When you come home after work or school, what do you do? Turn on the lights, put the kettle on, start making dinner…? Maybe you play some music, or, if you really want to relax, turn on a dehumidifier. All these processes require the flick of a switch or press of a button to turn on electricity. It is these everyday, routine actions that remind us of the continual significance of Michael Faraday, who’s discoveries on electromagnetic induction enabled the development of electricity and its wide spread use across the world. Today we celebrate his 230th birthday, marking the date 22 September, 1791 when he was born.
In the 1830s, Faraday was building on the research of the scientific community into electricity. He discovered that a magnetic field could produce an electric current, paving the way for generators to produce electricity and transforming how electricity could be applied to technology. Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction has reverberated through the years to the point that, now, his principles are continuously put to use, from using our phones to driving a car.
Faraday is considered a giant of the scientific community due to this discovery and his contributions to the understanding of electromagnetism and electrolysis: no one can doubt the relevance of his legacy in our everyday lives.
But nowhere is his legacy felt more on a physical scale than in the borough of Southwark. Take a walk around the borough, and you will find his name in several places. He was born in Newington Butts (around Elephant and Castle, now part of modern Southwark) but his family moved to north London soon after and so, there is not much said about his time in Southwark. Despite this, Faraday may be the most prominent of Southwark’s former residents: From his ambiguous blue plaque on Larcom Street (which gives no hint as to why it is located there), to Michael Faraday Primary School, Faraday Gardens and even an entire Electoral Ward named Faraday, Southwark remembers the scientist.
His legacy is loudest and shiniest in the middle of Elephant Square thanks to the Michael Faraday Memorial. This is not a public toilet, an ill-timed realisation that many (myself included) have come to, but is, more appropriately, an electricity substation for the Northern and Bakerloo tube lines that go to Elephant and Castle. The modernist architect Rodney Gordon designed a stainless steal box structure emulating the endless possibilities of science hailed in by Faraday and his contemporaries, and in 1961 it was constructed in proximity to Faraday’s birthplace. There is not a lot of visible interpretation that explains the Faraday connection and many pass the monolith everyday without acknowledging the reason behind its existence. Despite this, the memorial is still considered an iconic part of Elephant and Castle. In the 2012, Southwark Council implemented a new disco-themed lighting scheme that reflected pinks and purples off its stainless steel sides, following a nation-wide competition to improve public space. This Blue Peter competition was won by a local schoolgirl who wanted to see the memorial lit up in colour.
This year, another dedication has been made to Faraday further down Walworth Road where the Southwark Heritage Centre and Walworth Library has recently opened – here you can experience one of Faraday’s electromagnetic experiments.
Walk through the doors of the library, go up the stairs, and you will discover at the very back a room you probably weren’t expecting. The walls are lined with copper, and it is dimly lit with two low hanging lights, creating the atmosphere of a secretive World War 2 bunker. This is a real Faraday Cage, invented by Faraday in 1836 to block electromagnetic fields. The effect of this is used in microwaves and to protect planes from lightening. In the library, it stops you from accessing the internet while in the meeting room. Visitors to the library will be able to book the room (Covid allowing) and immerse themselves in an authentic experience free from the distraction of phones and the Internet. This experience is supported by a display of objects from the Cuming Collection that were owned by Faraday: his watch, a family bible with notes marking births and deaths, and a disk dynamo (which was shown at the 1851 Great Exhibition) as well as a bust of his likeness – all creating a personal insight into the man behind the science. These are set next to another display of early 19th century scientific instruments, illustrating the transformative scientific world that Faraday and his contemporaries both were shaped by and contributed to.
Readers can use the Faraday Room to get their scientific fix and be inspired by the wonders of physics and electricity. The placement of this room in a library, surrounded by books, has more meaningful depth than meets the eye. Faraday did not have a formal education, but left school early to work in bookbinding. While surrounded by books, he discovered his passion and drive for science and looked to improve his knowledge through reading and attending lectures. We are left with another of Faraday’s legacies: the legacy of the joy of learning, discovery and experimentation, which was key to Faraday’s success and enduring memory; and can now be discovered in the Southwark Heritage Centre and Walworth Library.
Dr. Cecil Belfield Clarke was born in Barbados in 1894 and on winning an island scholarship came to London in 1914 to study medicine. In 1918 he graduated from Cambridge University, became a qualified surgeon and then set up his medical practice at 112 Newington Causeway, Southwark. He worked as a doctor, serving the local community for over 40 years and London for over 50. During that time he served as a doctor and medical professional in Africa, the Caribbean and throughout the UK.
Clarke was one of the founder members of the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) which began in 1931. The organisation was set up to achieve a number of objectives with a focus on racial equality and civil rights for Black people in Great Britain. Clarke was an active member but was also associated with other Pan-African causes, including as the first chairman of the House Committee of Aggrey House, a hostel for students from Africa and the Caribbean. Clarke was diplomatic and this enabled him to be an effective communicator between the politically left and right of the Pan-African movements of the 1930s and 40s, so much so that he was a mediator during the planning for the Conference on the African Peoples, Democracy, and World Peace held in London in July 1939.
Clarke hosted many LCP events at his home and was a good friend of author and American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, with whom he continued correspondence right up to the 1960s, supporting many of his civil rights causes. Many of Dr Clarke’s letters to Du Bois can be read at the Special Collections and University Archives, at the University of Massachusetts Amhurst. The letters reveal the great affection and respect Clarke had for Du Bois and the importance of continuing the civil rights message. In one such letter dated 4th July 1929, Dr Clarke encloses his annual subscription to The Crisis magazine which he felt was his “duty” as “one of the few coloured Drs practising in London”. He kept the magazine in his doctor’s surgery waiting room and it proved to be a popular read. The Crisis is the official magazine for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) co-founded by W.E.B Du Bois and is still operating.
What may be little known about Dr Clarke is that he formulated the early mathematical dosage for paediatric medicine known as ‘Clark’s rule’. He was the first black District Medical Officer for London in 1936 and the Belfield Clark Prize, which first began in 1952 at St Catharine’s College, Oxford is still awarded to students in Biological Natural Sciences Tripos examinations.
Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries
The Keys magazine (Southwark Local History Library and Archive).
Matera, M., Black London: the Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the 20th Century, 1st ed., University of California Press, Oakland, California, 2015.
In May 1945, British forces in the northern German port of Kiel captured a German ship, the MV Monte Rosa, as war reparations. She was built in Hamburg, in 1936: after a short pre-war career as a cruise ship with the Kraft durch Freude (“Strength through Joy”) programme, she became a transport, then a hospital ship. Monte Rosa had been converted to a troop transport and assigned to the Ministry of Transport by the beginning of 1947. She also received a new name, one that marked her as a prize of war and highlighted a tributary of the Thames — a name that made history: HMT Empire Windrush.
The government commissioned the New Zealand Shipping Company to operate Windrush; she ferried British service personnel and their families between the UK, the Far East, and points in between for the next year. Windrush arrived at the port of Tilbury from Bombay on 8 April 1948. Her next voyage broke the mould, – rather than returning to the Far East, Windrush made her first – and only – trip to the Caribbean. One source claims that the trip was part of a repositioning cruise to Australia via the Atlantic; most others claim that she was sent to Kingston, Jamaica to pick up British service personnel who were on leave there. The latter seems more likely, since ads appeared in Jamaica’s premier newspaper, the Daily Gleaner, in late April, offering cheap passage to London. Travellers paid £28 for a berth on the open troop deck, or £48 for a cabin: for someone in Jamaica in 1948, that was more than a month’s pay, and would be like paying nearly £1,000 and more than £1,700 respectively today!
Windrush arrived in Trinidad on 20 May 1948, embarking local passengers as well as others who had travelled from other Caribbean islands and British Guiana (now Guyana); she then made scheduled port calls at Kingston, Jamaica, and Bermuda; however, in between she detoured to Tampico, in Mexico – where 66 Polish refugees embarked, all but one to join husbands and fathers who’d fought in the Polish forces-in-exile under the terms of the Polish Resettlement Act 1947.
At Kingston, as passenger Alford Gardner told the Guardian in 2018, there were more would-be travellers than tickets available. The Great Depression wrecked the agricultural export market Jamaica’s economy relied on; the resulting unemployment, poor living conditions, and inequality still lingered. A hurricane in 1944 meant the farm economy was still depressed, and many people took the opportunity to try their luck in the mother country. In fact, about one-third of Windrush’s passengers were either serving members of the RAF or veterans looking to re-enlist.
As Windrush steamed toward the UK, immigration was a hot topic. The mother country faced major labour shortage in many sectors, and needed to repair huge amounts of war damage. Eearlier in 1948, a government working group had ultimately advised against large-scale colonial immigration to fill this gap. Additionally, Parliament was debating the British Nationality Act 1948, which passed just over a month after Windrush arrived; this act created a single citizenship for the United Kingdom and its colonies. Even Creech Jones, the Colonial Secretary, commented on a BBC broadcast that, while Windrush’s Caribbean passengers were British passport holders with the right to settle, there was no reason to worry, because they wouldn’t last one English winter.
HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury on 21 June 1948, with 1,027 listed passengers (and two stowaways) on board. Men outnumbered women by about 3 to 1; more than 800 came from the Caribbean, and nearly half were Jamaican. Pathé News sent a reporter to interview the new arrivals – the first immigration en masse from Britain’s colonies. The transport industry and the fledgling National Health Service were both especially badly hit by labour shortages and welcomed the newcomers. However, their welcome wasn’t universal: the day after Windrush docked, a group of 10 MPs wrote to Prime Minister Clement Atlee in protest; in his response, (held at the National Archives), the PM attempted to placate them, ending the letter by noting that “I doubt whether there is likely to be a similar large influx.”
While many of her passengers had plans, or had already organised housing or a job, just over 200 had neither on arrival. They were temporarily housed in the deep air-raid shelter at Clapham South tube, some 15 storeys underground. More than half had found work within a week or two; the nearest labour exchange (what we now call a Job Centre) to Clapham South was in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, – planting the seed of one of the largest Afro-Caribbean communities in the country.
Southwark is especially proud of one of the Jamaican veterans on board the Empire Windrush: Samuel Beaver King, MBE. He was born in Priestman’s River, Portland, Jamaica, on 20 February 1926 – one of George and Caroline King’s ten children. Mr King worked with his father on the family’s banana plantation, and intended to take it over, but the Second World War changed those plans. In 1944 he saw a Daily Gleaner advert recruiting for the RAF, and asked his mother for advice; decades later, he remembered her response: “My son, the mother country is at war. Go – and if you survive, you will not regret it.”
Mr King passed the entry exams, completed RAF basic training in Kingston, and set sail for the UK in 1944. His first posting was in Greenock, just outside Glasgow – both the cold and the devastation created by German bombers shocked him. He served at aerodromes around Scotland and England, first as ground crew and then as a skilled aircraft fitter, before being demobbed in 1947.
He returned to Jamaica, but the 1944 hurricane – which destroyed an estimated 90% of Jamaica’s banana trees – had devastated the family plantation, and there was little other work available. Once more, Mr King answered a Daily Gleaner ad, and booked passage on the Empire Windrush to re-enlist: his family sold three cows to raise the funds for a troop deck berth. On board, there was a bit of a holiday atmosphere, and special camaraderie among the RAF veterans. However, he noted in his memoir Forty Years On that there was also enough apprehension about the government turning the ship back that he organised two ex-RAF wireless operators to play dominoes outside the radio room – and monitor incoming messages.
He re-enlisted in the RAF in 1948, serving until 1953. While Black service personnel found they were respected and supported when they were in uniform, civvy street was far too often a different story. Racism restricted job opportunities: Mr King applied unsuccessfully to the Metropolitan Police in 1953 – it took them another 14 years to appoint its first Black officer. Racial discrimination also made it extremely difficult for many Black people to find housing — and thereby start putting down roots. In 1950, Mr King, then an RAF corporal, and his brother Wilton attempted to buy a house in Sears Street, Camberwell, but bank officials responded to a mortgage request with a letter suggesting he return to Jamaica. Mr King took the letter to the owner of the house, who was so disgusted that he gave him mortgage himself; this made the Kings the second Black family in Southwark to own a home. For other Black residents, the only way to own a home was to join a savings club, known as a “partner”: Mr King took an active role in setting up many partners.
His status as a veteran ensured his application to the Post Office was successful; his career there lasted 34 years, beginning as a postal carrier and ending as Postal Executive for the South Eastern postal district. On 26 June 1954, Sam King married Mavis (Mae) Kirlew, a student nurse at Emmanuel Church in Camberwell. They had two children, Michael and Althea, together; Mr King also had a daughter, Daslin, from a previous relationship.
Faith and community were at the centre of Mr King’s life. He was a lay preacher who trained in ministry at Goldsmiths College; in the 1980s he actively championed gospel music, supporting a number of broadcast licence applications for community radio stations and helping organise the 1985 Songs of Praise broadcast from Southwark Cathedral that pioneered gospel music on a BBC national flagship show.
Mr King was also active in the postal union, the local Labour party, and as a community organiser. He helped Claudia Jones launch Britain’s first major Black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, in March 1958, and served as its circulation manager. In 1959, he helped her organise the first Caribbean-style carnival in St Pancras Town Hall — the precursor to the Notting Hill Carnival. Sam’s ability to communicate with and connect the Camberwell and Peckham local communities and the police also helped avoid violence in the aftermath of the 1958 Notting Hill riots and during National Front agitation in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the 1982 local elections, Mr King was elected councillor for Bellenden ward, and six months later, in 1983, he became Southwark’s first Black mayor (leading to death and arson threats against him from the National Front). Mae died in 1983; he married Myrtle Kirlew in late 1984.
Mr King was also active in the postal union, the local Labour party, and as a community organiser. He helped Claudia Jones launch Britain’s first major Black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, in March 1958, and served as its circulation manager. In 1959, he helped her organise the first Caribbean-style carnival in St Pancras Town Hall — the precursor to the Notting Hill Carnival. Sam’s ability to communicate with and connect the Camberwell and Peckham local communities and the police also helped avoid violence in the aftermath of the 1958 Notting Hill riots and during National Front agitation in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1982 local elections, Mr King was elected councillor for Bellenden ward, and six months later, in 1983, he became Southwark’s first Black mayor (leading to death and arson threats against him from the National Front). Mae died in 1983; he married Myrtle Kirlew in late 1984.
After retiring from local politics in the mid 1980s, Mr King focussed on preserving the experiences of his generation. He founded the Windrush Foundation with Arthur Torrington in 1996 to highlight the contributions of Britain’s African and Caribbean communities, safeguard the memories of Britain’s first post-war settlers, and promote good community relations. He was perhaps best known for his campaigning to make the anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s arrival a holiday, and in the process becoming known as “Mr Windrush”. In 1998, Sam King received the MBE as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for Windrush. He published his autobiography, Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain, the same year. In 2009, a public vote awarded him a Southwark blue plaque which was installed during a ceremony at his long-time home at Warmington Road, Herne Hill, on 31 January 2010, and in May 2016, he received the freedom of the borough of Southwark.
Sam King MBE died on 17 June 2016, less than a week before the 68th anniversary of his arrival on the Empire Windrush: more than 500 people attended his funeral at Southwark Cathedral. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, paid tribute to Mr King, saying “[h]e educated Londoners with Caribbean food, Caribbean culture, Caribbean music. London is a better place, Britain is a better place, thanks to him and his family.”
On the 72nd anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock, the people of Southwark are grateful for Sam King MBE: his love of his community, hard work and spirit of service and the sacrifices made by him and the whole of the Windrush generation.
The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Inwards Passenger Lists.; Class: BT26; Piece: 1237
Telegram concerning passengers on the Empire Windrush, 6 July 1948 (Catalogue ref: CO 876/88)
In thinking about our health and how we are all looking after ourselves and our loved ones during this COVID-19 pandemic, it’s interesting to think about how health has been researched in the past. How did health professionals view its meaning and what did it mean to have good health? In this blog, I want to look at the Pioneer Health Centre which began life in 1926 in Queens Road, Peckham by Dr George Scott Williamson and Dr Innes Pearse. The Centre was a place where a community of families took part in a range of activities designed to be advantageous to their physical and mental health as part of an experiment to research and advance health. Does their health vision still have relevance today?
Who were Pearse and Williamson and what was the motivation behind the Pioneer Health Centre?
Before going on to say something about the Pioneer Health Centre it’s probably useful to say something about the doctors who started it which I think reveals much about their motivation and ambition to see it succeed.
Dr George Scott Williamson (1884-1953)
Dr Innes Pearse (1889-1978)
George Scott Williamson was born in Fife, Scotland in 1884 and was the eldest child of seven siblings. He was awarded the Military Cross for his services in charge of the Field Ambulance Unit during the First World War. From 1920 to 1935 he was a pathologist at both the Royal Free Hospital in London and the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital. During this time Williamson also undertook medical research into the thyroid gland which he continued at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
Williamson’s interest in health was probably started by an early experience he had whilst caring for his brother who was sick with Diphtheria. Williamson would come into close contact with him, even clearing his throat of phlegm with his own fingers, but never actually contracted the disease himself. A similar experience was to occur in a hospital in 1899 when he was 16. Williamson was thought to have had scarlet fever and put on a scarlet fever ward. It turned out that he’d never contracted the disease. He pondered the question of why some people became ill while others did not. So, he decided to study pathology to understand the processes involved in disease. Fundamental to Williamson’s research, however, particularly that which was undertaken at the Pioneer Health Centre with Dr Innes Pearse, was the importance that a person’s social as well as physical environment were to health.
Innes Hope Pearse was born in 1889 and was an only child. She chose to study medicine because she felt it would give her independence as a woman. She qualified as a doctor in 1916 at the Royal Free Hospital and later worked at both Bristol Hospital for Children and Women and the Great Northern Hospital. She went on to become the first woman medical registrar at the London Hospital and later, at the Royal Free Hospital where she met George Scott Williamson and assisted him in his work on the thyroid gland.
Around the 1920s Dr Williamson was becoming interested in the notion of what health was. He questioned whether curing a disorder was the same thing as giving an individual health and on this question there was very little research. So too, Dr Pearse’s work with children led to the realisation that despite her extensive knowledge about them, she did not know what a healthy child looked or behaved like!
The First Health Centre
One of the questions that Pearse and Williamson asked as part of their research was, ‘What happens to an individual and communities when they have health and how would that impact on society and future generations?’ If you flip this question and ask what happens when a community has bad health, the answer may be more obvious. These were the kinds of questions that led the doctors to undertake their first study into the nature of health by setting up a family health club in a small house on Queen’s Road, Peckham in 1926 – the first Pioneer Health Centre.
Peckham in south London was chosen because at that time it was a fairly prosperous area inhabited mostly by artisan families and with a good number of shopkeepers, clerics, small business owners and a few labourers. There was very little poverty and employment was high. It was presumed, therefore, that the levels of health would be high.
Families from the local area could use the centre as a family club but in order to do so they had to agree to have a ‘health overhaul’. This allowed the doctors to study the health of the families. The ‘centre’ included a consulting room, a nursery and a small club room where mothers could meet in the afternoons with their children and in the evenings parents could spend time together too. The building was open everyday from 2pm to 10pm and members could make appointments for their overhaul to suit themselves. It came as a surprise to the doctors when their studies revealed that despite being relatively well off and having a number of health resources available to them like a swimming bath and sports clubs in the borough, there was a lack of “vitality” within the families themselves, even amongst those who had no disease or disorder. Peckham was a crowded area and although people had next door neighbours they were often without friends and felt isolated. There was evidence that people were not living to their full capacity and there was a great deal of lethargy.
In part 2 we’ll look at how Pearse and Williamson found solutions to these problems with a new purpose-built centre.
On Tuesday 5 December, the footbridge over Salter Road was named ‘The Poet’s Bridge’ in a short ceremony which also involved the unveiling of twin weathering steel plaques at its centre. The specific poet for whom the bridge has been named is David Jones, whose epic war poem ‘In Parenthesis’ was described by TS Eliot as “a work of genius” and by WH Auden as “a masterpiece”. It is a quote from this poem that now decorates the bridge:
“The returning sun climbed over the hill, to lessen the shadows of small and great things”
Jones was a visual artist as well as a wordsmith. These words are rendered in the shape of Jones’ calligraphic script and accompanied by a reproduction of his woodcut ‘Holy Ghost as Dove’. The panels were designed by the artist Parm Rai and finished at the workshop in Deptford. The work was funded by Southwark Council through the Bermondsey and Rotherhithe community council.
The local area is significant in Jones’ life and in his writing. A section in his other great written work, ‘The Anathemata’, is titled ‘REDRIFF’; and this features the voice of Eb Bradshaw. In real life Eb was Jones’ grandfather – he was parish clerk of St Mary the Virgin in Rotherhithe, and a maker of masts and sails in the Surrey Docks. Furthermore, a character in ‘In Parenthesis’ is given no name but simply referred to as ‘the man from Rotherhithe’. Before the naming ceremony, Anne Price of the David Jones Society speculated that this character might stand for the author himself. It is therefore very appropriate that David Jones should be commemorated here.
The new name for the bridge, though, can also stand for all poets, and the bridge already has a lyrical history going back to the start of this millennium. Every spring half term for the last seventeen years, the staff of the nearby Rotherhithe Primary School have taken to the bridge to read poems aloud. Headmaster Mickey Kelly – who conceived of and organised the naming of ‘Poet’s Bridge’ with assistance from the ‘Cleaner, Greener, Safer’ fund – describes “letting the words hang in the Rotherhithe air”.
The lines quoted from ‘In Parenthesis’ refer to the minutes before the ‘zero hour’ of the battle of the Somme – the moment when the whistle would trigger the attack in the battle of the Somme – when “the world falls apart at last to siren screech”, as the poem has it. Whilst harking forever back to this moment, the words find new meaning on the bridge, where light shines through the stencilled iron and casts shadows where we walk.
In part 1 of this post Southwark’s Archivist, Patricia Dark discussed the state of the borough’s health in the interwar period and introduced the work of Bermondsey’s public health pioneers. In part 2 we’ll discover what was going on at that time in the south of the borough.
Peckham had its own Pioneer – the Pioneer Health Centre, better known as the Peckham Experiment. It was the brainchild of two doctors, George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearce. Both were essentially academic physicians, and the Experiment grew out of their work on thyroid disease in the early part of the 20th century. For Williamson, “health” was something that existed separate from and in opposition to illness – understanding what it was and how to maximise it was simply impossible only studying pathology. Pearce’s work in an infant welfare centre in Stepney convinced her that any study of health – and any grassroots effort to improve health – had to be informed by, and grounded in, the family.
The initial phase of the Experiment began in 1926, in a house in Queen’s Road, Peckham: Pearce and Williamson worked with a group of birth control campaigners to measure whether access to health information would usefully empower people to improve their and their families’ health. It was a private members’ club, where – uniquely – the basic unit of membership was the family, not the individual. Members had access to medical workups, pre and postnatal care, and other specialist clinics, as well as a children’s nursery, space to socialize, and advice and help with other problems.
This initial phase ended in 1930, as it became clear that health information wasn’t enough to make people healthy – they had to have access to healthy, health-promoting environments. While the experiment could not reach into individual homes, it could influence members’ free time. Fundraising and design for a place where members could meet their physical, social, and mental health needs began, and the new centre opened in 1936.
The new centre operated on the same lines as the old – a private members’ club, whose basic unit of membership was the family; “family” including the partners of adult children, as Pearce and Williamson viewed premarital counselling as a crucial part of the process of creating a new family. The fee was a shilling a week per family and an annual health overhaul for each family member.
The health overhaul was crucial, both to collect data for the experiment and to inform and empower users. Centre staff took a detailed medical history, physical examination, and a full set of laboratory tests, before a one-on-one consultation; a member of medical staff explained the results and provided information on any appropriate diagnoses and potential treatments. However, although the Pioneer offered referrals, it didn’t treat members; autonomy of the individual over their own life was both a paramount value of the staff and a cornerstone of the experimental design. Someone who did not want to seek treatment for a problem – or who had a problem for which there was no current treatment – would receive information and support to help live with it.
The health centre’s building was built between 1933 and 1935 by Sir Evan Owan Williams, the engineer famed for Manchester’s Daily Express building. It was built using modern structural techniques which allowed a maximal amount of open space; for the most part, the centre was open-plan. This allowed families to separate and engage in different activities, while (for instance) parents could still monitor their children without hovering – it also allowed staff to unobtrusively observe members. As the experiment progressed, however, the open-plan design helped create a community – one where adults supervised, guided, and admonished any child, and children could interact and learn from a much wider and more varied group of adults than their own nuclear families.
The new centre in St Mary’s Road
The heart of the building was a swimming pool with a glazed roof. The centre’s café was to the side of the pool, separated from it by a wall with lots of windows. This gave mothers a place to chat – and provide informal support to each other – while keeping an eye on their children. There was also a gymnasium with a variety of apparatus: these were the two most appealing places for children in the building, but on opening they were allowed to use neither unsupervised – and their resulting frustration caused havoc in the newly-opened building. One member of staff, Lucy Crocker, discovered the solution – to allow children unsupervised use of these treasured places, provided they obtained signed permission from a staff member who was familiar with their abilities. This gave the researchers a chance to view them in their natural environment, as it were – they found that, not only did older children tend to watch out for younger ones, but more surprisingly, most children quickly found their own level of skill, and instinctively acted so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.
While sports and physical activities were a key part of the centre’s offering, it also offered space for reading and study, including a library, and space for a variety of classes and cultural opportunities. Crucially, staff did not plan and organise classes – that was the sole responsibility of members. However, staff would find space, tools, and materials for any group of members who wanted to learn, teach, or practice a skill, run an event, or hold a class. The one iron-clad rule was that nobody could claim space in the building for their private or group use without getting consent from other members.
To us, the Pioneer Health Centre seems like a bigger brother to a leisure centre: members could join exercise classes, or competitive leagues in sports and games like badminton, darts, and snooker. But the reality was that for many member families, the centre became an extension of their own homes: a place to hold parties, entertain friends, and even find a spouse! Knowledge and skills were passed between families and generations: fathers often used woodworking classes and clubs to make Christmas presents or hone DIY skills, and there were a variety of sewing circles to help new mothers clothe their babies as cost-effectively as possible – sharing child-rearing advice in the process.
The Centre’s heyday was the decade before the Second World War. Concerned at member families’ lack of access to high-quality nourishing food, the centre bought a farm in Bromley. Its small dairy herd, poultry farm, and arable fields provided organic milk, eggs, and produce at affordable prices: Williamson and Pearce were founder-members of the Soil Association. The farm also provided a place for members to work in the open, and space for camping. The centre also ran a school that attempted to apply the egalitarian, autonomous philosophy of the centre into practice in the realm of education.
However, the outbreak of war – and especially the beginning of the Blitz toward the end of 1940 – brought the centre’s life to a screeching halt. The farm was requisitioned by the RAF, and the centre was closed, as the very glass-heavy construction was both dangerous during an air-raid and difficult to black out. Although it reopened at the end of the war in 1945, it closed again, permanently, in 1950. Partly, this was due to financial problems – Peckham had been heavily bombed, and the building was in dire need of repair and equipment, leaving little money to run activities or recruit staff. Changes in the local population also didn’t help: Peckham had been heavily bombed, and the resulting displacement meant that many long-standing, active member families no longer lived in the area, while the population that now did was less able to spare the money for dues.
After the creation of the NHS in 1948, the centre petitioned unsuccessfully for central government funding. From Whitehall’s point of view, the centre was not free at point of service, and did not have an “open door” policy. On the centre’s side, the NHS was concerned only with the treatment of disease, not the cultivation of health, and the autonomous nature of the centre did not mesh well with the top-down bureaucracy of the NHS. Some members felt that the government felt threatened by a group of people who could organize and run such a large undertaking – especially one geared to personal autonomy and self-help – without the need for leadership.
However, the centre did have an impact. In part, that impact was shown by one shocking statistic: the annual health overhauls showed that only 10% of the membership were genuinely healthy. 30% of members had at least one illness, while the health of another 60% was impaired to some degree by symptoms of illness – often symptoms they didn’t realise they had.
This suggests that it is possible to function – even function well – in daily life when not completely healthy (or even unhealthy). However, the atmosphere of the centre – one where each individual’s right to make decisions about their own life was paramount, and where those choices were respected and validated – may well have helped people remain active and involved in their communities. Moreover, the sheer depth and breadth of activities available, and the support members had from staff and other members to access them, ensured that as many members as possible could stay active and involved – and therefore healthy. These are lessons that modern public health officials may do well to remember.
After serving as an RAF aircraft engineer, during the Second World War and until 1947, King sailed to Britain on the Empire Windrush in June 1948. Unlike most of those arriving (including many ex-servicemen), King decided to rejoin the RAF and served until 1952. During that time he and his brother, Wilton became the second Caribbean family to buy a house in Southwark. Having endured racism when he first arrived looking for ‘digs’, he was again to receive the same treatment when he applied for his first mortgage in 1950. He was turned down and told to ‘go back to the colony’. Undeterred he went directly to the home-owner selling the property, who was so appalled by the treatment King received he personally gave him the mortgage. Thus, King owned his first house in Sears Street, Camberwell.
As an ex-serviceman, King was able to find employment in the postal service, working his way up to Postal Executive for the South Eastern district. King married Mavis Kirlew in 1954, at Emmanuel Church in Camberwell. Later in life he become active in politics, joining the Labour Party in the 1970s, getting involved in the Race Committee in the 1980s and becoming a Southwark Councillor, serving Peckham’s Bellenden Ward, in 1982.
King was elected Mayor of Southwark in 1983 in recognition of his community work which included among other activities, his work within schools, helping to set up the first West Indian carnival and working as Circulation Manager for the first Black newspaper in the UK, the West Indian Gazette. As Southwark’s first Black mayor King received death threats from the National Front who objected to his position. These threats became world news and King began to receive support from as far as South Africa.
Sam King was awarded an MBE from the Queen in 1998 for services to his community.
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