Our history

We’ve been around since 1854, originally established by the Churches of Melbourne, and since then our organisation has experienced extraordinary change. We have now grown to become a contemporary, non-denominational, community services organisation, recognised for our leadership, diversity, innovation and inclusive approach.

Our story begins

Early MelbourneIn the 1850s, boatloads of immigrants flooded into Melbourne seeking their fortune on the goldfields but most of them never made it out of the city.

Many families broke up as the men headed for the goldfields, leaving their wives and children in Melbourne, living in appalling conditions. The city's population mushroomed from approximately 80,000 in 1854 to a staggering 500,000 in 1891.

With these staggering numbers of people in our city, desperate and homeless, the women, children and wounded, set up home in the only place there was land left, erecting tents on swampy land that is now South Melbourne. In fact, our Head Office building is located in this very area. Here we respect and acknowledge that the Boonwurrung people are the Traditional Owners of this land.

Almost overnight a sprawling, decrepit neighbourhood of canvas and mud sprang up. The area, which became known as Canvas Town, soon became a massive slum, home to tens of thousands of migrants from around the world. Collingwood Flat, beside the Yarra, soon echoed Canvas Town.

Melbourne in the 1850sThese were harsh and brutal places, yet there was a sense of pride in the people there; despite all the odds, life hadn’t beaten them. Government and private citizens alike were totally unprepared for the sudden massive influx of people and the terrible hardships they faced. There was no organised help for those in trouble. The sick and poor often died in the jail hospital, under arrest for vagrancy, because there was no public hospital in Melbourne.

A frail elderly widow, Hester Hornbrook was a dear friend of Dr John Singleton and his wife Isabella . Hester and Isabella went out daily to seek help for the desperately needy, collecting money from the better off and rousing their conscience. Dr John, a medical practitioner, pharmacist and compassionate reformer, worked hard to persuade right-thinking people to take notice of the distress around them. He followed his Christian principles with John Wesley like fervour and evangelical zeal.

Hester believed creating a City Mission along the lines she had seen in London, was the only way to get some organisation into dealing with lost and needy people.

Dr John agreed. They lobbied the churches of Melbourne to support their vision and at a public meeting of 650 people on August 11, 1854, the proposal for a mission was accepted. This marked the beginning of our organisation – Melbourne City Mission was born.

Our organisation has adapted and changed over the years but what remains the same is our goal to support people experiencing disadvantage, responding to their needs and the changing needs of the communities we work with.  All of our work is reflected in the organisation’s principles of ‘a hand up, not a hand out’.

Visit our founder section for more information about Dr John Singleton and Hester Hornbrook.

More information