An overview

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'An overview' page

The Centre's one and a half acre site near the Stoke Newington reservoir

By Virginia Smith

The Woodberry Down Health Centre (later renamed the John Scott Health Centre) was the first purpose-built health centre in Britain. The foundation stone was laid by Health Minister Aneurin Bevan on behalf of the London County Council, in 1949. Designs showed a U-shaped two-storey building containing over seventy rooms. In the aftermath of war it was difficult to get building materials, and work stopped several times before it was finally completed, at a cost of £152,000, in 1952. To the utopian town planners of the time, it was a bright new building which incorporated all the latest ideas in social medicine. It was a model health-centre for the future.   

The building

The building was brick and set in a green lawn. The architecture was in a plain Modernist style, with few decorative details and lots of windows - which some patients (and doctors) apparently found strange and off-putting, as they were used to shabby surgeries located in the doctor's front room. It had six examination suites for GPs, a school health unit, an ante-natal unit, a child welfare unit, and a lecture hall for health education on the ground floor. Rooms for minor operations, dental x-rays, eye treatment, remedial orthopaedics, a psychiatric Child Guidance unit, and two dental surgeries were on the second floor. There was also a caretaker's flat, a night duty-doctor's  flat, a canteen, and doctor's common-room. No refreshments were provided for patients - the kitchen facilities were only for the staff. A separate Day Nursery was built alongside the main building, sharing the facilities. There was also a small garden.          

The patients

The site was chosen because of the Woodberry Down Estate, planned by the LCC with 1,771 homes to house 6,500 people. It was surrounded by an area (northern Stoke Newington) containing a post-war population of 17,000 which was expected to rise to 25,000. It was also at the centre of a large Jewish population, where large families were the norm. Over the years the Health Centre's commitment to family and preventive medicine - including family planning, renal dialysis, and later a unit for homeless families that was described by one doctor as 'a very special place' - provided many much-used local services. Other health centres operating in Hackney in the 1950-90s included Lower Clapton, Upper Clapton, Barton House, Wick Heath; and the very popular pre-war Shoreditch Health Centre, run from a converted house, which had a large exercise hall and classrooms.     

The doctors

The general practitioners were less satisfied. The local doctors joined the new Health Centre because they were afraid that other applicants would create rival practitioners in their area. They also did not like the fact that the local authority appointed the receptionists and staff, and charged them ground rent for the common areas. Far from working together, they rarely used the common room, or even the operating theatre, and all but two of the original six doctors kept open their old surgeries, and saw the majority of their patients there. The reluctance of individual doctors to join local authority-built health centres was repeated everywhere. By 1955 the government had effectively abandoned the Woodberry Down experimental model, and instead offered interest-free loans for groups of doctors to build their own private 'centres'. By 1967, 756 group-practice centres had been built, usually on a more modest scale than Woodberry Down. There are currently two group practises - Cedar and Heron - occupying the Centre.

Political changes

In 1965 London public health organisation changed, and control of the Centre passed from the LCC to the London Borough of Hackney. The Centre was ceremonially re-named the John Scott Health Centre in 1965 after Dr John A. Scott, the Borough's doctor (Medical Officer of Health), who had played a large part in its inception and design. In 1974, all UK public health organisation changed. Social work and health care were split. The old local authority Medical Officer of Health disappeared, and local hospitals, and primary care services such as health centres, came under the NHS and new NHS Healthcare Planning Teams. The purpose-built facilities of the John Scott Health Centre were ideal for practical 'community medicine', and the building has been in full use throughout the last forty five years. But changing policies and resources in local government meant that the Centre fought off one campaign for closure in the 1990s, and currently (in 2009) faces another.  

This page was added by Virginia Smith on 15/07/2009.

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