Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
To the casual passer by, the Pioneer Centre in St Mary’s Road, Peckham, is an attractive and unusual apartment building from the 1930s with a lot of curves and a lot of glass. With iron gates that can only be operated by residents, it has an air of exclusivity that belies its origins as an innovative health-focussed centre that was open to everyone who lived within a one-mile radius upon payment of a small subscription. It was only open for a very few years, the facility with its holistic philosophy toward health and well-being was not incorporated into the National Health Service when it was created in 1948 which had more of an emphasis on treating illness rather than creating health. Also called “The Peckham Experiment” the Centre was in a sense a laboratory where members were studied, an experiment which in the words of Dr George Scott Williamson, one of the founders, was to “study health, find out what makes health”, the outcome of which was to achieve “positive health”.
Dr Williamson had met Dr Innes Pearse (they later married) at the Royal Free Hospital where they both worked during the 1920s. They both had a commitment to health and well-being that centred around the family with an emphasis on good ante-natal care, social interaction and preventative measures. They opened their first centre in 1926 at 142 Queen’s Road, Peckham, a house that operated as a club with a small membership fee. Peckham was chosen as it had a mixed demographic for their study with no mass unemployment. The only conditions of joining were that the whole family had to join and that members underwent a regular 'health overhaul'.
The club at the Queen’s Road premises closed after three years. After raising the funding privately the Pioneer Centre opened in 1935 just around the corner in St Mary's Road in a building designed by Owen Williams. It was designed to allow in the maximum light and glazing was extensively used not just externally but between areas internally which had the benefit of facilitating observation by the researchers. The facilities offered at the new Centre were outstanding, even by today’s standards. The central focus of the Centre was a swimming pool which could be viewed from the first and second floors. There was a gym, a crèche, a quiet area where lectures and debates were held, a rooftop playground, a recreation room where darts, billiards and table tennis were played, a tennis court, a dance hall, a theatre and a cafeteria.
Members had access to medical staff but the over-riding philosophy, innovative for the times, was that prevention is better than a cure. Ante natal advice was given, babies weighed and measured and advice given to mothers about their child's development. The managers of the Centre had a light touch and whilst members might be advised of underlying health conditions and given advice on treatments available, members themselves made the decision of what course of action to follow. The approach was to encourage autonomy within their members and Williamson and Pearse believed that, by joining in and becoming part of a community and taking personal responsibility, well-being and good health would follow.
The Centre was popular and busy, and during the time it operated, 1,500 families signed up. A film was made about the Centre in 1948 and more recently fond memories of childhood spent at the Centre are discussed here.
The Centre closed during the second world war when it was used as a munitions factory and reopened in 1946. It was not incorporated into the National Health Service and, when funding could not be found to keep it open, it closed permanently in 1950. Undoubtedly ahead of its time, the work of Williamson and Pearse has been influential especially in regard to nutrition in pregnancy and the emergence of health education and preventative medicine. Innes Pearse, discussing the outcome of their work, said
“The practical and important meaning of Peckham for this moment lies I believe, in the fact that through the experiment we have found a means of canalising and tapping the growth energy of the family, and in such a way that through the Centre we have now the means of enabling the people to educate themselves through their own drive. … One of the poignant disclosures of the Centre was the quite extraordinary fund of good sense and goodwill which exists pent in the ordinary man.” (Quoted in Tom Harrison, 2000, Bion, Rickman, Foulkes and the Northfield Experiments).
The building later became a leisure centre run by Southwark Council and a part of the Southwark Adult Education Institute, continuing in some respects the original focus on community. Grade II listed, the building was sold in the 1990s and converted into flats where residents have use of the swimming pool, gym and tennis court.