The Pioneer Health Centre – Part 3

by Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer

In parts 1 and 2 we learnt about the origin’s of the Peckham Health Centre. Here, we’ll look at some of the findings of this great experiment into public health and what became of the centre during and after the Second World War.

The research

Between 1935 and 1939, a survey was undertaken of 3,911 individual members of the Pioneer Health Centre (around 1200 families). 91% were found to have some kind of disorder, whether that was a decaying tooth or a cancer and only 9% of those were having treatment for those disorders.  A second report 4½ years later, comprising over 4000 individuals, again found that around 90% were found to have a disorder of some kind but only 30% were actually aware of it. The other 60% stated that they were well which meant that they were unaware of their disorder or coping with it. These findings were addressed by the Pioneer Health Centre:

 “…In the Pioneer Health Centre the situation was altered in two ways.  First, through periodic health overhaul, masked disorders were disclosed and made known to the individual who usually took steps to have them put rights.  Second, on discharge from medical treatment, he found himself in a social environment inviting activity of many sorts.  He tended them towards health.”

How poignant these words seem at a time when we are collectively remaining isolated from friends and loved ones, not taking part in outdoor social activities, the gym, parties, the cinema, clubs, restaurants, not hugging, not together – to maintain the health not just of the individual but humanity.

The war years

In 1939, like most large buildings in the country, the Pioneer Health Centre was turned over to help the war effort and used as a munitions factory, despite its laboratory and staff being offered to the government as a medical examination centre. Regardless, a building made of glass was too dangerous for the general public to meet.

During the war years the Centre adapted. The mothers and children of some of the member families were evacuated to the home farm at Oakley House in Bromley, seven miles south of Peckham. The evacuee families could be self-sufficient using the milk from its own herd of Jersey Cows and fresh vegetables grown on the farm. Later, however, in November 1942 this project also came to an end when the Admiralty requisitioned the farm as an orthopaedic rehabilitation centre.

By 1946 the centre’s former members were campaigning vigorously for its reopening. A team of volunteers gathered to clean and repair the site, which had been left in an almost derelict state. In the years following the war the centre was recognised for its value in the rebuilding of family and social life. Dr Pearse was sent by the War Office on a lecture tour to the Middle East and both doctors were invited to give talks at Yale and Harvard universities. The centre continued to receive visits from scientists, students and academics and in 1948 it received Queen Mary and Prime Minister Clement Attlee. A film commissioned by the Foreign Office, The Centre (1947), was distributed around the world.

The end of ‘The Centre’

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The Centre flourished between 1935 and 1939, and between 1946 and its closure in 1950.  During April 1938, it is recorded that membership of the Centre comprised 600 families with an average daily use of around 770 people. At its peak there were 850 families registered.

The establishment of the NHS and lack of funding finally brought about the end of the ‘Peckham Experiment’ and the Pioneer Health Centre in 1950.

The centre was not designed to treat disorders. Its purpose was to understand the positive aspects of health. Suffice to say, that although it is some 94 years since the Pioneer Health Centre was envisaged, its work remains relevant; social conditions have changed, but our basic human needs and capabilities have not.  This is why Williamson’s and Pearse’s ethological studies into the health of families are still important today within the field of medical and social research.  Their experiment showed that the nature of a person’s health is satisfied if the essential needs of a person or their community are met. Children and adults can develop more healthily, happily, physically and mentally within the right physical and social environment and the Pioneer Health Centre enabled this positive health by having a healthy environment which influenced all the members of the centre and even helped relationships outside of it.

If there was one wish I could be given, it would be to go back in time for a year at the Centre in either period.  they were extremely happy years” (Charles).

“It was a great place for mixing people who met and socialised. The cross section was fantastic – dustmen to lawyers. People of natural interests used to gather together. We had clubs within the club” (Adge)

“My early and continuing personality development was enormously influenced for the good through my family membership of the Centre.” (John)

The Centre was later transferred to Southwark Council, who initially used it as a leisure and adult education centre and then sold it in the 1990s, after which it was converted into housing. The building remains among English Heritage’s grade II listed buildings. The Pioneer Health Foundation continues to promote the work of the Pioneer Health Centre.

During this difficult time when we are all being asked to stay home and give up some of our basic human needs, we do so in the hope that we can minimise danger to life for the greater good. As a community we are supporting each other whether that be through a friendly phone call, a delivery, working on the frontline or staying home, whatever the support is. At the beginning of Dr Pearse’s and Dr Williamson’s research, they found that isolation and loneliness contributed to the community’s lethargy where people were not living to their full capacity and many of us are feeling that now during this Coronavirus pandemic.  However, the emphasis on community is even more important now. We can still be connected, albeit differently, whilst maintaining that crucial physical distancing and in this way we may be able to both maintain health and preserve it.

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Dr Innes Pearse and Dr Williamson with former members of the Pioneer Health Centre, early 1950s at Mill House, East Sussex

Research and photographs sourced from the collections at Southwark Local History Library and Archive and include:

Peckham: the first health centre by Scott Williamson, reprinted from ‘The Lancet’, 1946.

The Quality of Life: the Peckham approach to human ethology by Innes Hope Pearse, 1979.

Being Me And Also Us: lessons from the Peckham Experiment by Alison Stallibrass,  1989.

‘The Centre’, a film dramatisation about the work of the Pioneer Health Centre commissioned by the Central Office of Information has been made available online by the BFI.