by Loretta Smith
in Traces Magazine
From the end of World War I and into the 1920s, Alice Anderson (1897-1926) was considered nothingless than a national treasure. She was promoted as a woman of ‘rare achievement’ and the press wrote glowingly of Miss Andersons Motor Service, situated in the well-to-do Melbourne suburb of Kew.
Alice’s formative years were spent in rural Victoria, where she excelled in bush skills such as shooting and breaking in horses. Her reputation, even at an early age, was as one of the most fierce and resourceful girls in the district.
Young, boyish and full of charm, Alice became the only woman in Australia to successfully pull off an almost impossible feat: without family or husband to back her financially, she built a garage to her own specifications and established the country’s only motor service run entirely by women. Dressed impeccably in masculine chauffeur uniforms, Alice and her band of garage girls epitomised the optimism of the decade as they flirted with the unconventional – often mistaken for men or boys – while servicing the rich and famous in all things motoring.
Alice was also an adventurer, and her most famous road trip saw her make the 1500-mile-plus journey from Melbourne to Alice Springs in a Baby Austin. Thanks to the Austin’s unique design and Alice’s consummate driving skills, the little motorcar managed to survive the severest of conditions with only a flat tyre.
However a few days after her return, 29-year-old Alice was found at the back of her garage, fatally injured from a gunshot to the head. The embodiment of the 1920s modern woman was gone. Only mystery, memories and rumours remained.
A coronial inquest concluded that Alice’s death was accidental. But testimonies at the inquest were full of inconsistencies.
Alice’s Kew garage continued into the 1930s as an all women enterprise but the Great Depression changed the landscape of motoring and public support for women garage workers further diminished until it was men running the garage. The final testament to Alice’s enterprise was literally demolished in the mid-1950s, and replaced by Bib Stillwell ’s car showrooms.
It was Alice’s father, Joshua Anderson, a brilliant engineer and one-time business partner of John Monash, who laid the foundations of his daughter’s interest in cars.The Andersons were a well-connected, upper middle class family, yet their very clever daughter was forced to leave school early to work for a living. As the third of six children, Alice had more memories growing up in relative poverty in country Narbethong, where the family’s roughly built summer cottage became their main place of residence from 1907. It suited her tomboyish nature, learning to ride horses, shoot and chop wood like a bushman.
One of Joshua’s more successful ventures was the Blacks’ Spur Motor Service he established in Healesville in 1916. When he set Alice up as secretary to the motor service, she convinced the bus drivers to teach her how to drive as well as pull an engine apart and put it back together again. From this point there was no turning back: motoring was Alice’s future,
About the author
Loretta Smith has worn many hats over the years: secondary school teacher, adult teacher/trainer, youth arts worker, research consultant, case manager and team leader in disability, mental health and aged care. She first read of Alice Anderson in The Unusual Life of Edna Walling (Allen & Unwin 2005). Then one of her aged clients with Alzheimer’s dropped a bombshell when she mentioned her mother worked as a driver and mechanic for Alice Anderson. So began her amazingjourney researching, studying, writing and promoting Alice Anderson’s exceptional legacy. Through Hachette, she has just released A Spanner in the Works: The extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia’s first all-girl garage.