Paul Oppé Archive: Pioneer Health Centre

  • 13 September 2021

Reflections on the Paul Oppé Archive

Pioneer Health Centre

The Paul Oppé archive catalogue was recently completed and published online. Most of the collection focuses on Oppé’s work as an art historian and collector, but there is also a substantial amount of material relating to his personal life, and the life of his family. In this series of posts, Anthony Day, who catalogued the collection, shares some of the human stories he uncovered in the archive.

As has been shown in my previous post on the case of Simone Belchamber, Valentine Oppé sometimes used her social networks to organise help and support for those who needed it. Reading through her correspondence, this activity emerges as a regular practice. Beyond helping friends and acquaintances, Valentine used her connections to support specific projects. A particular interest was public health provision, so when Valentine was approached in 1932 by Innes Pearse and George Williamson, the two doctors who pioneered the so-called ‘Peckham Experiment’, she was eager to provide assistance.

The Peckham Experiment, founded in 1926 with the opening of the Pioneer Health Centre at 142 Queen’s Road, Peckham in London, was a practical attempt to provide health and fitness facilities to local residents. It sought a solution to the poor state of health in Britain by providing families with facilities for exercise and regular access to medical advice with a focus on the preventative benefits of good health, rather than treating disease. At this time, prior to the existence of the National Health Service, the cost of visiting a general practitioner was prohibitive to many ordinary people. Membership to the Pioneer Health Centre included health checks, which provided an incentive to join. It also gave medical professionals the opportunity to observe and study the participants.

This first phase enjoyed some success but closed in 1929 so that Pearse and Williamson could publish their initial findings and begin plans for a new, purpose-built centre on St. Marys Road, also in Peckham. While the first iteration had modest facilities, the new project would be far more ambitious; with a swimming pool and large, open plan exercise spaces, as well as various clinical and observation rooms, it was to be an impressive modern building with lots of ventilation and large windows providing natural light. Overall, the design of the centre was intended to inspire a feeling of openness and creativity in the members. This ambition, however, would require much more funding than the doctors had acquired for the first phase.

In the course of their second round of fundraising, Pearse contacted Valentine Oppé, seeking her assistance in approaching her cousin, Lord Dysart, to encourage him to contribute funds. A series of letters in the Paul Oppé archive indicate that this new fundraising phase was under considerable time pressure.

In a letter to Dysart, dated 28 April 1932, Pearse elucidates their concerns as to why the project should proceed quickly. They were eager to re-establish the Pioneer Health Centre as soon as possible since various other groups had already been contacting them, hoping to apply the Peckham Experiment ethos to their own health centres across the country. Pearse was clearly afraid that things were happening too fast. As she explained, they had yet to acquire the proper facilities to train their own medical and social workers and feared that the project would lose its way if others took it forward without first seeking their guidance.

‘Our greatest fear is that in the absence of health workers (Aesculapians we should like to call them) whom we hope to train, these people, with no example to follow, may misunderstand the idea and only succeed in creating mere therapeutic (or ‘hippocratic’) clinics increasing in the public the fear of disease.’

In a later letter she continued to discuss this concern, noting that Yale University were planning to ‘start a centre modelled on ours as part of their 5,000,000 dollar Institute of Human Relations … I can’t bear the thought that we should have to lag behind at this crucial moment.’

Dysart responded positively and made an offer of a £500, conditional on them raising £5000 by the end of July 1932. In the event, they failed to meet Dysart’s target, but they did succeed in securing a significant amount of funding from various other patrons. Their letterhead in 1933 boasts a total of eighteen patrons, including Lord Dysart. Later letters also show that, even though the target wasn’t met in the time frame imposed by Dysart, he decided to give them the funds anyway.

Typed text on a blank page.

Pioneer Health Centre letterhead, c. 1933, Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/12/2/1/72,

The new Pioneer Health Centre, designed by Sir Owen Williams, was eventually opened in 1935. An imposing glass structure, light and spacious inside, with corkboard floors enabling people to walk around barefoot, it was also an example of how architectural design can influence the activity and atmosphere within the building. And, as the medical professionals observed, the members of the centre used the space to organise activities and exercise together.

A concrete building with two figures approaching

The Pioneer Health Centre, St. Mary’s Rd., Peckham, London.,

When, in 1939, Queen Mary made an official royal visit, it seemed that Pearse and Williamson’s dream of using the centre as a model to be adopted across the country was about to become a reality. However, the timing was unfortunate, and it closed shortly after the outbreak Second World War. There was a brief reprise immediately after the war, but the growth of the NHS eclipsed the project. By 1950 the Pioneer Health Centre was closed, no longer able to raise funds to maintain it as an independent venture.

It is none the less gratifying that the Paul Oppé archive material at the Paul Mellon Centre can assist us in further understanding the story of the second phase of fundraising for the Peckham Experiment, and offers some explanation of the motivations that lay behind the expansion of the project.

If you wish to learn more, the archive of the Pioneer Health Centre is held at the Wellcome Library, and the South London Gallery co-ordinated a series of projects on the experiment, documentation of which is available online.

If you are interested to learn more about the Paul Oppé Archive, the catalogue is available online. If you have any queries or would like to make an appointment to view the material in person, please contact us.