Author: Jack Czauderna
Imagine a place that is rooted in neighbourhood that is devoted to health and wellbeing. Not a place you go to when you are sick but a place where you can discover what is good for you.
Somewhere you can easily get to by walking or cycling – a 15 minute city, town or community.
A place which is peer powered with no-one telling you what to do but which has facilities and activities which you want to do and you are trusted to use them.
A place that is available and welcoming to everyone, cherishing diversity, built on human rights, where people have the freedom to create and participate in any way they choose.
A place which invests in citizens, families and communities and promotes intergenerational mixing and community public health.
You may think this is pie in the sky but such a place existed nearly 100 years ago in Peckham, South London. It was called ‘The Pioneer Health Centre’. It came to be known as ‘The Peckham Experiment’.
It started as a family club in a terraced house in 1926. Two doctors, George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse were interested in the question ‘What is Health’ so they devised an experiment where they invited families from the neighbourhood, within ‘pram pushing distance’. They wanted to see if providing a good leisure environment for people it would improve their health. They found the experiment was too small so they closed down and planned and built a building which they opened in 1935.
It was purpose built with a swimming pool in the middle, cafeteria, long room, gymnasium, activities rooms, a theatre, nursery and space for health checks.
It was a building of light, space and movement, open plan so you could see what others were doing. It was said to encourage loitering and even when people were alone, to feel neither lonely nor self conscious.
People joined as a family for a fee of one shilling per week per family.
There were periodic health checks or overhauls, and family consultations which reported on the state of health of the members of the family.
Because membership was by family, it encouraged multigenerational use and an all age community. Families got to know each other and built communities.
They learned from their study that there was a resistance to discipline, regulation, instruction or authority and so ‘a sort of anarchy’ resulted. They found this was essential for health and rather than chaos, spontaneous order followed.
The family checks showed that many people were not in good health and that nutritional disorders such as anaemia and vitamin deficiencies were common. They introduced good food from a farm nearby and provided it in the cafeteria and to the members. The organic food movement was born during this period.
The Peckham Experiment was engaged with health not disease or illness. There were no GPs working there. It ran for 4 years from 1935 till 1939. During the Second World War the building was used for munitions but it opened again in 1946.
The following film about the Peckham Experiment was produced in 1948.
The NHS came into being in 1948 and post war there was little money to develop the Peckham model and so it closed in 1950.
It was the first health centre in the world and in the true sense of ‘health’. The principles it discovered remain essential for health:
There is some interest in Sheffield in re-imagining a 21st century Pioneer Health Centre. Darnall Wellbeing, a community organisation in the east of the city has been trying to follow the principles. The Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre which is part of Hallam University has been actively thinking about a centre. Simon Duffy through Citizen Network is also interested.
Perhaps now is the time to think creatively about how we might build something that addresses the needs we identify.
Jack Czauderna is a retired Family Doctor and Chair of Pioneer Health Foundation, the organisation that keeps alive the legacy of the ‘Peckham Experiment’. Email Jack here
The publisher is Citizen Network Research. The Peckham Experiment Re-Imagined © Jack Czauderna 2023.