[Dr. Roslyn Otzen]

Dr. Roslyn Otzen Continues Her Mission to Honour the Memory of Dr. John Singleton

Dr. Otzen, former School Principal and Deacon of Collins Street Baptist Church, received her Doctorate for her history of the Melbourne City Mission and its founder John Singleton.

John Singleton, Chemist and Physician, was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1808. He married Isabella Daunt in 1834 and they had 10 children.

In February 1851, having borrowed money for the trip, 'Dr. John' and his family arrived in the Port Phillip District on a fiercely hot day. He quickly set to and constructed beds for his family out of the packing cases used in their travels.

He set up his office at the top end of Collins Street at the time of a cholera epidemic and so was busy right from the start.

An evangelical Christian, he met at the Church all the people who would help him improve conditions for the poor and homeless. He knew Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe and Henry Cooke, one of the founders of "The Age" newspaper. His friends were from all professions. Some found Dr. Singleton too Christian and thought him a bit of a crank. His patients liked him and he made intensive studies of those with tuberculosis (TB).

He was a teetotaller and didn't please his fellow doctors when he argued that there was no place in medicine for the use of alcohol. He considered rest, fresh air and good food was a better option. In 1854 he organised a huge petition which declared that alcohol was bad for health.

His wife and her best friend Hester Hornbrook, also an evangelical Christian, door knocked in Collingwood, Fitzroy and Carlton and obtained about three thousand signatures from women who were against alcohol. This petition which is held by the Public Record Office contains not only names of women but also their addresses.

Hester Hornbrook established 'Ragged Schools' around Collingwood with donations to cover the teachers' wages. During the gold rush many women and their children were left behind with no means of support and when their luck ran out on the goldfields, their husbands could not find alternative work.

Hester observed that people living in poverty abandoned their religion, lost order in their lives and everything became chaotic. She suggest to Dr. John that some sort of city mission might be helpful, and a public meeting which attracted hundreds of people was held.

It was decided that spiritual and social order were needed and an interdenominational Mission was founded in 1854. The first missionary was Joseph Greathead. In one of his diaries he noted that he had visited a house at 10.00am and found a group of Irish girls drinking, and playing cards - a 'devil's den.' He encouraged many 'street' children to go to school and he found that they loved pamphlets on religious stories and noted that they used them like swap cards.

For over 25 years, Dr. John and Isabella visited prisoners at the Melbourne Gaol, and later the new Stockade at Pentridge, governed by John Price. Price was a vicious man who had been at Norfolk Island. As well as stockades around the city he commissioned hulks in the Bay and when Dr. John visited Pentridge he found the prisoners were treated very badly. He and Henry Cooke demanded changes and a Royal Commission was arranged, however only Price and the guards were interviewed. Singleton and Cooke took evidence from others and the results were published in "The Age." After Price was bashed to death with shovels by some of the prisoners the Government stepped in to reform the penal system.

Singleton moved his family to Warrnambool where the plight of aborigines who had lost their hunting grounds prompted him in 1862 to organise a public meeting which led to the formation of the Framlingham Mission.

Back in Melbourne he opened the Collingwood Free Mission Medical Dispensary at 162 Wellington Street to cater for the poor. It became a community centre with a pharmacy, an employment bureau, and provided a gymnasium, calisthenics classes and a choir.

Also concerned about the lack of medical care for children, Singleton, and surgeon William Smith, established a free hospital for sick children in Stephen Street (now called Exhibition Street). A difference of opinion of a religious nature caused a rift in the ladies committee and the Singletons withdrew from the hospital committees.

Dr. John bought cottages around Collingwood to provide accomodation for elderly impoverished women and short term accomodation for newly arrived immigrants.

During the 1890s depression he supported unemployed workers in their protests demanding Government assistance. He set up a 'bread fund' and opened the Mission Hall in Melbourne so people could sleep inside, out of the cold. The Labour party later took up the cause of the unemployed and this led to the development of welfare.

John Singleton lived to the age of 83. He and his wife Isabella are buried at the Melbourne General Cemetery, strangely enough in a grave next to some of my relatives.

Dr. Singleton was an extraordinary, generous man whose works are not recognised as they should be. Today, the Melbourne City Mission, particularly with its Frontyard Youth Services program, remains a leading charity helping the homeless. Dr. Otzen paints a portrait of a sensible, practical and hardworking man.

( The above is a report on Dr. Roslyn Otzen's address at the General Meeting on 9 May 2015 )

( Contributed by Jan Hanslow. PPPG Member No. 1057 )

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