PRICE, Richard (1723–1791)
Plaque erected in 2023 by English Heritage at 54 Newington Green, Newington Green, London, N16 9PX, London Borough of Hackney
Commerce and Business, Philosophy, Religion
In this terrace of 1658 lived Dr RICHARD PRICE 1723–1791 Preacher, philosopher, statistician and radical
Philosopher, mathematician, leading intellectual, dissenter and preacher, for almost 30 years Richard Price was pastor of a Nonconformist chapel in Newington Green. He lived a few doors away at 54 Newington Green and is commemorated there with a blue plaque.
Richard Price was born on 23 February 1723, in Glamorgan, Wales. The son of a Dissenting minister of strict Calvinist views, he was raised in that tradition.
In 1744, Price became family chaplain to George Streatfield in Stoke Newington, and assisted at local chapel services. After inheriting legacies in 1757, Price married Sarah Blundell. Sarah remained a communicant of the established church – for the Prices, religious toleration began at home. In 1758, the couple settled at Newington Green.
A CAREER OF MANY PARTS
From age 21, Price devoted his spare time to studying philosophy, applied mathematics, politics and theology. In 1758, he published the Review of the Principal Questions of Morals, in which he argued that individual conscience and reason should be used to resolve moral issues. The work has been compared to that of Immanuel Kant.
Price’s enquiry into theories of probability led to his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1765, where he was invited to advise the Society of Equitable Assurances. Price authored Observations on Reversionary Payments (1771), which for a century remained the standard text on calculating life assurance and annuities. Bayes’s theorem, which covers the probability that governs such calculations and is named after Price’s friend Thomas Bayes (for whom he acted as editor and publisher), is sometimes known as the Bayes–Price theorem in recognition of Price’s input. On matters of economics, he was consulted on the national finances by Pitt the Younger’s government.
Price regarded preaching as his primary mission. In doctrinal matters, he turned against Calvinism (a Protestant branch of the Christian Church following the teachings of John Calvin, whose doctrines included providence and predestination). By 1778 Price was classed as a Unitarian (a Christian denomination denying the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ and ideas of original sin and eternal punishment).
A REVOLUTIONARY BENT
In 1771, Price joined the ‘Bowood group’ – radical intellectuals led by William Petty. He defended the American rebels and the right of communities to self-government in Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty (1776). He enjoyed close friendships with leaders of the American Revolution and corresponded with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush. Price’s advice helped to shape the United States Constitution.
As earnest in his advocacy of political reform at home, Price campaigned for the reform of parliamentary representation and an extension to the franchise. He also welcomed the French Revolution. He summarised his political credo in A Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1789): ‘the right to liberty of conscience in religious matters… the right to resist power when abused [and] the right to chuse our own government’.
Following his death, Price was reviled for supporting the French Revolution. His reputation was further damaged when the first National Census of 1801 disproved his thesis on population decline. Furthermore, he became a scapegoat following revelations about mismanagement of the sinking fund in the early 19th century. Interest in Price for most of the 19th century was virtually confined to his contribution to life assurance: apart from his classic text and the Bayes–Price theorem, his nephew and first biographer William Morgan (on whom Price had a great influence) is usually considered to be the first actuary.
In the second half of the 20th century, Price’s reputation saw a revival. One historian called him ‘the greatest Welsh thinker of all time’; while another pronounced him Britain’s ‘first and original Left-Wing Intellectual’.
On being appointed pastor at the Newington Green Presbyterian Chapel in 1758, Price moved to the surviving 54 Newington Green (43 under an earlier numbering system). He remained there until 1787, when he moved to St Thomas’s Square, Hackney. Price died there on 19 April 1791, aged 68, and was buried at Bunhill Fields.
A family history from 1893 states that Price’s house survived ‘with the little turret chamber in which he studied, and the arched entrance through which he rode on his favourite white horse’. The ‘turret chamber’ corresponds to the house’s top storey, and the arched entrance to the passage right of the front door.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
Among his intimates there were Joseph Priestley; Mary Wollstonecraft (and her husband William Godwin), who ran a school on Newington Green and was part of Price’s congregation; and prison reformer John Howard.
Price’s neighbour, the poet Samuel Rogers, described ‘the sweetness of his disposition’ – illustrated by Price’s willingness to play a daily game of whist with his wife, Sarah, despite his dislike of it. He also had a competitive streak and a ‘love of frolic’: he once challenged a visiting customs officer, a Mr Hulton, to a hopping race along Cowslip Meadow, which led from the Green up to Stoke Newington. He won.
In this congenial atmosphere, Price and his neighbours held a regular Friday night ‘supping club’. When his nephew William Morgan stayed in 1770, he found it hard to depart: ‘It is a sad and gloomy prospect to leave my heavenly-minded friends at Newington Green, among whom such unbounded love reigns.’
1. R Price, Political Writings, ed DO Thomas (Cambridge, 1991), 89–90.
2. J Davies, A History of Wales (London, 1990), 324–5.
3. JGA Pocock, quoted in Paul Frame, Liberty's Apostle: Richard Price, His Life and Times (Cardiff, 2015), 4.
4. CE Williams, A Welsh Family from the Beginning of the 18th Century (London, 2016), 55–6.
5. Ibid., 58.
6. Ibid., 34.