The Industrial Revolution created an increase in the middle classes who were both well off and politically powerful, but it also created a huge influx of job seekers to cities. London’s population grew six-fold in the century between 1800 and 1900; sanitation and housing could not keep up with the revolution’s progress. Many people worked in poorly paid, unstable labouring or factory jobs. As Charles Booth’s Survey of London showed, poor communities lived in the shadow of rich ones, untouched by the optimistic progress of the Victorian era. In the late 19th Century, reformers tried to improve conditions by breaking the segregation between rich and poor neighbourhoods – and more importantly, by giving a neighbourly hand up, not a condescending handout. This neighbourly help came from settlement houses – community centres – that relied on live-in volunteers to organise, provide services, and lead courses. These volunteers were usually privileged young people, who gained the opportunity to live and work in urban communities and broaden their horizons. Settlement volunteers and users alike shared their skills and knowledge to help improve the communities they shared.
A number of Southwark’s settlements were founded specifically to meet women’s needs. While poor women faced dire living conditions, many better-off Victorian women (expected to be decorative, obedient, and largely confined to their homes) found their skills and education going to waste. In 1887, a group of women, led by Mina Gollack of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), founded an organisation to help these young women of education and leisure use their ‘time and talents’ to help others – this ideal was so important that it gave the organisation its name.
Time and Talents London settlement moved to Bermondsey Street in 1899. It offered classes in arts, crafts, cooking, reading, and writing, a library and canteen, clubs for young people, and from 1913, a hostel even provided girls with a safe, supportive place to live. It remains a vital community centre for Rotherhithe today.
Other settlements sought to harness the time and talents of other groups of women. The Women’s University Settlement began in 1887 in Nelson Square: Octavia Hill was one of its founders, and Helen Gladstone (daughter of the Prime Minister) was the first warden.
The Settlement gave female university students the opportunity to live independently as they provided educational and youth services to one of the poorest areas of London. It offered mother-and-baby clinics, youth clubs, and workshops providing employment opportunities for disabled people. After the Second World War, its work expanded to other areas of the community, which prompted its renaming to the Blackfriars Settlement in 1961. Blackfriars Settlement is still an important hub for the community and beyond, located in the heart of Blackfriars.
The Union of Girls’ Schools Settlement (better known later as the Peckham Settlement) was founded in 1896 and first operated from Calmington Road, Camberwell. By the early 20th century, the Union of Girls’ Schools for Social Service as it then became, had expanded to include hundreds of schools all over the country: this made the Peckham Settlement one of the biggest in London. Its wide base of support allowed it to provide funds to other organisations, and pioneer social welfare: the Settlement’s savings club was a model for the National Insurance Act of 1911. In 1935, it opened London’s first nursery school, and a government sponsored job club – the first in a charity – in 1987. The settlement had royal approval, being supported by Princess Margaret until her death in 2002 and then the Countess of Wessex until 2012. Although the community centre closed in 2012, the Peckham Settlement continues to fund local charities and communities.
We have mentioned a few of Southwark’s historic settlements in this blog but we have a range of reading material on the history of many others. If you would like to visit Southwark Archives to view this material, please book an appointment by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alo-Wa was a black women’s Oral History group in Southwark, they formed in January 1990 and ran until 1991. Members of the group were seven women in total, all from African and Caribbean descent, and all living and working in Southwark at the time. They were based at the Southwark Women’s Centre, 2-8 Peckham High Street.
At Southwark Archives, we first came across the group through a selection of photographs from the Phil Polgaze collection. These photographs document a writer’s workshop specifically for black women, taking place during Black History Month in 1991, where some of the Alo-Wa group attended.
We have been able to speak to two members who were part of the group, Marion Desouza and Gillian Walters, to find out more about the group’s history and activity. The story of Alo-Wa begins with the Southwark Women’s Centre, 2-8 Peckham High Street. Women who formed the group were attending the centre, and were already acquainted with one another.
Alo-Wa formed through an invitation from Wendy Francis. Francis was employed by the Willowbrook Urban Studies Centre in Peckham specifically to carry out oral histories. She had heard about the women’s centre, and went down to invite black women to form a new oral history group. The Willowbrook Urban Studies Centre was a community education project based in Southwark who worked with schools and adult groups to reflect on changes and issues in the borough. The centre was located 48, Willowbrook Road, Peckham.
The group started by meeting once a week on a Sunday, coming together at the Women’s Centre where they would share food, and look at the inspirational stories of women such as Mary Seacole, Claudia Jones and Nanny Maroon. When they began to turn to their own stories, they started to use a tape recorder to document their conversations. Marion said, “Wendy was good; she got us to tape everything. It was a good time in our lives.”
ALO-WA’s name comes from the Yoruba term for Our Story. The name of the group sets an expectation for a collective form of storytelling. The group’s main aim was for “self-appreciation and appreciation of others, self-understanding and understanding of others”[i]
During the sessions, they asked questions about one another’s families, and Gillian said it was much about understanding parent’s stories, in order to understand their own. Gillian remembered that a point of inspiration for her was how Lillian had taped her father before he died:
“Her father was of African heritage and came here when he was 19; that was also quite an interesting aspect. The majority of us had Caribbean parents. That was a tie in regards to looking at things to help us understand each other differently. Some of us were from different islands. Therefore, that also incorporated our understanding of people’s experiences and expectations.”
Some of the questions they asked were documented in a book they went on to publish called Our Story (1991).
The Alo-Wa group existed in a wider context of woman’s activity. The international women’s liberation movement of the 60s, which went on well into the 70s and 80s, brought direct attention to women’s histories, and women’s lives.
Marion Desouza was the Afro-Caribbean worker at Southwark Women’s Centre from 1990- 1992, where the Alo-Wa group met. At the Women’s Centre, Marion carried out various sessions to encourage women to get together and discuss women’s issues regarding sexuality, race, and offence. Marion told me it was a very inclusive space. There was also assistance to help women gain access to housing, benefits and pregnancy testing.
The Southwark Women’s Centre was the result of active work during the women’s movement. It was set up through the Southwark Women’s Actions Group linking up with the Southwark Women’s Equality Unit to find premises. A local housing association had four empty commercial units on Peckham High Street, and they said it could be used for the Women’s Centre. This created a very accessible space for women to drop in, whether that be on the way home for work, or, as it was a child friendly location, during the daytime. Alo-Wa’ s Gillian said that she would head there in-between work shifts and that Southwark Women’s Centre allowed her a place to rest, relax and be amongst other women to talk.
Alo-Wa produced Our Story in 1991. They had a book launch, attended by Harriet Harman and the South London Press and, it took place during Black History Month 1991. To produce the book, Wendy Francis ran writing skills workshops for the women, and worked with them as an editor during the project.
During the project, the group applied for external funding which they received and put towards the cost of producing a book to document the group’s activity, and tell stories through writing. In both conversations with Marion and Gillian, they stressed to me that the oral aspect of the project, the live moment of the storytelling and the interactions and relationships that grew within the group, was though the real work and activity:
“We came from a place of being able to verbally say these things, and now you are asking us to write them down and put them in a book. When we spoke to Wendy afterwards, this is about us maturing as people and we stepped into an area that we had some understanding of, Lilian had a small understanding. The rest of us possibly had none. It was about putting it down on paper, in a way that can be visualised by other people. When you tell a story, when you tell a good story the person is having a visual experience of when they read the words. We had never done that, we always used our voices.”
The women went to Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden, where they were shown how to use computer software to work out the layout and graphics for a book. After this, they discovered that Southwark had its own printers, and this is where they did the printing for the book. They were shown around behind the scenes and learnt about the paper, grades and ink, and able to see the printing process in action.
During the conversations with Marion and Gillian, they both stressed that the relationships have been long lasting, and that a few of them have managed to stay in touch across the years. This seems like a testament to the group’s activities. Gillian said:
“It would be interesting for all of us to be coming together again. However, would it be that people would wish to be in the format together again, and what would we be discussing? The thing about it is, life goes on. The truth of it is, it was a fantastic experience.”
During the few years in which the group was active, they also worked with the well-known social historian Anna Davin, were interviewed for a BBC radio show by, Nerys Hughes, a copy of which we are still trying to track down. They worked closely with Jackie Holder, from the Willowbrook Urban Studies Centre and alongside others Brenda Ellis, the LGBT worker at the Women’s Centre, Nashmin Sukasad, and Madhu Patel – both at Southwark Women’s Centre. They also worked with Peckham Black Women’s Centre located at 69 Bellenden Road.
At Southwark Archives, we are in the process of digitising a booklet containing texts the group used to inform their autobiographical writing, which may have influenced the writing in Our Story.
Southwark Archives are facilitating a creative writing session on Tuesday 5 October 2021 as part of the Poets in the Archives series, taking inspiration from Our Story.
We recently had a request at Southwark Archives for images showing the inside of Jones and Higgins department store in Peckham. Most available photographs show the exterior of the store with its iconic clock tower on the corner of Rye Lane and Peckham High Street. Diving into our Jones and Higgins archive collection though, we found these pictures from inside the store, and they were too good to not share for History Begins At Home under the theme of Trading Spaces.
The images show a variety of departments from about 1910 as well as in the 1960s-70s. Do you remember shopping at Jones and Higgins or other similar department stores of the past? Share your memories on Twitter.
For this week’s archives keep fit regime, we thought it was time to feature some more pictures from the fabulous Phil Polglaze collection. Phil worked as a photographer for the borough in the 1980s and 1990s covering local events for the Southwark Sparrow newspaper and the council’s Leisure department. These pictures show Southwark residents in their finest Lycra taking part in fitness and aerobics events at Peckham Leisure Centre, Elephant and Castle and elsewhere. Most of the images have never been published or seen before and Southwark Archives has been working with Phil to digitise his collection. We hope to feature more of his photographs in the coming months, but in the meantime check out the selection below for exercise inspiration!
By May 8, 1945, the UK had been at war for more than five and a half years. In that time, life had been turned upside down, in big and small ways.
London lost almost 30,000 of its residents and a third of its buildings to bombing during the Second World War; more than 50,000 other Londoners had been injured. Here in Southwark, nearly 2,000 people were killed, and thousands of homes destroyed. Almost every family in London would have members missing – perhaps killed, away on active service, or evacuated to a safer area, maybe years before.
Years of rationing made food time-consuming to get, sometimes scarce, and often monotonous. Everything from clothes to toys to furniture had to be mended rather than thrown away, made to make do as long as it possibly could.
But with the surrender of German forces, the threat of enemy attack lifted, and while, in the words of American president Harry S. Truman, it was “a victory only half won”, it meant that the end of the entire war was in sight.
London reacted by throwing a party. In central London, the crowd gathered at Trafalgar Square reached all the way up the Mall to Buckingham Palace – where King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill appeared on the balcony — singing, dancing, and rejoicing until late into the night; Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret slipped into the throng to join the celebration.
In the residential streets of Southwark, the festivities were more low-key: flags and bunting – either carefully saved from before the war or creatively produced from anything to hand – decorated homes and streets; families or whole streets pooled rations to provide sweet treats for their youngest members, who’d lost so much of their childhoods to war.
As you might expect, such a party was an occasion to bring out the camera! We hold pictures from a number of street parties at Southwark Local History Library and Archive: some of them are below. If you recognise anyone in these pictures, would like to use any of these images, or have a photo you think we would be interested in, please get in touch with us at email@example.com.
This image, our reference PB2341, shows residents of the Kirby Estate in Bermondsey during the children’s street party they threw to celebrate the peace.
Southwark Park Road Bermondsey
This is the victory party C Block of the Plough Way Estate in Rotherhithe threw.
Chadwick Road, Peckham
Chesterfield Grove in East Dulwich also threw a street party for the children: this picture is our reference P21566.
The Pyrotechnist’s Arms pub on Nunhead Green staged fundraising concerts throughout the war, so maybe it’s no surprise that they threw a party for VE Day!
This is our image reference P21543, showing a VE Day party thrown by residents of Buchan Road, Nunhead. This photo and others in our collection suggest that local photographers helped capture memories of these celebrations.
Many victory parties took the form of street parties: residents set up trestle tables and made treats to share. This party was in Nuffield Road, Dulwich: the photo is our reference P21524.
This VE Day street party was in Gurney Street, Walworth. Mrs. Baker is at the end of the table in the foreground; Mrs. Willis is in the background at right. Gurney Street was later demolished as part of the development of the Heygate Estate.
Evacuees returning to Oliver Goldsmith School from Dorset Jun 1945 (P16265)
The Home Front
The following images from Southwark Local History Library and Archive show aspects of life during the Second World War. Digging for victory, fundraising events and parties for evacuees all helped to boost Southwark’s morale.
Southwark Central students gardening with Chair of London County Council (P17264)
Walworth Home Guard, Braganza Street, 1942 (P21581)
Concert at the Pyrotechnists’ Arms, Nunhead in aid of War Weapons Week, 1943 (P21731)
War Wings Week collection, Rye Lane, Peckham c.1942 (P22222)
Tea party for evacuees from the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey, Worthing, January 1940 (PB2095)
Tea party for evacuees from the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey, Worthing, January 1940 (PB2096)
Concert at Pyrotechnists’ Arms, Nunhead in aid of the RAF Benevolent Fund, c. 1942 (P21730)
Peckham’s Pioneer Health Centre was open to local families to enjoy communal sport and leisure activities between 1926 and 1950. It was also a major experiment into the meaning of health. If you’re struggling to stay active at the moment, try some of these exercises, demonstrated on the roof and in the glorious Art-Deco interiors of this iconic building.
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.
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.
Oakley House, Bromley
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’
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.
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.
In Part 1 we met doctors George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse and learnt about their ambitions to study the meaning of health. Now we’ll see how this led to the creation of one of Peckham’s most iconic listed buildings and what went on inside.
The New Pioneer Health Centre
The first centre was a successful beginning to the Doctors’ research and attracted a good number of families but it was small. It therefore became necessary to find new premises in order to continue the health research and for families to continue to socialise and take part in activities. After 6 years of fundraising and planning, the new Pioneer Health Centre opened in May 1935 in St Mary’s Road, Peckham.
This new centre was bigger and better equipped and would enable around two thousand families to develop better health in a way that the old Peckham Health Centre could not cope with.
The design of the new building in Peckham was of particular importance to Dr Scott Williamson. He wanted a space that would provide the right kind of social environment for families to spend and enjoy their leisure time but also one in which he could observe those activities for the essential research into their health. Hence, the appointment of an engineer – Sir Evan Owen Williams – rather than an architect to design the building.
The centre was a modern building and praised nationally for its design. It provided easy movement and good visibility from area to area enabling people to wander around, take part in activities, make contact with friends and family or enjoy watching others in their activities. There were no closed doors or corridors and glass replaced concrete for the main internal walls. It was an open building.
The building contained the second largest swimming pool in London, which could be seen from the cafeteria. It also had a gym, theatre, badminton court, two open spaces that could be used for different activities like dancing; committee rooms, a theatre, adult games rooms and children and baby play areas.
The Rules Of Membership
Within the centre, families were free to do what they liked. The only time staff exercised authority would be in preventing someone else exercising it. The Centre was a democratic space. However, there were four rules to membership of the Pioneer Health Centre:
The centre was for families only – this could be a couple with children or without; this was because Williamson believed that the smallest family could be a couple living together in their home what he called “the smallest biological whole”. The family must live locally to the Centre. They must pay a weekly subscription to help maintain the health centre in its voluntary capacity and finally and most importantly, they must have a periodical health overhaul – this was both a physiological and biological one and could be at both the staff’s or the family’s request. There were also ad hoc consultations and check-ups, for example before conception, during puberty or menopause. This was in order to deal with issues and problems as they were raised in a holistic way.
There were no other rules at the Pioneer Health Centre and a family would not be excluded so long as they adhered to them. The doctors felt that in order for the centre to run successfully, there needed to be a non-authoritative environment where open dialogue between families and the doctors was encouraged. This last point was particularly important to the doctors in order to make all families feel welcomed and to gain their trust.
There were activities to suit just about every taste at the Centre. As well as the usual indoor sporting and recreational activities, there was also evening dances and various outdoor activities that included vegetable growing and physical pursuits.
A calendar entry of activities for a boy aged 11 at Pioneer Health Centre, Peckham. Note the restriction of two swims a day during the school holidays. This boy taking full advantage of the swimming pool by doing two swims and two dives during the school holidays!
The ‘health overhaul’
Every member of the ‘Centre’ had a Periodic Health Overhaul which involved laboratory tests, a complete bodily examination and a family consultation.
During the consultation, everyone was discussed individually, starting with the children first. All results were honestly shared and no advice was given unless the families requested it and no treatment offered. All questions were answered.
There was a holistic approach to the health of families at the Pioneer Health Centre. As well as being examined during consultation, families were observed during their social and leisure activities in the centre. These observations were also shared with the families which gave parents vital information about their children which in turn helped them understand their children’s health. These observations were also important for young couples wishing to have children; their health could be monitored before conception, during pregnancy and after childbirth.
There was a mutual flow of information between families and doctors about how they were developing. Once the families had all the information they wanted, they could use it as they needed, their health was their responsibility. If that meant deciding to undergo a necessary treatment, the Centre would be available to help find a hospital that was right for their circumstances and financial situation. Let’s bear in mind that the NHS had not yet been established.
In Part 3 we’ll look at the findings of the research, what happened to the centre during the Second World War and the arrival of the NHS.
Peckham: The First Health Centre by G Scott Williamson, reprinted from The Lancet 16/3/46
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.
Please note this blog post contains some outdated terminology that may be deemed offensive. Terms describing disability have changed greatly through the last century and continue to evolve. More information about historic and current terminology is available here.
These pictures are from two photo albums in our collections that belonged to Len Wright. Len was born in Peckham in 1938 and lived with his family on the Lindley Estate for most of his life. He developed epilepsy in his twenties and his father Harold also had a physical disability from birth.
Len and Arthur
Both Len and his brother Arthur worked as street cleaners for Camberwell Council, and in later life Len was a regular user of the Aylesbury Day Centre from its opening in 1975, taking an active part especially in the woodwork activities. In 1990 after his father died Len moved into sheltered housing. He died in 2011 and is buried in Camberwell New Cemetery.
A trip to an airfield
A trip to an airfield
A trip to an airfield
A trip to an airfield
At the beach
A trip to an airfield
A trip to Eastbourne
A trip to Eastbourne
A trip to Eastbourne Grand Parade (carpet gardens)
A trip to Eastbourne
A trip to Eastbourne
The photographs in the albums are primarily of Len’s family but they also include pictures of outings with a local disability group in the 1950s-1960s. His father features prominently and was presumably a member of the group, although Len, Arthur and their mother Harmer are also seen taking part. The pictures show the group going on coach trips to the seaside at Eastbourne, visiting Bekonscot Model Village, a trip to an unidentified Airfield (possibly including disabled veterans), and a canal boat outing in London. Another set of images shows the group playing games in a hall with lollipops stuck to the floor (if anyone knows what this game is please let us know!) Various services that supported the group are also seen including staff from St John’s Ambulance, London County Council Ambulance Service, and British Waterways. Some of the pictures also show people from the group wearing a triangle lapel badge – does anybody know what this indicates?
Hall with games including St John Ambulance
A trip to the canal
Day trip including the LCC Ambulance Service
Day trip including the LCC Ambulance Service
A trip to the canal
Hall with games including St John Ambulance
The group itself is unidentified but may be the Peckham Cripple Guild of Friendship, which was a weekly social group for physically disabled adults run by the Shaftesbury Society. This was a Christian charity that supported people with disabilities, originally founded in 1844 by Lord Shaftesbury as the Ragged School Union. In the 1960s the charity maintained residential schools for children with muscular dystrophy, spina bifida and other neuro-muscular disorders, as well as maintaining three residential centres and two holiday centres for the physically disabled. The Peckham group met weekly in the 1950s at Bracey-Wright Hall (formerly Christ Church Mission Hall) on Friary Road, and then in the 1960s at the new Caroline Gardens Day Centre, Asylum Road. They would meet in the evening for activities including table games and entertainments, and transport for members was provided by the charity. In the 1970s the group was renamed as Peckham Guild of Friendship for Disabled People and began meeting at the newly-opened Aylesbury Day Centre, where Len was a regular. The Shaftesbury Society continued operating until 2007 when it became part of the charity Livability.
Len Wright in Aylesbury Day Centre book 1983
Probably Sheltered Housing including the St John Ambulance
Other local organisations that provided services for the physically disabled around this time included the British Red Cross Society (160 Peckham Rye, including the Ex-Service Disabled Club), the Muscular Dystrophy Group (65 Asylum Road), the King George VI Memorial Club (67 Crawford Road, SE5), Camberwell Old People’s Welfare Association (33 Peckham Road) , the Union for Girls Schools Settlement (later known as Peckham Settlement) on Staffordshire Street, and Pitt Street Settlement (East Surrey Grove). Council services for the disabled under the London Borough of Southwark were based at the Caroline Gardens Day Centre (10 Asylum Road), and later at the Aylesbury Day Centre from 1975. The Aylesbury centre was the home of Southwark Disablement Association, which continues today as SDA Independent Living. The centre itself was replaced in 2012 by the new Southwark Resource Centre on Bradenham Close, which also took over the responsibilities of the Outreach Team for disabled adults in Southwark.
Len Wright’s photograph albums are reference 2018/45 in the archive collections, and are available to view in the search room (at 211 Borough High Street) to any member of the public during our opening hours