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Embling, Thomas (1814–1893)

by Richard Kennedy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Thomas Embling (1814-1893), medical practitioner and parliamentarian, was born on 26 August 1814 at Oxford, England, son of John Embling, breechesmaker, and his wife Sarah, née Edwards. Apprenticed at 16 to an apothecary, he studied medicine in London (M.R.C.S., 1837) and became a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in 1838. He went into practice at Brompton. On 1 August 1839 he married Jane Webb Chinnock, an upholsterer's daughter; they had three sons and four daughters.

Both Embling and his wife suffered from 'pulmonary affections'; they decided to migrate to Australia and arrived in Melbourne in 1851. Embling had acquired from visits to Hanwell Asylum a pioneering interest in the 'moral treatment' of insanity, and in January 1852 he became the first resident medical officer to Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum. His first impressions 'were those of great astonishment not unmixed with pain … I saw much that was incomprehensible, and much disreputable'. As a matter of principle he removed manacles and other instruments of physical coercion from patients, but the lay superintendent countermanded his orders. His reforms drew the wrath of the colonial surgeon and a select committee of inquiry into the asylum in August found evidence of mismanagement although it reported that Embling's 'whole offence' was 'too much conscientiousness'. Embling resigned and returned to private practice at Gore Street, Fitzroy, where he devoted much attention to the suffering poor.

Embling publicly espoused the popular movement at Eureka in December 1854 and took over the chair at a public meeting which passed resolutions in favour of the diggers' cause. At the Legislative Council elections in 1855 Embling opposed one of Sir Charles Hotham's territorial magistrates and won the North Bourke seat with a triumphant majority. Next year he supported the eight-hours movement and is credited with coining the slogan, 'Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest'. In the first elections under responsible government he successfully campaigned for the working-class stronghold of Collingwood on a moderately radical programme; as an Independent by faith he won strong support from Dissenters by his vigorous opposition to state aid to religion. In the House Embling twice voted unavailingly to keep the Haines ministry in office. In 1858 his state aid abolition bill lapsed, and as an ardent protectionist he proposed in 1860 a select committee on tariffs which was postponed. At times he displeased some Collingwood radicals by commending too warmly the rights of property. The Nicholson Land Act, he thought, would show people 'the mistake they had made in listening to a class of agitators'. In the 1861 election he opposed the Heales ministry and was defeated. Two years later at a meeting of the second Anti-Transportation League Embling pledged that 600 Collingwood men 'were prepared to go to Western Australia and prevent the landing of the convicts'. Despite the Protection League's doubts about his loyalty his candidature was endorsed in 1866 and he was re-elected. In the following political turmoil Embling was rumoured to have been given the chance to form a cabinet but he was too unreliable as a party man to succeed. Increasingly he dissented from (Sir) James McCulloch's financial policies and at the next elections withdrew from politics.

Embling returned to medicine and his diverse enthusiasms: he advocated penny banks, bathing, medical certification of death, northern exploration, the introduction of camels and llamas, and a transcontinental railway. He died of 'senile debility' at Hawthorn on 17 January 1893, survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons, both doctors. He left instructions that his burial service should be Anglican, the minister an Independent and the formalities those of the Funeral Reform Association. He left an estate of more than £22,000.

Opponents accused Embling of wanting force of character and of 'trimming', but he was an opportunist only in the party political sense, for the cast of his mind was utopian. His eccentricity often derived from superior rationality and independence: for instance, at a time when 'Chinamen' were thought to be inferior undesirables, he welcomed their immigration. As a friend of generous causes he 'wished to make himself useful to the public'.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • K. M. Benn, ‘The Moral Versus Medical Controversy: An Early Struggle in Colonial Victorian Psychiatry’, Medical Journal of Australia, 2 Feb 1957, pp 125-30
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 July 1853
  • Australasian, 21 Jan, 25 Feb 1893
  • G. R. Quaife, The Nature of Political Conflict in Victoria 1856-57 (MA thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964).

Citation details

Richard Kennedy, 'Embling, Thomas (1814–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/embling-thomas-3483/text5335, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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