Established at 162 Wellington Street, Collingwood in 1889 as the Collingwood Free Medical Mission Dispensary ‘for the relief of the destitute sick of every creed and clime’, it was the first Dispensary in the Colony of Victoria. Responding to public crises resulting from industrialisation and urbanisation, dispensaries provided medications, clinical care, home visits, minor surgery, casual dentistry and vaccinations.
Since 1840, industrial Collingwood remained a ‘hard-bitten, hardworking, hard living and hard drinking neighbourhood’ (Missionaries, Radicals & Feminists: A History of North Yarra Community Health by Hamish Townsend, page 29). Known as ‘Singletons’ after its founder, reformer, philanthropist and evangelical Christian, Dr John Singleton the dispensary viewed ill-health as largely a result of ‘intemperance’. Patients were encouraged to read scripture and pray while waiting for medical attention. Female doctors were controversially engaged.
Demand for medical services by people living in poverty greatly increased during times of economic depression (1890s and 1930s) and during World War I and II when Singleton’s distributed welfare. The 1970s saw the rise of social justice movements and a new generation of educated, progressively minded health professionals. The brief tenure of a progressive federal government under Labor’s Gough Whitlam provided funding and support for community health. The ethos of the health service evolved from providing welfare to the ‘deserving’ disadvantaged to one aimed at providing healthcare to all and promoting empowerment, agency and advocacy.
In 1977 the organisation moved to 365 Hoddle Street as the new Collingwood Community Health Centre. Occupational health was a focus, as was an emphasis on prevention and conducting ‘hyper local’ research. Research outcomes into the health effects of lead petrol on the local community – after the much-opposed construction of the nearby Eastern Freeway – contributed to the 2002 phasing out of lead petrol in Australia.
The Carlton Community Health Centre was established in 1979 at 622 Lygon Street while the Fitzroy Community Health Centre resulted from the 1982 separation of St Vincent’s Hospital with its community health centre, Depaul. The rise of economic neo-liberalism saw a political climate of deregulation and privatisation, with governments increasingly seeking private provision of health and education services. A ‘Campaign against Entrepreneurial Medicine’ mobilised the Fitzroy Community Health Centre and the Collingwood Community Health Centre, amongst others, against private super-clinics establishing themselves in the area.
The late 80s saw the rise of youth homelessness, drug taking and the appearance of HIV/AIDS. Collingwood Community Health Centre provided a ‘drop in’ service which included a needle exchange program. Funded federally, the needle exchange program represented a highly successful national strategy to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.
The Jeff Kennett-led Liberal Party in the early 1990’s resulted in funding cuts to community health centres and a move toward amalgamation, despite the neighbouring community health centres having little contact with each other. More than 500 users took to Brunswick Street to demonstrate on 17 May 1993 and the Collingwood site was occupied for nine months. Carlton, Collingwood and Fitzroy Community Centres amalgamated as North Yarra Community Health (NYCH) in 1994, with an enforced emphasis from the government on clinical services over community participation, development and liaison programs. While core operational funding had contracted significantly there was however an increase in program delivery budget. Reconnecting with the community became a priority and public members and groups attended weekly meetings, addressing the broader view of community health.