Swimming pool and diving platform,
designed by architect Owen Williams in 1934.
Pioneer Health Centre was specifically set up by a husband and wife medical team (Dr George Williamson d1953 and Dr Innes Pearse d1978) in Peckham, a working class suburb of South London. Motivated by modern ideas of hygiene and good health, the founders wanted to study how light, air, openness and vigorous exercise could be enjoyed by working families and could influence their health outcomes. They did not want to run an illness service; rather they insisted on promoting conditions for personal, family and social well-being.
From 1926-9, the project was started in a small way in St Mary's Road, to serve families living within walking distance. The initial data were written up by the doctors and funding was sought to build a larger centre. Pioneer Health Centre then re-opened in 1935 in a purpose-built piece of modernist architecture.
I am impressed by how the architect, Owen Williams, used modern techniques so that the architecture could play an active role in the Pioneer Health Centre’s philosophy. For example the walls of glass around the Centre were intended to
a] maximise the natural light and
b] retain a structural transparency, representing informality and a welcoming attitude to the community.
The large swimming pool was covered by a glazed roof; all windows could be fully opened, allowing natural air to circulate inside. A flat roof alongside the pool provided ample space for open-air gym classes, as we can see from the photo. Older children had a covered playground that opened directly onto the lovely gardens.
Drs Williamson and Pearse recruited 950 local families to be part of the health-care experiment. For a shilling a week, the families had access to a range of activities eg physical exercise, swimming, games & workshops. Perhaps locals couldn't afford a shilling a week, but the goal was to make the health centre feel like a club which belonged to the families, not an outside charity.
Members were asked to take part in a formal health check each year, and their health was informally monitored as they participated in activities from week to week. The only traditional health treatment on offer was contraception.
Gym class on flat roof top
According to Transition Town Tooting, the doctors also recognised the importance of good nutrition, and had a farm providing the centre with fresh, organic produce.
The Centre closed down during World War Two, but was restored and reopened as soon as the soldiers had been demobilised. Alas the bright and breezy Centre finally closed in 1950. It failed for different reasons: firstly it was concerned exclusively with the study and cultivation of health, not with the treatment of disease; secondly it was based exclusively on a limited suburban locality; thirdly its basis was contributory and not free; and finally it didn’t conform to the newly developed NHS structure. But what an amazing concept it had been between 1926 and 1950.
scalloped-glass bay windows right across the front of the Pioneer Health Centre
Photo credit: Pioneer Health Foundation
The old archives from the Pioneer Health Centre, including the medical data collected during the experimental years, are now in the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine. And a review document, called The Pioneer Health Centre Peckham London, was published in 1949 by the National Trust for the Promotion and Study of Health. For an excellent analysis of the rather radical politics involved in self help and in cooperative health facilities, see Anarchism and the welfare state: the Peckham Health Centre by David Goodway.