaces!
RW: Haha! Yes, I was gonna’ ask you about that!
DP: Haha! Yes, well, it’s a great day and attracts many different people, you know, like the medieval combat societies and so on, and they have a fantastic party atmosphere in the pubs late in the night.
So, going back to the Guildhall… because the Freemen were given this charter in 1346, they needed somewhere from which to govern and administer the town as best as they could, so this building was erected the same year. Within about four hundred years however, it’s in ruin, and is rebuilt in 1773. Now, the building had a large market directly next door to it, so there are windows only on one side of the hall, so that they could keep an eye on everyone, making sure everyone in the market behaved and that it was properly run. There was a weighing house next door, from where they weighed the bread and the cheese, checking if it was the accurately priced before it was sold… of course, the Guildhall was built in the shadow of the Norman castle, which was built a hundred years earlier, in 1246 by Richard de Clare and was an overnight prison for Edward II in 1326.
So the Guildhall became the centre of power for the town. Stocks were kept downstairs- now, I think that most people get their image of being held in the stocks from the 1980s Robin Hood television series, expecting lettuce and tomatoes to be thrown at them… in reality, it was more likely to be dead cats or human waste. Now, any child who comes here today often thinks “oh well, because I’ve got small hands and feet, I could have pulled myself out of those stocks easily and ran away”, but then I get to tell them that, in fact, if you were a child, then they would have nailed one of your ears to the stocks as well, to make sure you didn’t escape! I’m sure Llantrisant was full of kids with ripped earlobes!
DP: So the Guildhall was built for that, and as the years went on and the castle fell out of use, the town was seen as a place of far less significance. The Guildhall ended up being used by numerous different organisations- the first national school was opened here in 1701, the Baptists used it as a chapel in the 1660s and it was even a spiritual church in the 1970s and 80s! It’s had a lot of uses over the years.
You see, when Pontypridd became the vibrant Victorian market town of the valleys, Llantrisant lost its market after 700-odd years, and this building lost a lot of prominence. Downstairs, the archways were replaced by windows and doors. By 2010, we knew that it needed a lot of work- we had leaking roofs and the timber was looking a bit rotten- I mean, it was hardly ever used- we’d have meetings there every six weeks or so, which is not enough for a building like this, which is Grade-II listed... so we started fundraising, and a handful of us raised the £1.4 million needed to turn it into a heritage and visitors centre.
RW: When was this, sorry?
DP: We opened in the August of 2019. It took us eight years to get to that point. Then we opened for six months and things were going incredibly well, until of course, things happened, and a little something came over to us from China… and that was the end of that! We opened for short periods during the pandemic, as long as it was allowed, but then opened back up again permanently, I hope, in May 2021.
We had a royal visit in the July of that year from Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, who came and gave us a royal seal of approval. Which was great, because the third reason why 1346 was such a big year for Llantrisant is that was the same year that the local longbow-men fought for the Prince of Wales at the Battle of Crécy, in Northern France. We have a long tradition of longbow-men in this town, and they fought gallantly in that battle, by all accounts, despite being outnumbered three-to-one. At the end of the battle, the Prince of Wales himself took the emblem off the chest of the enemy king, King John of Bohemia, and it was the three ostrich feathers that now signifies the Prince of Wales.
RW: Yes, well, I was astounded, to be honest, to hear just how much influence the archers of Llantrisant have had on Welsh culture. There is also the claim that they came up with the famous “V-sign”… is there any legitimacy to this?
DP: Ah well, you see, according to some historians, there is no legitimacy to Welsh archers being at that battle, at all! Some deny the claim that we were even there, but I think I would go with the evidence that we were there… I mean, there are receipts, for instance, from Hugh Despenser III showing the soldiers he paid to be there. I mean, we have traditionally been referred to as the “Black Army” here in Llantrisant because we fought for the “Black Prince”, as the Prince of Wales was known at the time. He wore dark armour you see, and was something of a “dark” and brutal character on the battlefield – despite only being 16 at the time.
Now, there were also claims that we could fire up to fifteen arrows a minute, despite there being a 120-pound pull on the bow, which is extraordinary! They say that in the battle, any of the French who caught a Welsh bowman would chop his two fingers off to stop him being able to use his bow, and of course, those Welsh that weren’t caught couldn’t wait to “give them the two fingers” to show them that they still had them! I love the idea that we were that quirky, but whether or not there is any legitimacy to it, I don’t know! As it often happens, myth and legend become part of history…
RW: Ah, yes, well- it’s all the myths and legends connected to Llantrisant that brought me here in the first place! Speaking of which- the Billy Wynt- what’s that, then?
DP: Ah, well, talk about a myth and a legend! I think people in the pubs of Llantrisant could argue all night and day about what the Billy Wynt was… now, a lot of people forget that what you can see there today was built as recently as the 1890s. It cost the Town Trust just a £100 to have it built. And they built a folly, really, out of the ruins of the stones that were already there.
Now, Iolo Morganwg, the Welsh antiquarian who forged so many documents in his lifetime, really created this myth and legend of what Wales was really about, talking about centuries of Druidism and so forth, and it inspired so many others to do the same.
Here at Llantrisant, we had our own historian called Taliesin Morgan, who was a previous Clerk of the Town Trust- like myself, funnily enough and he wrote the second History of Llantrisant in 1896. It’s an interesting read, but full of holes, historically. There are suggestions of Saxon armies fighting on the common and of an Irish queen being murdered up on the hilltop- they’re all myths and legends that he had perhaps heard in his youth and such, but once they go into a history book, then all of a sudden, they become historic fact. And he was clerk at the time that they built the tower that you now see today, you see, and he felt that it was a windmill.
But actually, he was reading manuscripts about the history of Llantrisant that talked about “mills”, only the mills they were talking about were the watermills found at the bottom of the hill- places like Miskin and Pontyclun- I mean, why build a windmill on an outcrop off a cliff edge, far away from the town, with no fields of wheat nearby, when you can have a far more profitable watermill down below? It just doesn’t make sense for it to be a windmill! But of course, the tradition has stuck, thanks to Talieisn’s words, and other people’s.
Now, there are references to an old tower being there before then, but what they don’t say is what the tower was used for. Truth of the matter is, if you look at Llantrisant to the south, you will see the castle, the church and the Billy Wynt. The castle was built there by Richard de Clare, the Norman Lord of Glamorgan. Now, the exiled Welsh did not like losing their town, and why should they?! There were many uprisings in the 13th and 14th centuries. The trouble with a castle in that position was that, although the two towers were quite tall, they weren’t tall enough to look over the mountain where the Billy Wynt stands, and below that hilltop is the main artery, really, that runs from the south and into the mountains up north. They would have wanted to keep an eye on that, because it was a hugely important route, both as a trading route and for military purposes. They would have had to have had another tower up there, maybe with a small garrison, like a “lookout tower”, really, for the Norman castle.
So I’m going to pin my sail to the mast and say that it was a Norman lookout tower. I really don’t believe that it was a windmill. Now, where the name “Billy Wynt” comes from is anyone’s guess. Some would claim it’s from ‘felin wynt’ for ‘windmill’, but it’s not, really. Where’s the “Billy”?! “Billy” could, of course, be ‘Bailey’… was it a “windy bailey” up on the hill? It’s a possibility. But hey, listen, let’s not tell anyone what to believe, let’s just leave them to argue about it in the pubs of Llantrisant, it’s far more fun that way!
RW: Well I was going to ask about the town’s pub culture actually, because all the locals were telling me how much of a great night it is! Would you say you have a good pub culture here at Llantrisant, then?
DP: I’d say we have a great pub culture here at Llantrisant, yes! Although, there are four pubs now, and two clubs. Back in 1871, we had twenty-seven! It was a market town, you see, and market was on a Friday and people needed some “refreshments”. But these pubs wouldn’t be open all week, and some were just small pubs set up in people’s front living rooms! They were called “front parlour pubs”. So you can’t really consider them “traditional” pubs, the kind we know today. They only would have opened for the sake of various events, really. Now, you’ll find, living in Llantrisant, that people often follow something of a “pub crawl”, in a sense- we always end up going in one big circle, seeing the same people…
RW: Hey, I’m from Caernarfon, I know all about that!
DP: Haha! Well then, you’ll know what I’m on about! Now, there’s also a great musical tradition here at Llantrisant, we have many bands here, from folk bands to pop-folk bands, jazz bands… so yes, on the weekend, there’s plenty of live music! For a town as small as this, we are truly blessed!
RW: But of course, the pub culture was once a big issue here, wasn’t it? Back in the days of the Bull Ring…
DP: Oh God, yes… yes, so, people at the time may very well have looked up at Llantrisant and think “look at those bunch of crachach living up there on that hill…”, well, in truth, this was a filthy, dirty and squalid place… we had the first parish workhouse in Glamorgan, built in 1783 because of all the poverty and vagabonds on the streets… we had all sorts of epidemics, like most towns at the time, we had no healthcare, no clean water in the town pump half the time- I mean, they were giving beer to children! People wrote about Llantrisant as being the “town where you walk to your knees in dung and pigs roam freely without a ring in their snout”. It got so bad that we had a lot of problems with criminality in the town- a lot of drunkenness, prostitution was rife… right up until the First World War, I’d say! With twenty-seven pubs to choose from as well, it must have been one hell of a night!
And when the market was in town, we had sport events, like the handball court, that was quite popular, but none were more popular than the bull-baiting, which was a pretty grizzly sport, really… so they tied a bull to a large stone out on the Bull Ring and the farmers brought their terriers down. The one who bit and held onto the bull’s tongue the longest, won. It was pretty brutal. They put a stop to it in 1827, not because it was unkind to the animals, but because the local constabulary just couldn’t handle the drunken crowds anymore!
RW: Now, I’ve heard that the stone upon which they tied the bull to is out there on the common somewhere… is that true?
DP: Well, so they say… when bull-baiting became illegal, they buried the stone out on Llantrisant common- maybe that’s why the farm that sits at the bottom of Newbridge Road, which runs from the old town to the next village of Beddau, is called “Bull Ring Farm”! However, that, again, is a local superstition. Now, there is a rather suspect-looking stone with a ring on it behind one of the properties on the Bull Ring, but I don’t think that’s the real one, I must confess… I think someone was having a laugh when they made that! In truth, we’re not sure where the bull ring is, really.
RW: Now, we’ll get back to the Bull Ring, because that, of course, is where you can find the famous statue of Dr William Price, but first, please tell me more about the castle… I heard that Edward II had a bit of a rough time there…?
DP: Aha! He did, yes, well… the castle… there have been people living on the hilltop of Llantrisant for as far back as the Bronze Age, we think… although, a proper excavation of the town has never been done, so dating this town is quite difficult… but there is evidence of activity at this time. Llantrisant would have made a perfect hilltop fortress town. Now, we know that Christianity came here in the 7th Century, so we consider it to have been a Pagan, pre-Christian community who originally settled here. A wooden fortress was built here by a Welsh tribal chief called Iestyn ap Gwrgan. Of course, Llantrisant is a great spot for a fortress- you can see over the Bristol Channel from here!
Then Richard de Clare took Llantrisant as part of the Glamorganshire states, built a stonework defence and made Llantrisant Castle the administrative centre of his lordship. His daughter was born here, his son Gilbert spent many years here before going on to build Caerphilly Castle, the second-largest castle in Britain. De Clare was here from 1246. The male line of the de Clare family died out quite young, and the estate went to the Despensers then, when one of the daughters married Hugh Despenser II, a hugely unpopular man, greedy, mean and cruel…
RW: Isn’t he linked to the tale of the Green Lady of Caerphilly Castle?
DP: Gilbert De Clare that was, yes- the son of Richard de Clare. He also claimed to have been tormented by “Gwrach-y-Rhibyn”, a sort of banshee-like creature, who would approach the property and scream the name of the next de Clare family member to perish. In any case, Hugh Despenser the Younger had a relationship with Edward II. Edward II was known to be a bisexual, which served as something of a final nail in the coffin for his relationship with Queen Isabella. She had been married to him as a twelve-year-old French princess, but he showed her very little interest and it was never a happy marriage. Edward II became so unpopular… he had lost Scotland, which his father had hammered into English control, he was facing civil war, he had a bad relationship with France… the queen goes back to France with their son and suddenly has all the balls in her court, unlike the isolated Edward. She returns with 10,000 French troop to take the crown in the name of their son, and Edward can’t raise an army- he can’t gain enough support from his people, who won’t stand up against their queen- they just let her in! “walk into London, why don’t you!” Haha!
He and Hugh Despenser come back to Wales, thinking they can raise an army here, but we’re not interested, either. He was either heading towards Caerphilly, to seek refuge there, or perhaps going on a pilgrimage to Penhrys, to the holy well there… but wherever he was going, he didn’t get very far, and was caught a mile outside of Llantrisant at a place called Pant y Brad, or the hollow of treason and was imprisoned in the Castle overnight. From there, Edward ends up in Berkeley, where he is murdered. Poison or suffocation, most likely, not the old traditional story of a red-hot poker being stuffed up his backside. Truth is, we’re not really sure what’s true! Hugh Despenser, however, was charged for treason and hung, drawn and quartered on the town square. Ironically, twenty years after he is executed, his son is the one who ends up giving the people of Llantrisant their charter, which is interesting!
In any case, the castle was destroyed several times during numerous Welsh uprisings, such as that of Llywelyn Bryn in 1316 against the Normans. By 1404, the castle lies empty and starts to show signs of being in ruin. Whether or not Owain Glyndŵr took it as part of his sweep across South Wales, we may never know… we like to say that he was here! But the truth is, there is no evidence of this. Regardless, the castle was never repaired, and its stones were used to build houses in the town. You can see these stones in people’s houses today. Then the Butes later ransacked the castle to build Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch, so we’ve been recycled everywhere, I think!
Since then, it’s been a standing ruin. Apparently, there’s a dungeon there that people spoke of, but I think it was more likely to have been the cells here below the Guildhall, to be honest… so yeah, the local government now provides us with two goats, who are there for six months of the year, to eat away the ivy and such.
RW: Certainly, there’s a lot of myths and legends intertwined with Llantrisant’s history, which brings us to the good doctor himself, William Price… now, I’m told that you’re the expert on Price… so what drew you to him, and towards writing his biography?
DP: Right, well… at the local primary school here, we had a really good teacher from Dolgellau called Eurof James. He was fresh from college, so probably in his early twenties. And he was an inspiring teacher, one of those you remember all your life! And he introduced us as a class to Dr William Price. And of course, you love it when you’re that age, about seven or eight, and you suddenly learn about a doctor who lived in the same town as you who went on top of a hill in the middle of winter and sets fire to a baby’s body, you know? It’s going to shock children, but also have a sort of bewildering effect, almost fairy-tale like, in a sense. And I grew up in a cottage on Newbridge Road, which is directly below the hill where the cremation took place. I would often look up at it with wonder.
I read a book on Dr Price that was written in the 1940’s which had a lots of gaps in it and was all about the fact that he cremated his son. Then as the years went on, I worked as a journalist in various parts of South Wales and I started writing history books about towns and villages in the area and it seemed that whenever I went to interview people, it seemed that a Dr Price story would turn up somewhere- very strange!
A couple of books written about him were, what I though, unfair, and I saw snippets on YouTube about him and old television programmes and scripts for theatre shows, and they all created this kind of clownish, buffoonish, idiotic image of a man, that he was some bizarre, eccentric “Welsh wizard” who danced naked around flames and walked mountains in the nude and things.
So I thought- there’s got to be more to the man than this! They all neglected to mention that he was eighty-four when this huge event took place that would catapult him into national fame. He must have lived a full life before he was eighty-four! So I gathered some information about him and learned that my own great-grandparents were at the cremation and that family members knew his children. When you live in a town this small, you pick up information quite quickly from people who knew the family, and so I started writing more about him. It took me ten years, not full on, mind- I had a couple of years off in between… but I kept gathering information until in the end, I thought, you know what? There’s enough here to put a book together- enough for a 500-page hardback that came out in 2010, in fact!
And that’s what I did really, and it was a great labour of love. Although, I don’t think I’ll put myself through something quite as big as that again! I read eight thousand copies of the Merthyr Guardian, the Echo… and you didn’t have the luxury of search engines in those days, either! These days, with the National Library of Wales you can search for specific things, but you couldn’t do it back then, so I had to physically go through every paper on microfilm. It was a big job, but well worth it, because the stories I found on him were just tremendous!
RW: You mentioned that it was a “labour of love” just then- now, I would just like to say that you can really get a sense of this as you’re reading it!
DP: Yes, well, I just wanted to change people’s perceptions of him? Even before the book came out, I started giving lectures on him, just to try and share his story. Most people will know what I’m on about when I say that whenever you mention Price, people immediately mention the cremation. They say “he’s the man who, in 1884, tried to cremate the remains of his baby child on a mountaintop in Llantrisant. It causes a huge landmark court case, he defends himself, he wins the trial, he is found not guilty and it leads the way to the passing of the Cremation Act in Britain in 1902.” And that’s what people know about him, if indeed they know about him at all!
What they don’t know is what happened before. They don’t know the fact that he was an excellent surgeon who graduated at the Royal College of Surgeons in London when he was only twenty-one, and this despite the fact that he grew up in an impoverished farmhouse on the outskirts of Caerphilly with a father who was a schizophrenic and a vicar who could never hold a living. He didn’t have a penny to his name. Twenty-one, he’s a surgeon, he’s a mid-wife and a pharmacist- he’s got all these qualifications! He comes back to Wales and becomes the surgeon of the tin-plate works in Treforest and the chain works in Pontypridd. He proposes a healthcare system that would undoubtedly influence people like Aneurin Bevan when they wrote up the NHS a hundred years later.
RW: And that’s completely overlooked, isn’t it?
DP: Totally overlooked! He then starts fighting for the right of the Welsh people to have a museum, or at least institutions of their own. The museum is a big thing for him- he wants to open the first national museum for Wales. He wants to showcase the fact that we are a unique nation, that we don’t deserve to be considered inferior, don’t deserve the fact that, until 1900, the Encyclopaedia Britannica would say “for Wales, see England”… he becomes part of a “culturist group”, is what I’d call them, really… Lady Llanover… is one of them, she’s the one who really stamped her authority on the national costume of Wales, and Lady Charlotte Guest is the other, who translated the Mabinogion into English. And the respect each other and fight for the same cause.
But he’s more radical, and quite militant. When he realizes that he can’t build his national museum- he doesn’t get the support he thought the Welsh people would have given him- he then turns towards why Parliament isn’t doing more to recognize Wales as an unique nation in its own right. So he joins a chartist movement who are desperately trying to penetrate parliament with six points of reform which becomes The People’s Charter. He becomes the leader of several thousand men for the Charters’ rising. He doesn’t go to Newport on the day of the march, he doesn’t believe in John Frost, he doesn’t think he’s militant enough.
He spends quite a bit of time in France. He’s a left-winger, he goes on long drinking binges with Karl Marx in London, apparently, and goes on to create Wales’s first co-operative society. He opens that in 1841 in Pontypridd. He is also involved in the re-establishment of the National Eisteddfod in 1861. But more than anything, he is an obsessive disciple, I suppose, of Iolo Morganwg and his ideas about Druidism and the thought that Wales was the centre of some “Druidic ideal”. He latches onto it, and he obsesses over Druidism. He becomes the “Archdruid of Wales”, a title that he gives himself- huge ego!
Massive showman, loves being the centre of attention. He wears flamboyant costumes, all these red waistcoats, specially minted brass buttons with goats heads on them, green trousers and tartan shoals, a fox on his head… he’s only five foot five don’t forget, so he used to look bigger than he was, you know? Because he’s a big character… and of course, because he has these firm beliefs in Druidism, he also wants to pass them on and he has this “epiphany”.
Now, there’s a lot of mental health issues with Price, as well. You can’t deny that, and I think there were periods when he was at his lowest and he had these huge ideas and huge imagery, if you will. One of which is when he says that his first son would be born something of a Druidic god, like a new messiah of pagan life, who would bring Druidism back to Wales and sweep Christianity away. He doesn’t support Christianity at all, really. He didn’t see his mentally-ill father get any help from the Christians when he was tied to his bed in the house, so why should he?!
In any case, he believes that Druidism is the natural faith of the British people. So he sets out to have a son. To have a son you need a girlfriend. He has a lot of women in his life, but he doesn’t marry any of them- he doesn’t believe in marriage, he believes that it enslaves women. He’s a bit of a feminist, I suppose! He often came to the defence of some poor unmarried mother who was being shouted at from the pulpit. Which is ironic, because I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the reason she ended up there in the first place! There was a lot of women, and a lot of children, that we know of.
We know of six children, certainly, although I think there was a lot more than that! But his first born son finally comes along when he is at quite an age. He came to Llantrisant when he was 71 years of age, and at 83, he decides to marry his housekeeper, in a Druidic marriage, mind, not a Christian one. She’s fifty-one years younger than him; Gwenllian Llywelyn, a girl from Cilfynydd, a little mining village near Pontypridd. His love for her, I think, is very well-balanced by her obsession and admiration for him. They had quite a strong relationship, although I doubt people thought that at the time.
So she gives him a son at last, the “Druidic messiah”, and they want to give him a name that people would remember and worship so they name the child “Iesu Grist”, which, I’m sure, doesn’t go down well with the God-fearing folk of Llantrisant at the time. Within five months, the baby dies, and he decides to cremate him because that’s what the Druids did- it was the cleanest way to do it and it didn’t assault the earth… but he picked his moment, mind. Chose seven o’clock on a Sunday evening, just after the evening service so people are looking up to East Caerlan, the hilltop overlooking the town and wondering what on earth is going on? Price picked his time perfectly, he wanted people to see the ceremony and be intrigued by it: “What are those flames in the night? Who’s that, chanting and dancing in Druidic clothes?!” Before you know it, you have three hundred people gathered up on the hill wondering what on Earth is going on: “Didn’t the Druids sacrifice people? Is he sacrificing his own son? Did he kill him and is trying to conceal the evidence?!”
The police come and kick the casket over. The baby rolls out onto the field and it causes a riot. They try to set fire to Price, but in the end, he’s dragged away and taken to the police station next door to the Guildhall. The baby’s remains are put in a box and kept in a cell there. The trial takes place a few weeks later- it’s a huge trial, people like Arthur Conan Doyle would later write about it! Dylan Thomas also wrote a somewhat dark and macabre story about Price in his collection of stories in 1932 because he recognized that Price used to spend time at Fern Hill because he was friends with a man there called “Evans y Crogwr”. Richard Anderson; “hangman for twenty-five years, GP for another twenty-five years… killed them with one hand, saved them with the other!” Always dressed as a cowboy, eccentric as hell!
Dr Price defends himself brilliantly in the trial and is found not guilty on both charges and because of all the media coverage, Price becomes a celebrity. He does cremate the child eventually, and it goes ahead peacefully. He’s offered tours of America as a speaker, but doesn’t take any of those on. He dies at 92, lying on his chaise lounge in the arms of Gwenllian, drinking a glass of champagne. His own cremation was well-documented- Gwenllian sold tickets, in fact, and a good 20,000 people turned up for it!
RW: See, you’re gonna’ hate me now, because I’m one of those people who refer to Price as that guy who led to the legalization of cremation in the UK, and most people react by saying “I never knew it was illegal in the first place!” So, what did Price change? When was it written in UK law that cremation was illegal, and why?
DP: You’re right though- despite all our efforts, this will always be what he’s remembered for! I mean, it was a big part of his life, I just wanted to show people that there was much more to the man, is all.
And it never was- it was never written down in law that cremation was illegal. So the trial took place in Cardiff, and the judge there was called James Fitzjames Stevens, who had lived in India for quite a long time before that as a barrister, and so had seen open-air Hindu cremations take place on a regular basis, so he knew how important it was for Eastern religions. Therefore, he had a bit of sympathy for Price, which he shouldn’t have had as a judge, admittedly, but he liked Price- he wrote about him later in life and called him “my little Welsh wizard.” I think he thought Price was a radical, and that was a good thing to be in those days. Price was very quick to question Victorian society, how it was all a façade, that it was immoral, and how people were dying of poverty on the streets, and he wanted to get that out in the open.
In any case, the prosecution wanted to prosecute Price on five charges, which included cremating a child, and this Fitzjames Stevens said “you find me a law that says that cremation is illegal in Britain!” And there wasn’t one!
Before Christianity we had cremated our dead in Britain, there was archaeological evidence of this. But once Christianity gained momentum in Britain, there was a great argument against cremation, because if Christ had been laid in the cave and was able to rise again after four days, well, surely he couldn’t have if he had been cremated! If you cremate a body, would the soul be able to ascend into Heaven?
So cremation basically fell out of favour due to religious doctrine. By the 19th century some of the wealthy who really wanted to be cremated built mausoleums on their private estates and secretly used them to cremate. Some families even took bodies abroad so they could be cremated, so the momentum in Britain was gathering pace but it still wasn’t being done openly. There were attempts to push Parliament on the issue but the Church of England had such a hold on the House of Lords, so much influence, that they kept stopping the Act of Cremation being passed. The reason was, of course, that if cremation became popular, then they wouldn’t be able to sell grave plots on Church of England land!
RW: Ah, right! Always about money, eh?
DP: Always about money! But what happened was, that a surgeon named Sir Henry Thompson came along, who recognized that we had to do something here in Britain- there were too many over-crowded graveyards, they weren’t being well-looked after, there were unlicensed mass graves, and he thought they might trigger a pandemic. So he starts off the Cremation Society in 1874. Now, Henry Thompson’s ideas were really good- he could see that there was a need to cremate the dead. He got a crematorium built in Woking. They would eventually have death trains going up there from London, full of coffins! He knew it would happen eventually, but he couldn’t get the act passed by Parliament, and the reason was that he advertised the fact that even though it was a responsible way of disposing of the dead, he also added that human remains would be very good fertilizer on farmland, and that’s how he lost the support of the public. He was doing quite well up until then, but obviously over-stepped the mark with that one.
Now, the Cremation Society themselves, they included a single woman on the committee and she was called Rosemary Crawshay, a philanthropist and wife of Robert Crawshay, the “Iron King” of Merthyr Tydfil, and Price was part of the “Crawshay pack”, you see. He would attend their champagne and crocket balls, fancy dress balls and what have you… Druid and liberator of women on one hand, drinking champagne with the elite on the other- a very complicated man, was Price! A “champagne socialist” in many respects…
RW: Yes, I recall you saying in your book that he enjoyed the “finer things in life”…
DP: Oh, God yes, he did! So they get to the court case, and the Cremation Society has failed to get the act passed through Parliament, and they need a landmark court case to do it for them, basically. So Fitzjames Stevenson tells the prosecution that cremation wasn’t illegal, so they narrow it down to just two charges under common law, one of which is destroying the remains of a child before an inquest could be held into its death (they say his son died of a fit in Price’s arms). But Price reminds them that he is a doctor, and was able to do the analysis himself. What they actually ended up charging him with was for being a public nuisance for holding an open air cremation..
He is quoted as saying in the court: “It’s not right that a carcass should be allowed to rot and decompose in this way. It results in the wastage of good land, pollution of the earth, water and air, and is a constant danger to all living things.” And of course, he wins the case- the jury throws it out.
So yeah, it’s a dark, confusing, murky old area. But Price gets away with it, so it becomes a free-for-all.
RW: And that’s what happened then? One guy gets away with it, so everyone else jumps on-board…?
DP: Yes, that’s right. Even when Price himself was cremated eight years later, the act hadn’t gone through Parliament yet, so Gwenllian had to go to the Magistrate’s Court to ask for permission. So they say: “okay, we’ll allow it, but it’s got to be a Christian service, you have to have police there to make sure it doesn’t turn into a riot, and you’ve got to get the Bishop of Llandaff to support you in your endeavour”.
So down to Llandaff she goes, and gets him to agree to do it. So his was the first pre-arranged public cremation in Wales, really. And of course, the bishop writes a new funeral verse that says “I commit this body to fire”, you know… the Cremation Society wrote a fantastic book on it called Committed to the Cleansing Flame, and it’s all about how the act is passed and how Price played a big role in it. He never got involved with the society himself, really- it was his daughter who became more of an ambassador for the Cremation Society.
RW: Well I look forward to reaching that part in the book- don’t think I’ve even scraped the surface yet! But tell you what, some of Price’s ideas that you mention in the book- he would have fitted in quite well in today’s society, wouldn’t he? He was a feminist, a vegetarian, he was against smoking… ahead of his time, in many ways!
DP: Absolutely, yes, and that’s why people often confused him as being an eccentric, I think. He was mischievous, out-spoken, controversial, loved being the centre of attention… he would enter courtrooms and enjoy causing riots! People would flock to these courtrooms, knowing they were in for an afternoon of entertainment at Price’s leisure… he could tear a courtroom apart! He always defended himself because his knowledge of the legal system was so incredibly good. He’d do things like refuse to swear an oath on the Bible because “the map of Judea on page three is inaccurate” or would give them fake names… I think he just enjoyed seeing the blood pressure of the judge going up, to be honest with you!
RW: Haha! Now, you mention that he’s a knowledgeable surgeon, but he also had some… rather interesting methods, if you will, didn’t he?
DP: Yeah, well, you’ve got to take it with a pinch of salt whether or not any of them are true, really, because they’re all second or third-hand stories from people who knew or met him. I think the fact that people still remember him goes to show how popular he was. But yes, we know that he certainly wasn’t very orthodox, we know that much, and also know that he felt that herbal remedies and sometimes even just common sense was the way forward. He was quick to call out other medical practitioners as a “bunch of poison pedlars”, which didn’t go down well, I’m sure. He said that they made a profit giving potions and remedies to people when really, they should have been getting to the root of the problem, and it was their general lack of well-being, their diet, it was too much alcohol and too much smoking- that’s what was killing them!
Before the coming of anaesthetic he famously delivered a Crawshay baby in Treforest by caesarean section and saved the life of both the child and its mother which was incredibly rare. So this is a man with abilities and talent in medical spheres.
But many of these stories are simply not true. You know, one of my favourites is the one about the man who was a terrible alcoholic. Price gave him some liquid to drink and got him to vomit into a bucket. But Price had thrown a toad into the bucket beforehand and told him “well that’s the trouble- that toad was growing in your stomach because you’re an alcoholic!” Another one says about a woman who was having problems with her chest. Price put a lump of beef on it, and a worm came out through the skin. There was also one about a girl who had been frightened by a horse as a child and had never spoken since. Price was said to have thrown her into the stream and the shock was what brought her out of it. So it depends what you choose to believe, really, but many of them were fabricated or inflated, certainly!