She ran Australia’s first all-female garage but Alice Anderson needed another challenge. Why not drive her tiny car to the Red Centre?
by Loretta Smith.
MELBOURNE, AUGUST 6, 1926
It is early evening and the ladies of the Lyceum Club are gathered for a supper meeting in the members lounge. The view from the fifth floor of the English, Scottish and Australian Bank building on the corner of Queen and Collins streets is an admirable one, especially at twilight when the sun shimmers on the Yarra and across to Port Phillip Bay. However, at this moment, all eyes are focused on the motor car that has just parked in the street below.
The tiny Austin 7 would not have merited a second glance except for the huge pile of luggage stuffed in the back seat and tied to its exterior. It has been stripped to its essentials; even its doors have been removed to make room for the hefty cargo. Behind the wheel sits its owner, the youthful Miss Alice Anderson. She kills the engine, legs it over the packing sacks and lands on the footpath, revealing driving leathers from head to thigh. Gloves off, Alice peels back her cap and goggles, and shakes out her short, shingled brown curls. She strides round the comer and enters the Gothic-style building, taking the stairs to the fifth floor.
Women in elegant gowns move to greet Alice. They are the creme de la creme of female accomplishment: luminaries such as Frances Taylor, founding editor and business manager of the immensely popular Australian women’s magazine Woman’s World; Dr Janet Greig, the first woman anaesthetist in Victoria; and Georgina sweet, pre-eminent zoologist, current club president and Australia’s first female acting professor in biology.
Alice removes the leather jacket and bulky coat, revealing her petite figure and, instead of frock, shoes and stockings, a masculine shirt, tie and breeches. One of the older members recalls asking Alice for her qualifications when she first presented as a new club member almost eight years before. “Oh, I got through as the pioneer of women in the motoring industry,” she said, her face wreathed in smiles. Not all Lyceum Club members approve of Alice’s dress code but she is nevertheless popular. Unlike most other members she never completed secondary school, let alone university, but her 2B membership, denoting women without academic qualifications who have otherwise rendered distinguished public service is well deserved, for she is an exceptional young woman. Not only is she the first woman in Australia to own and operate a motor garage, hers is the only garage in the country to employ all women staff, be they chauffeuses , tour conductors, mechanics or driving instructors.
Alice’s membership application had been helped along by many University of Melbourne women who frequent her garage in Cotham Road, Kew, just a few miles from the university. The press affectionately call Alice and her employees “garage girls” . Fitted out in masculine chauffeur uniforms or overalls, they are often mistaken for boys or men, and rumours of transgressions of all sorts are rife. But they wear the most practical clothing for the job and, thanks to Alice’s excellent training and firm guidance, are widely recognised for their professionalism. Alice wears mannish clothes because it is her sartorial preference. However, according to her younger sister Claire, who works at the garage on weekends, she impresses upon her employees that it is not necessary for them to ape men or to lose their femininity.
Another person who stands out from the fashionable crowd this evening is Miss Jessie Webb, founding member, previous president and the University of Melbourne’s first female lecturer in the history department. She looks far from elegant in her sensible frock, woollen hat and stout shoes but she is dressed not so much for this evening as for the occasion to follow. Tonight, the ladies of the Lyceum Club are here to farewell Alice and Jessie, her driving companion, on their imminent departure to Central Australia. They will be taking the little Austin 7 on a return trip of 4,800km where few roads exist. Throughout their journey the two women will sit cramped side by side, with barely enough room for a gear stick between them. It will be a feat of challenging proportions.
Both women are well prepared for the trip and Jessie is particularly experienced in unorthodox travel. In 1922, for instance, she ventured from the Cape Peninsula to Cairo with Georgina Sweet, whose friends were so horrified at the whole trip that they refused to see her off. The two survived the journey with the help of porters who carried them in chairs over the roughest terrain and a collapsible rubber bath that Jessie insisted on bringing to keep them both presentable.
Alice has no such tale to tell. At 29 she is 17 years younger than Jessie, and her overseas experiences have been limited to a childhood trip to England and Ireland. One could say the two are odd travelling companions but they are both pioneers in their fields and both believe in the advancement of women. With no husbands to obey and no children to hinder them, they also share the freedom to take on such an adventure.
Alice and Jessie will not be the first to attempt long-distance vehicle travel in Australia. With most of the settler population clinging to the east coast, individuals are testing the limits of motor cars and their own endurance, departing from cities around the continent and driving into uncharted motoring territory over rugged tracks, parched deserts, rocky outcrops, treacherous rivers and creeks. As early as 1912, celebrated motor overlander Francis Birtles was the first to drive a car from the west coast to the east – a 4,200km trip managed in 28 days. However, Alice’s trip is unique in that it will be the first time such a journey is attempted in the smallest vehicle to come off a production line. “If successful, it will be a record trip for a car of its size,” says the Adelaide Mail.
The Austin 7 is fondly known as the Baby Austin and for good reason: its wheelbase is only six foot three inches (190.5cm) with a narrow 40-inch (101.6cm) track. It weighs in at a mere 780 pounds (354kg) – just over half the weight of a Model T Ford. Alice and Jessie are taking just six weeks to drive to the centre and back. Alice has a business to run and Jessie must return to continue her associate professorship as well as additional duties as acting head of the university’s history department. The time-line leaves little room for error.
Few motor cars travelled through the outback. Roads were patchy at best and the engine radiated heat into the cabin,which made travel in daylight hours potentially scorching. Aside from rail, people traversed by camel. Heading north from Adelaide, Alice navigated the Austin carefully, avoiding dangerous stretches of sandy soil and damaging rocks. To be stranded here could spell disaster. For anyone less prepared, it would have been extremely risky. Alice pulled the hood across for shade, rolled up her sleeves and did away with her driving cap. She was happy to have the breeze through her hair and her face and arms tanned while Jessie kept her mosquito-netted pith helmet on and wore long sleeves to protect her delicate skin from burning. As planned, they travelled off the beaten track but always kept the Overland Telegraph in their sights. Operational since 1872, the miraculous strand of electric wire stretching from Adelaide to Darwin not only provided communication between towns but was often the only lifeline for the stranded traveller. The trick was to damage the line and wait in hope for a camel-riding linesman to appear on the horizon.
Each day before sunset Alice and Jessie stopped and stretched. After hours of noise, engine vibration and rough terrain their bodies took time to adjust to the stillness. The air smelled of dried earth and eucalyptus. Sparse scatterings of ironwood and coolabah trees made long shadows across the pebbled desert sand dotted with mulga and spinifex. Galahs, magpies and red-tailed black cockatoos called overhead. After examining the best spot to set up camp, they stomped on the ground to deter venomous snakes and cleared their sleeping space with a shovel.
The two women were still making their way through the desert when they came to the end of their food rations and three-day water supply. The open air increased their hunger and, left with only bacon, bread and jam, Alice took the on-board rifle and shot them something to eat. The only way to quench their thirst was to make billy tea from the warm, brackish water that bubbled up from the mound springs and rusted pipes of man-made bores. Their lips swelled and cracked when they washed their mouths.
The Austin continued northwards. To the east they spotted Lake Eyre; stretches of white pebbles and patches of yellow, pink and lavender stone glared under the sun, but there was not a plant in sight. The little Austin tackled desert plains that had suffered the worst drought in 40 years. Alice and Jessie witnessed a landscape ominously strewn with animal carcasses and bones, and stone piles marking the graves of people who had succumbed to the elements. While the women struggled for food and fresh water, rain finally hit the dust further north. As they drove on, desert flowers burst from seeds that had lain dormant for years, throwing up a carpet of dazzling colour.
On August 20, 14 days after leaving Melbourne, the pair arrived in Oodnadatta, a tiny township south of the Northern Territory border. On crossing the border, their first stop was Charlotte Waters, the site of a desolate homestead. Such homesteads were tiny domestic oases many hundreds of miles apart It was a feat to even find them and the lady of the house was often alone, waiting weeks at a time for her husband to return from working on the station. such was the case with a woman Alice noted simply as Mrs A . The Austin’s noisy little engine and the dust plumes stirring from its tyres brought Mrs A out on her veranda when Alice and Jessie were still a mile away from the house. She greeted her bedraggled guests with great enthusiasm, inviting them to sit around her large kitchen table while she poured the best cup of tea the travellers had tasted in a long time.
Alice gave the Austin its usual once-over. Despite it looking worse for wear, the little car was holding up extremely well. The two women bid fond farewells, Alice promising to post Mrs A pins and needles on her return to Melbourne, which she did. Such basic items were hard to come by in the outback and Mrs A was keen to keep her treadle sewing machine in working order.
Off they drove to Horseshoe Bend on the Finke River, one of the largest rivers in Central Australia. Alice and Jessie were relieved to see fresh water, even though it was mostly shallow. The surrounding area was very sandy and a challenge for any motor car. Here they met a woman who had been on the road for three months. Her husband was bringing down cattle and she was driving ahead in a truck to prepare their camp. The woman looked exhausted, and when she told Alice and Jessie she had just ploughed through 60 miles of thick sand with only an Aborigine to help her, they were not surprised. She could not believe it when Alice and Jessie said they were on a driving holiday. “Anyone who takes a trip through Central Australia for pleasure must be a lunatic!” she cried.
Motoring on, the little Austin passed through Heavitree Gap, a huge crevice from which the MacDonnell Ranges soared. Beyond this gateway to the north galahs and sulphur-crested cockatoos burst from clusters of date palms planted by Afghan cameleers to remind them of home.
Three weeks after starting out, Alice and Jessie finally arrived at their destination, Alice Springs. Not only had the Baby Austin proved more than up to the task of traversing the harshest of conditions, it had achieved what it had set out to do: be the smallest car to travel from Melbourne to Alice Springs – about 2,600km. Covered in red dust, the Austin tooted its arrival and the few townsfolk on the street waved enthusiastically. No one there had ever set eyes on such a tiny motor car.
Less than a week after her return, on September 17, 1926, Alice was fatally shot in the head at the rear of her garage. she was 29 years old. The coroner concluded she had accidentally shot herself while cleaning a revolver.
Edited extract from A Spanner in the Works: The extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia’s first all-women garage, by Loretta Smith (Hachette Australia, $32.99).