It was both a working class utopia in the heart of Peckham and a unique experiment to demonstrate a totally holistic approach to health. The Pioneer Health Centre soon became known across the country and around the world as the Peckham Experiment. Did it live up to its name and pioneer a new approach to health in the pre-NHS age? Or were its wide-reaching lessons and successes overlooked by short sighted health officials?
BBC’s Four’s Timeshift series have been focusing on the history of health in the UK before the NHS. The most fascinating section on the first programme, Health before the NHS: The Road to Recovery, was on the Peckham Experiment. The programme interviewed some of the children who had experienced life at the health centre first hand.
Their recollections were vivid and enthusiastic, with one elderly woman wistfully describing her time as a member of the health centre as the happiest years of her life. Over 70 years after they had last used its facilities, the former members recalled the gym, swimming pool, dancing lessons, badminton courts, nursery and crèche.
Adults were well catered for, with a well-stocked library, dances, holiday camps and the chance to escape to the countryside. All members could eat together in the centre’s cafeteria and enjoy nutritious meals with ingredients grown in the centre’s own farm in Kent.
So far, it seemed like an ambitious but otherwise unremarkable leisure centre for the local community. Why was it called the Pioneer Health Centre and what was the great Peckham Experiment?
The 1930s was a decade of social upheaval and experimentation. The Great Depression ushered in an age of uncertainty and fear and destroyed orthodox beliefs in social, political and economic order. It was an age of Soviet collectivisation, Nazi Strength through Joy movements, mass mobilisations of labour in countries as different as the USA, USSR, Germany and Italy.
Keynes’s economic theories had challenges orthodox proponents of free trade and market equilibrium. Other countries had adopted far more radical solutions to their economic woes – Soviet Five Year Plans and Nazi great works vied to ensure full employment and validation of their political systems.
The 1930s were also a period of experimentation in social welfare and health. Few practitioners were as experimental and radical as Drs Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse, a husband and wife team who sought to revolutionise how we thought about health and wellbeing.
The first Pioneer Health Centre was set up in a small house in Queen’s Road, Peckham, and offered members access to medical expertise, health checks, pre and postnatal care, children’s nursery and social activities. This first stage of the experiment demonstrated that a far more extensive involvement into people’s lives was needed to prevent disease.
The movement was given a sense of urgency by the data revealed by the experiment. Only 10% of the membership could be described as in full health; 30% of members were actually ill, while 60% were to some extent ‘compromised’ by symptoms they often didn’t even realise they had.
A new site was found and the Pioneers decided to create a new style of medical building and instructed modernist engineer and architect Owen Williams to design the new health centre. You can still visit the building today – it has, somewhat inevitably, been converted into luxury flats, but the clear lines and large windows demonstrate the intention to make this a bright and welcoming place.
One important aspect of the Pioneer Health Centre was to charge members 6d a week. This ensured the participants were members of their own club rather than the recipients of charity or state-provided largesse. A similar ethos ensured that members were not directed or compelled to join in specific activities.
The Pioneer Health Centre survived the Second World War only to fall victim to the new National Health Service and a strong desire to centralise and regulate health provision in post-war Britain. It finally closed its doors in 1950.
In many ways, the Health Centre was far ahead of its time with its promotion of holistic wellness, disease prevention, healthy lifestyles and the importance of social interaction.
The promoters had identified that the general health of a family and community were as important as tackling individual health. These are themes that today’s centralised NHS and Department for Health are struggling to implement to tackle obesity, smoking, drinking and mental health problems.