Author Loretta Smith first came across a snippet about Australia’s first female mechanic Alice Anderson in the biography of another trailblazer, landscape designer Edna Walling. Unlike Edna, there had been little written about Alice.
“I thought, why haven’t I heard about this interesting woman (Alice)? She set up this motor garage on her own and employed only women, which was pretty unique for that time,” Loretta says. “When I googled, there was very little on her, so I started going down the rabbit hole.”
Loretta spent 10 years researching and slowly piecing together details of Alice’s life for her biography, A Spanner in the Works.
“It took a lot of time, effort and determination, going to various archives and speaking to various people, and seeking out and finding relatives of some of her garage girls.”
Born in 1897, when cars were first introduced to the world, Alice Anderson grew up in Narbethong, where she learnt to hunt, horse ride and drive a car. Her father Joshua was an engineer, who worked for a time with John Monash on bridge construction, but his entrepreneurial schemes usually ended in financial loss, which is how Alice inherited the 1914 seven-seater Hupmobile Tourer he had bought for a transport cooperative – along with the debt – when she was 18 years old.
“Alice learnt how to drive and started taking people on tours,” Loretta says. “She then moved to Melbourne and wanted to learn to be a mechanic and set up her own garage, which she did against the odds,” Loretta says.
Loretta found information about Alice in Susan Priestley’s book, The Crown of the Road: The Story of the RACV, and also in the RACV archives. In A Spanner in the Works, Loretta writes that one of the keys to Alice’s success was good public relations.
Alice proposed a Victorian women’s automobile club and wrote a letter in May 1918 to the RACV’s all-male General Committee, asking if the Club could provide a writing room and lounge for lady members.
In response, the RACV, which had acquired its “Royal” prefix in 1916 in honour of its assistance conveying returned wounded soldiers from the ships to the city, announced when it moved to the Equitable Building on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth streets there would be a separate ladies’ lounge.
“However, to Alice’s frustration, the arrangement was short-lived,” Loretta writes. “A dramatic increase in membership meant the premises became more crowded than expected and the ladies’ lounge was the first space to be sacrificed.”
The first meeting to set up the Women’s Automobile Club of Australia took place in August 1918 and Alice was named one of three vice presidents. The members agreed to support the Red Cross Volunteer Motor Corps, which along with the RACV had been transporting the soldiers. Alice’s name is not mentioned again in the records and in 1928 the women’s club amalgamated with the RACV.
Loretta says Alice’s death in 1926 was mysterious. She had been on a road trip in an Austin 7 (affectionately known as a ‘Baby Austin’) to Alice Springs with her friend Jessie Webb, who was the University of Melbourne’s first female history professor.
“Less than a week after returning, Alice was found with a fatal bullet wound to the head in the back of her garage,” Loretta says. “There is a real dramatic arc to her story, as well, and there are producers interested in looking at a film or a mini-series. That is how interesting her story is to people.”
For the complete story behind Alice’s life and death, you’ll need to read A Spanner in the Works. “There is a whole mystery around her death – they didn’t have the same forensics that they do now – but I’m 99.99 per cent sure I have solved it,” Loretta says.
A Spanner in the Works: The extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia’s first all-girl garage by Loretta Smith, Hachette Australia, RRP $32.99