Dr John Singleton was a physician and philanthropist, who is remembered for his services to the poor during the Gold rush era of Melbourne’s early years as a European settlement. John Singleton was born in Dublin on 2nd January 1808 in a wealthy merchant family of nine children. From the age of 16, he was trained under an apothecary and later placed with a general practitioner and attended medical lectures and in 1838 received his M.D from the University of Glasgow. At the age of 19, he got attracted to evangelism and expended his energies on spreading the message and teachings of Jesus Christ. He was a total abstainer and remained so throughout his life, after being convinced of the ill effects of Alcohol and set to debunk the myth of its medicinal value and the related use of it in medical profession as a cure for many ailments. He afterwards purchased a dispensary in Dublin, and was in practice there during the ravages of the Asiatic cholera.
On January 1851, only a few months before gold was discovered, John Singleton arrived in Victoria with his wife and seven children, following the footsteps of his brother who came two years earlier. He procured a position as medical officer on board the sailing ship Harpley in which he undertook the journey.
Based on his ideals of evangelism and reformation, he opposed capital punishment and began involving in the welfare of prisoners at Pentridge Gaol in Coburg. Due to health issues of his younger child, he moved to Warrnambool from Melbourne and practised there from 1860 to 1864, then to Mount Gambier in South Australia and from there to Marysborough, eventually returning to Melbourne in 1867. While in Warrnambool he was instrumental in the establishment of Framlingham Reserve near Warrnambool. The Framlingham Aboriginal reserve was established for the Protection of Aborigines between Purnim and the township of Framlingham in 1861.
Collingwood was one of the most densely populated suburbs in the Melbourne at that time, with a large working class population, most of whom could not afford medical care. In 1869, Dr Singleton established the Collingwood Free Medical Dispensary, which gave free medical attention to the poor and provided spiritual guidance in adherence to Evangelical principles. Within the first year itself around 3000 people availed the free medical care. Initially the Collingwood Municipality Council pitched in offering to pay the rent of the dispensary but later retracted objecting the evangelical work carried out there. In 1876 a mission hall was established nearby for prayer meetings, Bible classes, Sunday school, the annual old folks’ tea and working men’s meetings.
All these happened during Victoria’s Gold Craze era, when people from all professions left their daily jobs, and went searching for Gold. In his autobiography, “A Narrative of Incidents in the Eventful Life of a Physician”, Dr Singleton wrote, “I had for some time the most extensive practise perhaps in the city, as medical men had gone with the rest to the goldfields”.
Dr Singleton became an honorary corresponding secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Morality in 1869 and was active in establishing Model Lodging house for men in King Street and the Temporary home for Friendless and Fallen Women in Islington Street in Collingwood. The temporary home gave women training in cooking, washing, ironing, needlework and housekeeping.
In 1879, Singleton bought land in Little Bourke Street to build a mission hall and later offered it to Salvation army for its use.
He also instituted a night shelter for destitute women in Collingwood. Widows Cottages for Aged Christian Women were built on the same site later. He opened one for men too, The Blue Bird Shelter in Berry Street.
He was also involved in in a wide range of activities offering a helping hand to the needy and was called ‘perhaps the greatest single charity worker in Melbourne’.
Dr Singleton was also among the clergy who visited Ned Kelly at the Melbourne Gaol after he was captured from Glenrowan. But eventually told not to return by Gaol Governor John Castieau at the insistence of Catholic Clergymen.
At the age of 84, Singleton died at his residence “Ormiston House”, Grey-street in East Melbourne on 30th September 1891 and was buried at the Anglican section of the Melbourne general cemetery. He will be remembered for the benevolent endeavour he laboured untiringly for the homeless, friendless and the poor of the Melbourne City.