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Desperate housewives and suburban neurosis

In the 1920s, doctors who believed labour-saving devices in the home were creating a ‘vacuum’ in housewives’ lives set up an innovative health scheme. By providing mothers with a focus and social space, the Peckham Experiment aimed to promote child health.

Words by Giulia Smithaverage reading time 6 minutes

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Photograph from the mid-20th Century Peckham Pioneer Centre, showing a women holding a baby in the foreground, and behind three women who appear to be conversing beside three cribs containing babies.

The Peckham Experiment (1926–50) is usually remembered as a pioneering scheme for the promotion of health at a grassroots level. But as I explored its archive at Wellcome Collection, I was surprised to find that the project was also about tackling the feared negative effects of domestic mechanisation – labour-saving devices like washing machines and vacuums – on local housewives.

Dr Innes Hope Pearse and Dr George Scott Williamson developed the idea for the Peckham Experiment when Britain did not yet have the NHS. Frustrated with the available medical provision, the doctors resolved to offer an alternative through the pursuit of “positive health”.

The holistic approach

Perhaps the most radical aspect of the experiment was that it proposed to approach health holistically, treating it as a combination of physical, mental, social and environmental factors.

Pearse and Williamson chose Peckham, a mixed-income neighbourhood in south London, as the location for the trial. Believing that architecture had a key role to play in the establishment of positive health, in 1935 they commissioned Sir Owen Williams with the design of a striking modernist complex, whose facilities included a monumental swimming pool, a dance floor, a crèche, a theatre, a gymnasium, a running track and medical consulting rooms. Officially christened the Pioneer Health Centre, it would come to be referred to by users as, simply and affectionately, “the centre”.

Photograph from the mid-20th Century Peckham Pioneer Centre, showing two women seated at a table, speaking, whilst a baby plays in a pram behind them and in the distance another group sit at tables. The building in which they sit has concrete columns and large windows.

As well as the better-known facilities such as the swimming pool, the centre included many spaces for people to simply gather with friends.

Only families living within “pram-pushing distance” were eligible to join the centre (for a nominal membership fee of one shilling per week). It was of crucial importance that nuclear families were recruited, rather than individuals, as the doctors maintained that health was inseparable from the context of familial relations.

At its most popular, the centre was used daily by, on average, more than 770 people. Most of them were housewives and children, with men usually turning up after work.

More: Exploring Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium

Besides undergoing a yearly medical check-up, the members had few obligations. There were no compulsory classes. The centre was imagined as a completely free-roaming zone, with no locked doors. The purpose of the experiment was in fact to ascertain whether health could develop as a grassroots response to a favourable environment.

A house is not a home

Williamson hoped that the Pioneer Heath Centre would provide a ‘home’ for the local community. Williamson explained that he believed that ‘home’ ought to mean more than bricks and mortar and a little garden. “A home is not in fact a physical entity like a house,” Williamson maintained, but the place where “we are alive”.

Dina Sturgis first used the motto “a house is not a home” in 1899, in an article for American Kitchen Magazine, and Dionne Warwick sang about the difference between the place and the feeling in her 1964 hit:

A chair is still a chair
Even when there's no one sitting there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home
When there’s no one there

The slogan was also popularised by domestic economists – largely women – who believed that technology and private property alone would not abolish housework, let alone lead to female emancipation.

It is not entirely surprising that Williamson should have echoed this position, because housewives were arguably the principal target of the Peckham Experiment.

The dangers of domestic technology

Women, more than men, were seen as a way to ensure the wellbeing of the next generation. As such, they played a central role in the Pioneer Health Centre researchers’ definition of positive health.

Women were also less healthy than men, as they generally did not benefit from health insurance through the workplace. According to a lecture that Williamson gave in 1946, only four per cent of females over fifteen were “without disorder” on joining the centre. This was a source of grave concern.

Photograph from the mid-20th Century Peckham Pioneer Centre, showing a woman holding an infant, a large pile of toys, and another infant looking up at her.

“Suburban neurosis” was a hypothetical condition caused by a vacuum in the life of the modern woman; Dr Williamson was concerned that such unhappy mothers would be unable to produce happy, healthy offspring.

The problem went beyond physiological questions. Williamson – whose politics might be described as an eclectic blend of anarcho-socialist and vitalist principles – was surprisingly preoccupied with the effects of mass consumerism (then an emerging phenomenon) on the mental health of the housewife.

He greeted the arrival of “refrigerators, hoovers, electric gadgets and time-saving devices” with alarm. In his eyes, these technologies did nothing but create a vacuum in the life of the modern woman, leading to what he called “suburban neurosis”.

As Rhodri Hayward explains, long before Desperate Housewives became a television hit, and decades before Betty Friedan published ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (1963), the British had already uncovered the figure of the desperate housewife, only they pathologised it under the banner of “suburban neurosis”. A key, albeit unofficial, objective of the Peckham Experiment was getting these women out of the house and enabling them to enjoy their newfound leisure in a productive and sociable manner.

Nurturing healthy babies

The Pioneer Health Centre delivered services that positively served the cause of female emancipation. Aside from offering a crèche, the centre provided advice on prenatal and postnatal care, as well as information about contraception (which was a highly contentious practice at the time). Above all, it created a supportive social environment in which women could share their workloads and learn from each other.

Photograph from the mid-20th Century Peckham Pioneer Centre, showing three women seated at a table, knitting. The building in which they sit has concrete columns and large windows.

In its emphasis on the communal, the Peckham Experiment echoed the central tenets of what the historian Dolores Hayden described as the “grand domestic revolution” of the turn of the 20th century. That said, the experiment was no feminist enterprise. Its motto, embossed on the back of a customised chequebook used to solicit donations, was “healthier babies”, not “empowered women”.

Pearse compared the Pioneer Health Centre to a “placental site”, which only confirms that the facility was set up with the aim of scrutinising and facilitating the reproduction of the traditional nuclear family. This meant making childbearing an appealing experience for disaffected young women, who were seen as showing symptoms of suburban neurosis.

A typical case is described harshly by the founders of the Peckham Experiment: “Wife fat, overweight, constipated, flabby, in slovenly clothes, suspicious… Ill in first pregnancy, never right since. Incapable of managing child, who is beyond her.”

Photograph from the mid-20th Century Peckham Pioneer Centre, showing a long row of eight high-chairs, six of which are occupied by infants who are eating or drinking. Behind them, a woman sits in a chair with a child on her lap and a bowl in her hand, and another woman approaches from behind holding another bowl.

The crèche was intended to help support women emotionally by relieving some of the burden of childcare.

For all its progressive aspects, the Peckham Experiment reflected widespread anxieties about the ability of low-to-middle-class mothers to raise their children by themselves in the privacy of their own houses. In this respect, it anticipated something of the rhetoric of the “good enough mother” later popularised by psychoanalyst John Bowlby (and Donald Winnicott) and fervently attacked by feminist critics.

The difference is that Pearse and Williamson never encouraged women to retreat into the domestic sphere in order to focus exclusively on motherhood. For them, only self-realised women with ample access to recreation and social contact could participate healthily in the reproduction of society.

In this sense too, the experiment was ahead of its time.

About the author

Giulia Smith

Giulia Smith is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford.