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John Singleton (1808–1891)

by Sylvia Morrissey

This article was published:

John Singleton, by Heiner Egersdorfer, 1891

John Singleton, by Heiner Egersdorfer, 1891

State Library of Victoria, 49315064

John Singleton (1808-1891), physician and philanthropist, was born on 2 January 1808 in Dublin, son of William Singleton, a prosperous merchant, and his wife Mary, née Lewis. Articled in 1823 to an apothecary in Kells, County Meath, in 1826 he was placed with a general practitioner for four years and attended medical lectures. He set up practice in Dublin in the early 1830s and received his M.D. on 15 April 1838 from the University of Glasgow. An Anglican, at 16 he had become a total abstainer and at 19 experienced an evangelistic conversion: gaol visiting, tract distribution and medical aid to the poor became part of his daily life. In 1834, after a brief courtship, he married Isabella Daunt of Cork; they had four sons and six daughters.

In 1849 Singleton's elder brother William, a clergyman, migrated to Victoria. He decided to follow, took a post as ship's surgeon in the Harply and arrived with his family in Melbourne on 30 January 1851. In 1851-56 he practised in Collins Street, Melbourne, supporting an Anglican association for promoting temperance, the Victorian Liquor Law League and the Melbourne Total Abstinence Society. He and wife soon began gaol visiting; he was opposed to capital punishment and interceded with Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe on behalf of some condemned prisoners. In January 1855 he moved to a farm at Merri Creek and started visiting near-by Pentridge gaol, whose governor, J. G. Price, opposed his ideals of evangelism and reformation: their antagonism was noticeable in Singleton's evidence in December 1856 to the select committee of the Legislative Council on penal establishments.

Not robust, Singleton had weak eyes and suffered from severe headaches. Partly for health reasons, he practised in Warrnambool in 1860-64, Mount Gambier in South Australia in 1865 and Maryborough in 1866-67, forming total abstinence societies. His active interest in Aboriginal welfare helped lead to the establishment of the Framlingham Reserve near Warrnambool. In Maryborough and near-by goldfields he organized a Bible society, conducted prayer meetings and distributed religious tracts in various languages. In August 1867 Singleton returned to Melbourne in very poor health. Recovering, he settled in Hawthorn and had his M.D. confirmed by the University of Melbourne in 1868. In early 1869 he established the Collingwood Free Medical Dispensary (now the Singleton Medical Welfare Centre), which had been first suggested by the Melbourne City Mission. The dispensary gave free attention to the poor and provided spiritual guidance from tracts. In 1876 a mission hall was established near by for prayer meetings, Bible classes, Sunday school, the annual old folks' tea and working men's meetings.

From 1869 Singleton was honorary corresponding secretary of what became after 1884 the Society for the Promotion of Morality, which was supported by prominent colonists and had been formed by Bishop Perry, Judge Pohlman, Sir W. F. Stawell and others. Of the organizations commenced by the society, Singleton had most to do with the Model Lodging House for men in King Street, and the Retreat for Friendless and Fallen Women in Islington Street, Collingwood (now Singleton Lodge). In September 1870 he joined the newly established children's hospital as physician, but withdrew about a year later after religious differences with the managing committee. Singleton bought land in Little Bourke Street in 1879 to build a mission hall and in 1883 offered the use of it to the Salvation Army. Encouraging the army in its gaol visiting, he gave it the use of the Collingwood mission hall and laid the stone for their Collingwood citadel. In the 1870s he had initiated a public appeal known as the 'Singleton Bread Fund' for the unemployed; he also instituted a night shelter for destitute women, Widows' Cottages in Collingwood, a mission to the blind, the West Melbourne overnight shelters for men and the Women's Model Lodging House, Melbourne. His gaol visits continued until 1891.

Singleton supported the employment of women in medical practice. He read papers to the Medical Society of Victoria: on mortality in Victoria (1870), on the use of alcohol as medicine (1874), on phthisis (1876) and typhus fever (1878). In 1871-91 he lived at Ormiston, East Melbourne, where his daughters Elizabeth and Anna conducted a school for young ladies. His sons John Wesley, William Daunt and Robert Henry were associated with the Collingwood dispensary. Predeceased by his wife in 1886, Singleton died at Ormiston on 30 September 1891 and was buried in the Anglican section of the Melbourne general cemetery. Just before his death he had published in Melbourne his memoirs, A Narrative of Incidents in the Eventful Life of a Physician. Portraits of him are in the Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, and the Singleton Medical Welfare Centre.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men (Melb, 1887)
  • P. Dale, Salvation Chariot: A Review of the First Seventy-One Years of the Salvation Army in Australia, 1880-1951 (Melb, 1952)
  • Church of England Messenger (Vic), 8 Sept, 3 Nov, 1 Dec 1871
  • P. Dale, ‘Dr Singleton lives on’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 26 (1954-55)
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 Oct 1891
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Oct 1891, 12 Nov 1932
  • A. M. Mitchell, Temperance and the Liquor Question in Later Nineteenth Century Victoria (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966)
  • Children's Hospital, Annual reports 1870-78 (Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne)
  • Collingwood Free Medical Dispensary Minutes, 1870, and Annual Report, 1880, 1885, 1889, 1891 (Singleton Medical Welfare Centre, Collingwood, Melbourne).

Citation details

Sylvia Morrissey, 'Singleton, John (1808–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Singleton, by Heiner Egersdorfer, 1891

John Singleton, by Heiner Egersdorfer, 1891

State Library of Victoria, 49315064

Life Summary [details]


2 January, 1808
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


30 September, 1891 (aged 83)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.