Pioneer Centre II
St Mary's Road, London SE15


Architect: Sir Owen Williams

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“With banks of almost floor-to-ceiling windows that fill the rooms with light, it was hailed as ‘Britain’s best new building’ by Walter Gropius when built.”

This excellent three-bedroom split-level apartment occupies a covetable corner position in Sir Owen William’s 1935 Pioneer Centre on St Mary’s Road in Peckham. With banks of almost floor-to-ceiling windows that fill the rooms with light, it was hailed as ‘Britain’s best new building’ by Walter Gropius when built. Originally designed to house a health centre, residents have access to unrivalled facilities including a striking 1930s swimming pool, tennis courts, gym and gated grounds .

Entrance to the apartment is on the first floor, from a wide corridor with fantastic views to the indoor swimming pool. The large open-plan living room and kitchen is wonderfully bright, with huge south-west facing windows that look to the sports courts. The apartment is decorated in a monochrome palette throughout. The first floor has grey marmoleum floors and a well-designed kitchen in white with steel finishes.

A spiral staircase with wooden treads leads down to two bathrooms and the three bedrooms, which are filled with light from the original metal-framed windows. The smallest of these is connected to the master with a sliding door, and so could be well used as a study or dressing room. The building is set back from the tree-lined street, so the bedrooms face onto the quiet grounds.

The Pioneer Centre was designed as the antithesis to corridor-dominated health facilities. Instead, Williams favoured large spans of uninterrupted space. On the outside, two square corners book-end a gently rounded middle section with rhythmic panelled windows. There were few internal walls, except ones made of glass, and this sense of airiness prevails now.

The Pioneer Centre is Grade II* listed, and was converted to housing in the 1990s. All of the windows in the building were recently renovated and double glazed, and the 20m heated swimming pool is currently being refurbished. The building is extremely secure, and there is an allocated parking space in the gated car park.

The Pioneer Centre is excellently located between the thriving areas of Queens Road Peckham and Nunhead. Recent developments along Queens Road continue to contribute to the area, notably the Blackbird Bakery under the railway arches, Mama Dough’s pizza restaurant, and a number of new independent bars. Nunhead Lane has a village-like feel, with a greengrocer, a fishmonger, deli, café and a new community centre by AOC architects. Popular local pubs include the Old Nuns Head, The Telegraph and Beer Shop.

The nearby Bellenden Road has become a centre for some excellent independent restaurants, bars, and shops, including Artusi, The Begging Bowl and Flock & Herd butchers. The Bussey Building, off Rye Lane, hosts an active and varied programme of yoga/dance classes and workshops, along with a residency from the Royal Court theatre. Newly opened Peckham Levels hosts street food, bars and cafes along with live music. The green spaces of Telegraph Hill, with wonderful views over the city, and Peckham Rye Park are a short walk away.

Queens Road Peckham is the nearest station, just a five-minute walk away, running London Overground services to Shoreditch High Street and Dalston Junction in one direction and Clapham Junction in the other. Connections to the Jubilee Line can be reached at Canada Water (10 minutes) and the Northern Line at Clapham High Street (11 minutes). Southern trains run services to London Bridge with a journey time of around 7 minutes. Nunhead station is seven minutes’ walk away with connections to Victoria (in 15 minutes) and King’s Cross St Pancras (in 25 minutes).

Tenure: Leasehold
Lease length: approx. 108 years (125 years from September 1999)
Ground rent: approx. £125 per annum
Service charge: approx. £3,000 per annum

Please note that all areas, measurements and distances given in these particulars are approximate and rounded. The text, photographs and floor plans are for general guidance only. The Modern House has not tested any services, appliances or specific fittings — prospective purchasers are advised to inspect the property themselves. All fixtures, fittings and furniture not specifically itemised within these particulars are deemed removable by the vendor.


The Pioneer Centre was purpose-built for what became known as ‘The Peckham Experiment’. Two doctors, George Scott Williamson and Innes Hope Pearse chose Peckham because the “populace roughly represents a cross-section of the total populace of the nation with as widely differing a cultural admixture as it is possible to find in any circumscribed metropolitan area”. The doctors believed that medical practice was overly focused on curing disease, rather than on cultivating good health and preventing illness. Instead, they believed that given the right tools, people would take responsibility for their own well-being.

The experiment began in 1926, using a house on Queen’s Road SE5 as its base. For the new Pioneer Centre, Sir Owen Williams devised large open spaces to allow the Centre’s doctors to properly observe the members. Williams was formally trained as an engineer and is best known for his design of the Express Building in Manchester, along with forward thinking designs for Britain’s motorways including ‘Spaghetti Junction’. Using concrete and steel allowed the architect to realise ambitious shapes that housed a gymnasium, lecture hall and rest and recreation rooms. At the centre of the building is the swimming pool, whose glazed roof allows in as much natural light as possible, along with windows that could be fully opened to circulate fresh air into the building. Cork floors encouraged people to walk barefoot.

The doctors paid members one shilling a week, and they had access to organised activities, games and workshops as well as yearly medical examinations to keep track of progress. Central to the Pioneer Centre’s philosophy was the belief that left to themselves people would begin to organise in a creative way, which indeed happened. The centre closed in 1950 despite public support, as its innovative approach did not fit with the tenants of the newly formed NHS. However, its ideals inspired further projects in the field of social biology.

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