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John Le Gay Brereton (1827–1886)

by H. P. Heseltine

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John Le Gay Brereton (1827-1886), physician and author, was born in Bawtry, Yorkshire, England, son of Thomas Le Gay Brereton, doctor of medicine, and his wife Mary Ann, née Taylor. John studied medicine at Edinburgh (M.R.C.S., 1851), became a licentiate of the Apothecaries' Company, London, and received his M.D. from St Andrews University in that year. In later poems he recalls Hawthornden with affection and mentions visits to the Grampians. His acquaintance with these districts probably dates from his student days in Scotland, where he may also have met the artist brothers, David and William Bell Scott. Brereton practised medicine in the north of England, probably near Doncaster. As a poor-law surgeon he saw epidemic outbreaks of both typhus and diphtheria. While still in England he was converted to the principles of homeopathic medicine and became an early disciple of David Urquhart, the diplomat who introduced the Turkish bath into Britain. Brereton first saw it in practical operation at Dr Richard Barter's hydrotherapy centre in County Cork.  

At 29 in Brixton Brereton married Mary Tongue. About this time he must have met Thomas Mort, who later claimed to be responsible for bringing Brereton to New South Wales. The Breretons arrived in Sydney in 1859; they rented Andrew Garran's house at 213 Macquarie Street and later moved to Richmond Terrace. Soon after his arrival Brereton set up in medical practice and in Spring Street established Sydney's first Turkish bath. It was so successful that larger and improved quarters were opened in Bligh Street on 14 March 1861. He was involved in the life of the colony in a variety of ways. In the 1860s he delivered a number of public lectures on such topics as the Turkish bath, cremation and rational clothing. He was made a justice of the peace and appointed medical visitor to the lunatic asylum at Tarban Creek (Gladesville) but was dismissed from this position after some controversy in 1865. In 1881 he gave evidence before a committee of the Legislative Assembly, opposing the principle of compulsory vaccination. Throughout his life in Sydney he was on terms of close friendship with many of the leading members of the literary community, numbering among his acquaintances the poet, Henry Kendall.

In 1860 Brereton bought the farm cottage, Osgathorpe, in Gladesville, a building supposed to have been Ludwig Leichhardt's last lodging place before his fatal expedition in 1848. Brereton made many alterations and additions to Osgathorpe, and in 1882, having achieved sufficient prosperity to retire, moved there permanently. He died aged 59 on 28 October 1886 from Bright's disease, and was buried in St Anne's cemetery, Ryde. He was survived by his wife, five sons and two daughters; five children had died in infancy. The most notable of his children was John who became Challis professor of English in the University of Sydney.

Although a Quaker in early life, Brereton was converted to the doctrines of Swedenborg and in Sydney became a leader of the New Jerusalem Church. In 1874 his wife translated into English a catechism written in French by Bishop Francois Bugnion for use in his 'Brotherhood' colonies, and Brereton authorized its printing by the New Church Publishing Society. Most of his own writings are connected with his religious beliefs. His first volume of verse, The Travels of Prince Legion, and Other Poems, was published in 1857 before he left England. In Sydney he produced further books of poetry, Poems (1865), The Goal of Time (1883), and Beyond: And Other Poems (1887). His principal prose works are One Teacher: One Law (1883) and Genesis and the Beatitudes (1887). The works, both prose and verse, tend to be heavily didactic and retain their interest less as imaginative literature than as minor documents in the intellectual and literary history of the nineteenth century.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Oct 1886.

Citation details

H. P. Heseltine, 'Brereton, John Le Gay (1827–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

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© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Bawtry, Yorkshire, England


28 October, 1886 (aged ~ 59)
Gladesville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

kidney disease

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