Peckham Experiment

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The Peckham Experiment

The Peckham Experiment was a study into the nature of health in the 1920s-1940s. The researchers decided to study the family unit in a community setting to identify what contributes to human health. See below for more information. This page records the current work in Peckham to bring the information about the Peckham Experiment back into Peckham today. There are original Peckham Experiment books and later publications for sale and reference. Eileen Conn, Peckham Vision coordinator and long term resident in Peckham, is the local contact and a Pioneer Health Foundation (PHF) Associate, and was a member of the South London Gallery Heritage Roots project which examined the Peckham Experiment. Peckham Vision operates from a Peckham Experiment kind of approach to the nature of human health and society. Underlying the work of Peckham Vision is the understanding that the strength of a community lies in the connections between people who live, work or run businesses in the same neighbourhood. More information in leaflet: Peckham Vision and the Peckham Experiment

August 2020 Realising Health book published

Realising Health: The Peckham Experiment, Its Descendants, and the Spirit of Hygiea, by Philip Conford. This book examines the history of the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, South London, and the various offshoots to which it gave rise. A world-renowned experiment in health-creation, it was nevertheless forced to close in 1950; but its example and ideas have continued to inspire doctors, public health workers and community-builders. The text investigates the reasons why the Pioneer Health Centre and other initiatives have found it difficult to make headway. It looks at factors such as financial and administrative problems, various vested interests (including those of pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession), and, underlying these considerations, the tension between the principles of Hygiea (the goddess of healthy living) and Aesculapius (the god of healing and surgery). Our culture values those who try to put things right more than those who try to ensure they do not go wrong in the first place. The book opens with a thorough examination of the concept of health, sets the Pioneer Health Centre in its socio-historical context, and shows how a number of contemporary projects have been developed along broadly similar lines. It draws on many primary sources and on interviews with people committed to the cause of “realising health”. The book contents are here. Chapter 10 is on 'Pioneer Health Initiatives and Trustees’ Activities' and contains this section on pp 397-399:

  • Eileen Conn and Peckham Vision ................................................ 397
    • Eileen Conn’s commitment to Peckham .......................................... 397
    • Contact with the Pioneer Health Centre Ltd.; its influence on her thought .... 399

January 2019 Heritage Roots Project

The South London Gallery’s Arts Assassins youth group took the theme of the Peckham Experiment for 18 months in 2017-2018 in the Heritage Roots Project. The group visited Peckham Vision and Rye Lane early in the project, and Eileen Conn coordinator of Peckham Vision was part of the Gallery’s Advisory Group during the project. The project concluded in September 2018 with an exhibition and events. Here is the group talking about their project.

September 2018

The Heritage Roots project concluded in September 2018 with an exhibition and events at the South London Gallery.

20th April to 7th May 2018 Glasgow

Self-Service is a collaborative project led by Kirsty Hendry and Ilona Sagar produced in response to the archives of The Peckham Pioneer Centre. It takes place at the CCA in Glasgow from 20 April to 7 May as part of Glasgow International 2018. Taking the form of an event series and publication, Self-Service brings together new works from Hendry, Sagar, and a range of invited collaborators and contributors to explore the history, design, and social context of welfare - examining our increasingly uneasy and technology infused relationship to health, wellbeing, and labour. Book here for the film screening on 26th April and here for the participatory workshop on 6th May.

27th March 2018 Pool of Information

This was an evening exploring the legacy of the Peckham Experiment, and what it means for the health and wellbeing of local residents in south London today. A screening of A Pool of Information (Jini Rawlings, 1993, 35min) and a short film about the work of the Lambeth GP Food COOP were followed by a Q&A with Jini Rawlings, and a discussion about how to strengthen relationships between healthcare services and the community. This event was part of the programme of events to mark NHS Sustainability Day and also forms part of the ongoing research by the SLG’s youth forum, the Art Assassins.

13th Dec 2017-25th Feb 2018 Ilona Sagar Correspondence O

In her first institutional solo show in the UK, Ilona Sagar presents Correspondence O, a multi-faceted work exploring the overlooked history of the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham and its subsequent conversion into a gated community. Sagar’s moving image installation expresses the complex, changing landscape of public health and the social shift towards a more egocentric, user-focused and technology-infused understanding of wellness. The work is informed by her extensive research within the archives of the Pioneer Health Centre held by the Wellcome Trust and Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), and contemporary medical research conducted by the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge.

15th September 2017 Search for local memories

During the second annual Peckham Festival 15-17 September, the South London Gallery youth group Arts Assassins launched a search for people who had memories of the Peckham Experiment themselves or through older family members or friends. Peckham Vision is a partner in the South London Gallery Heritage Roots project taking the Peckham Experiment as its theme. The leaflet about the search was launched in Peckham Vision’s Open Studio during the Peckham Festival, in a new exhibition telling the story of the community role in shaping Peckham town centre. The new exhibition included Peckham Vision's display about the Peckham Experiment and its pioneering approach to understanding health. The maps displayed showed that the area covered by the Experiment in 1935-1950 included the Bussey Building and Copeland Park where Peckham Vision started and has its studio. Peckham Vision's approach to community engagement links with the pioneering Peckham Experiment's understanding of the relationship between individuals in community, and that enabling freedom for self determination cultivates health. [photos]

Rye Lane Art Deco cluster montage
The art deco Pioneer Health Centre,

29th August 2017 Heritage Roots project visit

The South London Gallery (SLG) youth group, with artist Eleanor Wright, met with Peckham Vision. Eileen Conn showed them the Art Deco buildings in Rye Lane and gave a brief account of their historical and architectural significance. (These buildings were all in the area covered by the Peckham Experiment and were built in its early years in the 1930s, the era of Art Deco.) We ended with a discussion in the Peckham Vision studio with Eleanor exploring relations between buildings and people. The interest is sparked by the famous Pioneer Health Centre building in St Mary’s Road to the east of Rye Lane. This was designed and built for the Peckham Experiment which opened in 1935. The SLG are currently inviting applications for a HISTORIAN IN RESIDENCE to work with the youth group up to October 2018. This will be of interest to anyone keen on the Peckham Experiment and with skills in heritage research.
The project concluded in September 2018 with an exhibition and events at the South London Gallery.

Khans Bargain shop revealed Art Deco ceiling
looking at Rye Lane Art deco buildings
Heritage Roots youth group in Coepland Park
IMG 7280.jpg

19th May 2017 PHF Glasgow seminar

The Pioneer Health Foundation held a seminar on: "How can we nurture human flourishing? Seeds of hope in Scotland today and lessons from the Peckham Experiment" on Friday 19 May 2107, 2-4.15 pm, in Glasgow. Eileen Conn coordinator of Peckham Vision contributed a talk on on the nature of healthy communities [slides to be uploaded]. The [LINK] programme included also presentations from two PHF trustees - Lisa Curtice on the Peckham Experiment, and Margaret Hannah on 'how do we pattern hope?' Participants all took part in table conversations about what we can all do to create the conditions for human flourishing - in public policy, in services, but most of all on the ground in our communities. Note of the proceedings.

25th February 2017 Ilona Saga's arts event

Ilona Saga's arts event in the Peckham Experiment building - detail to be uploaded. This event is further preparation for Ilona's 'Correspndence O' an installation at the South London Gallery in later 2017. The first event in Peckham in this work coincided with Art Licks Weekend in September 2016, where The Ballad of Peckham Rye presented 'Hesitant desire shall flourish in a soil not too strong', an audio work that featured as part of Ilona Sagar's exhibition at DKUK Salon. This new body of work "looks at the history and social significance of the Peckham Experiment, a holistic model of healthcare, which aimed to cultivate community wellbeing from 1926-50. It uses the radical Peckham Pioneer Centre, as a lens through which to examine ideas of health, welfare and wellness, exploring interactions between collective understandings of common good and individual wellbeing."

February 2017 Heritage Roots project

South London Gallery announced their heritage roots project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.This will be exploring the history of the Peckham Experiment, and led by the Arts Assassins, South London Gallery’s young people’s forum. Peckham Vision and Pioneer Health Foundation are full partners along with the Wellcome Library, the Science Gallery at King’s College, and the Wilderness Wood. The project, which will run until autumn 2018, will see the group work alongside a historian-in-residence, heritage experts and artists to investigate the Peckham Experiment.

28th January 2017 Peckham Vision display at Community Council

Local Councils are now responsible for public health and well-being in their areas. So the Peckham & Nunhead Community Council held an exhibition from local organisations on local Public Health & Well-Being at its meeting on 28th January. Peckham Vision's displays were aimed at bringing the historic legacy of the Peckham Experiment to the attention of the people who live and work in the area now, and highlighting the way the information is still highly relevant today and how it links also to Peckham Vision's own work in strengthening the local community networks of relationships. The display was put together by Peckham Vision with the assistance of Pioneer Health Foundation (PHF). Special thanks to the staff at Southwark Local History Library and Archive for their assistance and permission to reproduce three articles about the Pioneer Health Centre.The display included:

Photos from the Community Council and the exhibition:

PEX display at Peckham & Nunhead CC meeting
PEX display at Peckham & Nunhead CC meeting
PEX display at Peckham & Nunhead CC meeting
IMG 6030 adj med.jpg
PEX display at Peckham & Nunhead CC meeting

The Peckham Experiment

Nature of the Peckham Experiment

The Peckham Experiment was a study into the nature of health in the 1920s-1940s. The researchers decided to study the family unit in a community setting to identify what contributes to human health. This was very different from the study of sickness and the prevention of sickness. The modern promotion of health is often focussed on preventing sickness or the absence of sickness. The Peckham Experiment was focussed on the nature of health and how it could be cultivated.

What was the Peckham Experiment?

The centre/laboratory, known as the Pioneer Health Centre, was purpose built for the Experiment in St Mary's Road, in Peckham. The blue shaded area of the map shows the boundary of the Peckham Experiment. The research was conducted by annual medical checks and observations of families interacting in social activities. Recognising the importance of sound nutrition, they rented a farm to provide fresh organic food. The experiment pioneered thinking, decades ahead of its time, about the way in which health could be nurtured rather than just sickness remedied. The Peckham Research Findings have influenced authorities across the world including the WHO. The Health Centre building is still here in St Mary's Road and is listed by English Heritage in recognition of its historic importance as architecture and its pioneering in health and social understanding. The legacy material from the Experiment is owned by the Pioneer Health Foundation (PHF) a small national charity. Read more...

The centre/laboratory, known as the Pioneer Health Centre,

The Building

The Pioneer Health Centre building is an early example of British Modernism in the International Style. Key figures in this movement such as Nikolaus Pevsner described it as a 'pioneer work indeed, socially as well as architecturally', and Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, described it as an “oasis of glass in a desert of brick”. The form of the Pioneer Health Centre was of particular importance to Dr. Scott Williamson, who worked closely with structural engineer Sir E. Owen Williams to design the building. The modernist principle ‘form ever follows function’ resonates through the building as the key concepts of the Peckham Experiment are embedded in the architecture. Large windows and state of the art ventilation systems allowed light and air to flood into the large internal spaces. Glass partitions replace the internal walls creating a dialogue between the different spaces, and the members occupying them. This transparency also allowed the scientists to observe the members without interfering with this activity. Multi-use spaces, open circulation and adjustable partitions and ceilings were key to creating a microcosm of interactive social areas. The internal décor had quiet and neutral colours, to bring the vibrancy of this human interaction into the foreground, only occasionally broken by festive decorations. The structure itself consists of three large reinforced concrete slabs with inset concrete columns supporting the structure arranged on a clearly set grid. At the centre of which is a rectangular void containing a large swimming bath under a triangular roof light. The structure removes the requirement for solid load bearing walls, allowing unimpeded circulation and uninterrupted glass cladding around the buildings envelope. The front elevation of includes a series of bow window, which can be opened up in the summer into Juliet balconies.

R.E.Sassoon House

R.E.Sassoon House occupies the corner between the Pioneer Health Centre and Belfort Rd. It is a block of flat, five-storeys high; it stands end-on to the main road, its cantilevered ‘family’ balconies overlooking Belfort Road. The flats are worthy of attention because they formed part of the Experiment and were intended as an intrinsic part of its founders’ plans… more info.

Wellcome Collection archives

The archival collections of the Wellcome Library contain the archive of the Pioneer Health Centre, Peckham, including the papers of its founders, George Scott Williamson and Innes Hope Pearse. They also include recently digitised films, including some amateur footage.

Web based information

Where was the Peckham Experiment?

The original catchment area for the Centre in 1935 is shown on the map below. The major part of this small area was in what is now called New Cross Gate in the London Borough of Lewisham. But in 1938 the area was extended west further into Peckham and just beyond Peckham Rye station, and south to Nunhead and north to just beyond the Old Kent Road, so that most of the eastern half of Peckham was covered. Scroll down for the street map showing the exact original coverage. The main Peckham Experiment grew out of the first exploration in a centre in a house at 142 Queens Road 1926-1929. This can be identified there by the blue plaque awarded by the Peckham Society.

142 Queens Road centre
extended area
Area covered by the Peckham Experiment

Film & audio

2010 some new ideas

Incredible Edible Conference 9th October 2010

[more material to be uploaded]