When Alice Anderson was found dead in her garage in 1926 it made headlines around Australia. Why? Was it because she was the nation’s first female mechanic – an astute businesswoman who trained and gave female mechanics an opportunity to work in the male-dominated industry? Or was it because her death was a mystery – and remains so to this very day? This was something writer Loretta Smith wanted to find out.
“I felt I had to write Alice’s story,” Loretta reveals. “She’s a national treasure, yet she’s not really remembered anywhere except where she lived.” Walk down any street in the City of Boroondara, covering the suburbs of Kew, Hawthorn and Camberwell in Melbourne, and chances are you’ll meet with someone who’s heard about Alice Anderson – for some, she’s part of living memory. They can recall where her garage stood right up until the 1950s, even though Alice had died nearly thirty years before. But for many other Aussies, her story remains unknown.
Alice was born in 1897, the year the first motor vehicles appeared in Australia. Her parents were Irish immigrants – her father, Joshua, was an engineer and academic who lectured John Monash at the University of Melbourne. The two went into business together before Monash went on to become one of Australia’s greatest military commanders in World War I.
In 1914 Alice left school due to the family’s finances and started repairing motor cars – a very new field of expertise. By 1919 she had raised enough capital to buy a block of land and had a brick garage built to her own design. Alice Anderson’s Kew Garage was born. It sold petrol, repaired vehicles, ran a driving school and offered a 24-hour chauffeur service, either with the garage’s cars or the client’s vehicles stored on the premises. It also took clients on local and interstate tours.
On 17 September 1926 Alice died of a gunshot wound to the head. The official explanation was that she was cleaning the rifle and shotgun and one accidentally fired. She’d taken the guns with her on a recent record-breaking trip to Alice Springs in a 1926 Baby Austin – the world’s smallest manufactured motorcar at the time.
Other speculation was that Alice committed suicide due to mounting financial problems. But Loretta disputes both these theories and believes through her research she has solved the mystery Alice’s death.
For her book, Loretta pored over archives and family records to discover more about Alice’s brief but adventurous life. The University of Melbourne archives were a goldmine, says Loretta. “A lot of material had been donated to the university. I even found handwritten letters from Alice – 100 boxes of them! Some had been folded into tiny little squares, and I don’t think they’d been opened since she died.”
Another rich source were interviews from 1975 and 1984 with Alice’s elder sister Frances Derham. Trove, State Library Victoria and Public Record Office Victoria were also fruitful sources.
Most importantly, Loretta was able to connect with several relatives of Alice and research her forebears through Ancestry. “Through Ancestry I found all those links that had been vague – relatives connected to Alice, particularly outside Australia, that allowed me to piece together her full story.”
Alice was a visionary, says Loretta. “Alice was planning to teach women to pilot planes when she died. She was always looking ahead for her next move. She was a fascinating person; the most amazing woman I’ve never met.”
A spanner in the works: The extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia’s first all-girl garage (Hachette, from $14.99) is available now.
Cassie Mercer is an editor based in Sydney. She founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010, creating a following of 60,000+ readers and working with Australia’s key cultural institutions to bring the nation’s history to life across Inside History’s multi-channel platforms. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s, one was a highwayman in Dublin and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.