Ormiston educational establishment for young ladies
East Melbourne from its earliest days was full of schools.
The larger, purpose-built church schools eventually grew too big for the small parcels of land available and moved to more spacious suburbs; and the smaller privately run schools generally died a natural death when their principals retired or failed to make a go of it.
One exception was Ormiston. This was a school founded by Mrs Margaret Ainslie about 1861. It started in her own home on George St, East Melbourne. Within a few years she moved the school to new premises around the corner in Powlett St, and sold to Miss Nimmo, who moved it around another corner to Gipps St, and again to Clarendon St.
In 1872 while still in Clarendon St, the school was bought by John Singleton, doctor and philanthropist, for his daughters, Elizabeth (known as Grania) and Anne (known as Mercy), who were old girls of the school. In 1877 he rented a large property in Grey St and the school moved to its final East Melbourne address, before moving to Surrey Hills in 1900 and finally, in 1964, merging with Camberwell Girls Grammar. Its junior school still carries the name Ormiston. The Grey St building was demolished in the late 1930s to make way for the existing block of flats, now numbered 129.
Mary Kent Hughes in her book, Pioneer Doctor (1950), describes her great aunts as:
“Golden-haired Grania, with her superb carriage and gracious smile; Mercy, brown-haired and more homely as to features, but with her essential goodness shining in her happy face …”
Many would have thought them set on a path towards marriage but the two were committed to education and prepared to forego all such thoughts in its pursuit. After leaving Ormiston as students the two had stayed on for some years as teachers under Miss Nimmo, so were well prepared for the task ahead.
As well as the school and the family’s private accommodation, the house also provided space for Dr Singleton’s busy medical practice and functioned as headquarters for his many philanthropic enterprises. As well as learning their lessons the students held regular cake-stalls and bazaars to raise funds.
Among the East Melbourne school’s alumni was Ada Tovell (nee Fenton), the first woman to practise as a dentist in Australia. The Australian College of Dentistry was founded in 1897 and Ada graduated M.A.C.D. in 1900. She at once set up her own practice at 161 Collins St.
Two old girls inspired by the Misses Singleton, were the Misses Morris; Edith and Mary, who in 1898 bought Merton Hall in South Yarra, no doubt with the help of their father, William Edward Morris, registrar of the Anglican diocese. The school is now more correctly known as Melbourne Girls’ Grammar. •