Dr George Scott Williamson (1884-1953) and Dr Innes Pearse (1889-1973) were the co-founders and directors of the Peckham Pioneer Health Centre, describing themselves as biologists.

It was decided that a health scheme should be set up. After discussions with charities and the Chief Medical Officer for the old borough of Camberwell an area of Peckham was chosen which was mixed socio- economically. This part of Peckham on 142 Queen’s Road, built in the 1820s was chosen. It started in a modest way in 1926 and ended in 1929 as a pilot scheme.

In the late 1920s it was the time of the slump, 17% were unemployed. Rich benefactors found the money to build on a nearby site in St Mary’s Road. Sir Owen Williamson, an engineer, designed this iconic building, a happy blend of glass and stainless steel. The Peckham Pioneer Health Centre was opened in 1935.
It was run as a family club to foster healthy living. There was an amazing variety of activities ranging from swimming and badminton to dancing. A modest threepence per week or activity allowed one to take part. A crèche was available for parents with children who wished to participate in the activities. The average weekly wage at that time was £4 and a doctor’s salary was £9.6s per week gross.

The tests were very thorough. Disease was rife, only 14% of men and 4% of women had nothing wrong with them at a time before the NHS. Blood tests, lung function tests, height and weight were taken. Findings for mothers and fathers were considerable. Sufferers were prescribed vitamins, tuberculin tested milk and medicines at a time before antibiotics. The most important discovery was that folic acid in pregnancy helped to prevent spina bifida. The 4½ years leading up to the Second World War didn’t leave enough time to fully assess the results especially as the target of 2,000 people hadn’t been achieved, and debt was mounting.

The “Centre” as it was known was started up again in 1945 but was closed down by the NHS in 1948 as this service didn’t believe in prevention. Does it now? Pioneer House with regard to its Grade 2 status was converted into residences by architect Alan Camp in the late 1990s.

More recently the original premises, 142 Queens Road, for years were condemned and were supported by scaffolding. Wandle Housing refurbished this Georgian terrace in about 2000. The Peckham Society submitted a request to English Heritage to have a Blue Plaque unveiled to celebrate the original premises of the Peckham Experiment. On the 26th March 2009 the plaque was unveiled with representatives from the Pioneer Health Foundation, English Heritage and the Peckham Society.

Peter M Frost

Website: The Pioneer Health Foundation


(Article first appeared in the South London Press, 3 February 2017)