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Social structures – The Peckham Experiment

In Community and Relationship, Politics, Social Development and Justice by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

In past centuries, notions about health were radically different from those in today’s reductionist, pharmaceutical-dominated medical world. It would be a mistake to dismiss these ideas out of hand, on the basis of their dissimilarity to modern healthcare. Sometimes unconventional approaches towards health that fall by the wayside are rediscovered or reinvented generations later.

A human anthropology experiment

Peckham today is a working-class, multi-ethnic community in the unlovely inner suburbs of South London, notorious for its gun crime. To some people, it is also remembered for a unique social experiment that took place in the first half of last century. This program treated health holistically as a positive state to be enhanced and maximised, rather than simply the treatment of sickness. With a focus on developing human potential to its fullest extent, what is today known as The Peckham Experiment might have struck a chord in 1970’s California. For 1930’s Britain, it was far ahead of its time.

George Williamson and Innes Pearse were both trained doctors, working in the 1920’s as a husband and wife team. In their early careers, they would have almost certainly encountered the ideas of Homer Lane, an American educator who had experienced remarkable successes with children dubbed as ‘criminals’ by the justice system. He found that if transplanted into a healthy, non-coercive environment and left to their own devices they did not run riot, but instead underwent highly encouraging behavioural changes.

Gifted and ambitious, in 1926 Williamson and Pearse opened the Pioneer Health Centre at a house in Peckham, intending to survey ‘everyday life under modern industrial conditions’ with a focus on health. By 1929, sufficient data had been collected, and the overall health of residents was identified as being relatively poor. The Centre closed down, in preparation for a quantum leap in its evolution.

After much fundraising, it reopened at another location in 1935, this time as a laboratory ‘devised for the study of the behaviour of human families living free.’ Transcending their position as doctors, the couple saw their role in the project as ‘biologists’, or perhaps more accurately anthropologists. The aim was to observe the ‘living structure of society’ as a dynamic rather than a static phenomenon.

Resembling a community centre rather than a health centre, the new facility offered its members a large range of activities, including swimming, sport, social events, dances and theatre performances. Membership cost a shilling (five pence) a week, and was open to all families living within walking distance. A total of 1,200 families joined before the Centre finally closed 15 years later.

All of this took place in a purpose-built modern-style construction designed by the architect Sir Owen Williams. This spacious open plan building was described by another architect Walter Gropius as ‘an oasis of glass in an ocean of brick’.  It let in natural light, a rare commodity in Britain’s inner city areas.

To remove the physical and visual barriers between members, internal walls were minimised, and replaced by columns. The use of glass screens enabled participants to see what everyone else was doing, except in the examination rooms. At its heart, a giant swimming pool was naturally illuminated through a glazed roof. Cork floors allowed members to move around barefoot with minimal chance of being hurt in the event of an accident.

A different perspective on health

Williamson believed that elsewhere health was being overlooked in favour of a focus on sickness, and in his view, even preventative health measures taken in isolation were of limited use. Williamson and Pearse’s plan for the Experiment was to discover ‘the causes of health’ by seeing humans as creatures that could blossom in the right environment. Health was treated as a process rather than an outcome, and was not artificially separated from the milieu in which it existed. In the words of Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homoeopathy, ‘There are no sicknesses, there are only sick people.’

The couple placed great importance on the family unit, which they likened to a tree, with the parents representing the trunk and the children the branches. They believed that the health of the family as a whole strongly influenced that of the individual members. Care of babies and the home life were both seen as vitally important; Williamson and Pearse would have agreed with the philosophy that the health of a society can be traced back to its child-rearing methods.

In return for access to the facilities, members agreed to have their activities recorded through the glass screens by Williamson, Pearse and their team of doctors. They agreed to undergo a medical examination once a year, and each individual’s health status was monitored on an ongoing basis. As the 1930’s progressed, less health problems were being identified, probably as a consequence of the life-affirming dynamics to which everyone was being subjected.

The evolution of a healthy micro-society

To observe families in their natural state, it was necessary for Williamson and Pearse to adopt a very hands-off approach. Supervision was minimal, and there were no rules or restrictions of any kind except that no individual or group was allowed to assume control of activities. The role of staff members was to facilitate and support rather than tell people what to do. In harmony with the Experiment’s aims, facilities were only introduced if a member requested them. It was led by the users.

Left to their own devices, participating families took a while to adjust to the new sense of freedom, get their bearings, and take up some of the many opportunities on offer. Remarkable changes soon followed: as restricting and inhibiting forces were removed and people encountered a wide social circle, family tensions largely vanished. During the life of the Centre, no marriages broke down, there was no bullying and little anti-social teenage behaviour. In the gymnasium, with no over-anxious parents looking on, children never had accidents.

In this ‘living laboratory’, interest in competitive games dropped off, in favour of collaborative activities; these findings seemed to indicate that people are innately cooperative. Members were interested in acquiring skills, expressing their creativity, experimenting, and discovering their potential. As a result of the open plan design, there were no ghettos; people gravitated to the most interesting activities available to them. They could transcend the limitations of their upbringing, and increasingly became whole, well-rounded people, living fuller lives.

For children, with their impressionable natures, these positive changes were even more marked. Removed from disciplinarian structures and parental pressure, their personalities improved and they grew in maturity. The factors that helped children the most were a conducive environment with non-judgemental feedback, the freedom to be spontaneous, and special support during important phases of life such as puberty and entering into early relationships.

These findings were echoed by the experiences of a couple of ‘free schools’ running in Southern England at Dartington Hall and Beacon Hill. Together with the Centre, they supported the views of Homer Lane and Scottish moral philosopher John Macmurray, that freedom is a precondition for healthy physical and mental development of a child. At Summerhill, a British free school that still runs today, children are presented with choice from a young age, requiring the development of an internal self-discipline.

An organic movement takes root

In this pre-war period, a chemical revolution was underway in agriculture. As an important part of their views on health, Williamson and Pearse were strong supporters of unpolluted food. A few miles away at Bromley Common in Kent (today part of South London’s outer suburbs), a farm run by the Centre produced milk, and grew organic vegetables and fruit for consumption in a self-service restaurant at the Peckham HQ.

Tangentially, the Centre contributed to the 1946 creation of the Soil Association, the world’s first organic body, which still thrives today. Both doctors were founding members, and positive health outcomes from the Peckham Experiment gave the Soil Association’s founders added confidence as they pioneered a direction entirely at odds with the post-war chemical honeymoon. In its own way, an organic, ‘free-range’ human society provided inspiration for the modern organic agriculture movement.

The national sickness service

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Centre closed, and was requisitioned by the government as an arms factory. When peace arrived, a protracted lobbying campaign was successful in returning the building to its rightful owners. After community members had spent long hours cleaning it up, it was reopened in 1946 to everybody’s delight.

Immediately following the Second World War, as the structure of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) was being drawn up, the advisory Medical Research Council visited the Centre. With a focus on information reducible to statistics it was unable to grasp the project’s full significance. The ideas behind the Peckham Experiment were too innovative to be appreciated by down-to-earth officials focused on a mammoth reconstruction effort. Instead, the major focus on the new NHS was on treating sickness.

By 1950, the Centre was in a shaky financial position, and became unable to continue relying on independent funding. Failing to fit in with NHS funding guidelines, it was forced to close its doors. One conspiratorial view holds that the Pioneer Health Centre was cut loose because free-thinking, ‘whole’ people are far harder to control than the regular population. In this light, it is interesting that both the Beacon Hill and Dartington Hall free schools were also targeted by the government for requisitioning during the war.

If things had been different, Pioneer Health Centres could have spread across Britain, improving health outcomes everywhere. As events turned out, the model was shelved, and is remembered by a select few, ready to be adopted again at some future time.

Is the Peckham Experiment still relevant?

To some people, the Orwellian idea of being observed through a glass screen by professionals running a large experiment, of which they are an intrinsic part, is very off-putting. Despite the sinister reputation of social engineering, if it is conducted for positive goals, with the full knowledge of participants, perhaps it deserves our support. The ultimate goal of the Experiment was to steadily improve the health of a population down the generations.

Some aspects of the Experiment would be difficult to apply to today’s society. The family as the primary social unit has been replaced by the individual, and people are far more transient. Homosexuality is no longer regarded as an aberration by most of us. Modern technology discourages personal interaction. The heterosexual family with children is now the exception rather than the rule.

Today, the Pioneer Health Centre is still running, in a different building, with scaled-down ambitions. The Peckham Experiment is the name of an upmarket French restaurant located in the area. Yet the influence of this bold endeavour is still felt. Within the last decade, the UK has embarked on the creation of a network of Healthy Living Centres dotted around the country that embody some of the Experiment’s aims.

In Australia, one person who has been inspired is Professor Stuart Hill, Chair of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney. Interest has been expressed in setting up two centres on the Central Coast, to the north of Sydney, based on the Peckham Experiment model. Perhaps if it was far ahead of its time seventy years ago, its time will soon arrive.



Alison Stallibrass – Being Me and Also Us (Lessons from the Peckham Experiment) Scottish Academic Press, 1989

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