The Peckham Experiment and the Pioneer Health Centre :: Shared Description

The Peckham Experiment was an inter-war healthcare initiative. It is taken for granted now that the role of the medical profession includes the promotion of health as well as the treatment of illness. However, in the days before a National Health Service, when every visit to a doctor cost money, medical intervention was typically sought only when necessary and to many people the idea of seeing a doctor when not actually ill would have seemed nonsensical.
In Peckham, however, the two doctors George Scott Williamson MD (1884-1953) and Innes Hope Pearse (1889-1978) set out to “grow health” as well as treating sickness. For a small membership fee, families were able to take part in various activities - exercise such as swimming, badminton or gymnastics, a toddlers’ playgroup, health checks for babies, and so forth – the reasoning being that in the long run the increase in general health would work out cheaper for them and less of a burden for practitioners. Initially (1926-1929) the experiment ran from buildings on Queen’s Road and then (from 1935) in the purpose built Pioneer Health Centre on St Mary’s Road.
The Peckham Experiment was so much in tune with modern thinking about healthcare promotion that it is a shock to discover that it closed down essentially because of the arrival of the National Health Service. For various reasons it was out of step with the new NHS. Firstly, it was a local initiative specific to one area and emerging there from the ground up, whilst the thinking of the time was all in favour of a homogenous national service administered from the centre: in the post-war Labour cabinet there was much discussion between Ernest Morrison, who championed local authority control of health as more responsive to local needs, and Aneurin Bevan who argued that the new service had to be centrally-run and (most importantly) centrally-funded, to avoid any suspicion of a postcode lottery, and it was Bevan’s views that won the day. (In any case, the war just passed had seen many local services such as Fire Brigades amalgamated temporarily to run as one national enterprise: big centrally-planned enterprises were the flavour of the time.) Secondly, it charged a membership fee: the new NHS was to be funded entirely from taxation and free at the point of delivery. Thirdly, membership of the Pioneer Centre was by family, whilst the NHS would deal with citizens as individuals. For all these reasons the Centre was out of step with the new health landscape, and closed down in 1950.
One could, however, argue that by then its work was done: the role of the medical profession in healthcare promotion is so taken for granted now it is hard to imagine a time when it was different. We all, to an extent, live in a world that the Peckham Experiment made.
Although the Health Centre is shut (and converted now to a gated community) the Pioneer Health Foundation still operates as a health promotion body and lobbying group. The papers of Williamson, Pearce and the Pioneer Health Centre are lodged at the Wellcome Library, London (LinkExternal link ).
by Christopher Hilton
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6 images use this description:

TQ3576 : Queen's Road, Peckham: original site of the "Peckham Experiment" in health promotion by Christopher Hilton
TQ3576 : Pioneer Centre, St Mary's Road, Peckham by Christopher Hilton
TQ3576 : Pioneer Centre, St Mary's Road, Peckham by Christopher Hilton
TQ3576 : Queen's Road, Peckham: original site of the "Peckham Experiment" in health promotion by Christopher Hilton
TQ3576 : Pioneer Centre, St Mary's Road, Peckham by Christopher Hilton
TQ3576 : Pioneer Centre, St Mary's Road, Peckham by Christopher Hilton


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Created: Fri, 9 Oct 2015, Updated: Sun, 8 Nov 2015

The 'Shared Description' text on this page is Copyright 2015 Christopher Hilton, however it is specifically licensed so that contributors can reuse it on their own images without restriction.

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