About this site and its author Justin De Syllas

The building that housed the Pioneer Health Centre is a celebrated example of modern architecture in Britain. It was designed by the distinguished engineer Sir Owen Williams and  I have often come across striking images of it in architectural books and magazines. Despite my familiarity with the appearance of the building, however, I was not, until recently, aware of its social function and significance.

I am a retired architect and I spent the last decades of my architectural career working on the design of medical buildings. On the basis of my experience I was commissioned to write a book on contemporary health centres. [1} This was published in 2015 and it was while doing background research for the book that I became interested in the Pioneer Health Centre.

I discovered, to my surprise, that this was not a health centre in the sense in which the term is commonly understood today; it was not a medical centre for the treatment of disease, but rather a centre for the cultivation of health; what its founders, George Scott Williamson and Innes Hope Pearse,  called a ‘genuine’ health centre.

The Pioneer Health Centre therefore had very little functional affinity with the NHS health centres offering curative medicine which appeared later in the twentieth century. This was a completely different building type with a different purpose and, as far as I am aware, was the only example of its kind.

The more I learned about the Pioneer Health Centre the more I came to realise that the organisation it contained, which was called The Peckham Experiment, was even more interesting than its celebrated building. This was a wholly original, eccentric and somehow very British venture and my growing interest in this project motivated me to embark on this account of its history.

This is a chronological history of the Peckham Experiment. It is also a history of the wider development of social welfare during the the first half of the twentieth century, the period in which the Pioneer Health Centre was active. What this wider context reveals is the extent to which the approach adopted in the Pioneer Health Centre differed from mainstream thinking, or to put it another way, the remarkable originality and idealism of the project.

I am an ‘amateur’ historian in the true meaning of the word, that is a lover of what I am doing. I am pursuing the project purely for the pleasure I take in the process of uncovering the story, learning new things and making connections. There is, therefore, no contract, no publisher, no programme and no deadline. As a consequence progress is leisurely; indeed so leisurely that it seems entirely possible that the project as planned will never be completed.

It is this possibility that led me to decide to put the project on line. By doing this, sections of the manuscript can be made available as and when they are produced and updated as further research reveals new information. It is hoped that this approach will also make it possible for others to contribute to this document by providing me with new information, pointing out inaccuracies, contributing comments and making copies of photographs available for inclusion.

If the project is ever completed it will cover the full story of the Peckham Experiment, from the lead up to its creation in 1926 to its closure in 1950 and beyond. It is an extraordinary and entertaining story from which there are some important and interesting lessons to be learned. I hope that this account will engage people who are interested in the political and welfare history of Britain in the twentieth century and inspire anyone who is seeking to think about new ways to strengthen local communities and improve the lives of ordinary people.

[1] De Syllas J., “Integrating Care: the architecture of the comprehensive health centre”, 2015, Routledge, Abingdon.