Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Anderson, Alice Elizabeth (1897–1926)

by Georgine Clarsen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Alice Anderson, n.d.

Alice Anderson, n.d.

University of Melbourne Archives

Alice Elizabeth Foley Anderson (1897-1926), garage proprietor, was born on 8 June 1897 in Melbourne, third of five children of Irish-born parents Joshua Thomas Noble Anderson (Anderton), engineer, and his wife Ellen Mary, née White-Spunner. Joshua, sometime partner of (Sir) John Monash, was an inept businessman. Alice's childhood was spent in relative poverty in the family's bush house near Narbethong, outside Melbourne. Hers was an unconventional upbringing for a middle-class girl. She wore utilitarian clothing such as bloomers and men's boots, was an excellent horsewoman, became skilled at hunting and fishing and learned to drive and repair charabancs at the local co-operative bus service. After five terms as a day pupil at the Church of England Girls' Grammar School (Merton Hall), Melbourne, she left in 1914, family finances preventing her finishing secondary school or entering university.

Instead, Anderson developed her own business in the newly emerging field of motor-vehicle service and repair. She began part time, as an 18-year-old clerical worker with one touring car, and soon developed an after-hours business taking parties on picnics into the Dandenong Ranges. By 1918 she was working full time from the backyard of a house in Kew. By next year she had raised the finance for a block of land in Cotham Road, and had a brick garage built to her own design. The Alice Anderson Motor Service offered everything then expected from motor garages—petrol sales, vehicle repairs, a driving school, a 24-hour chauffeur service, either with the garage's cars or the client's vehicles stored on the premises—and organized chauffeured tourist parties on interstate trips. It also provided services to educate women in the new technology. Driving classes included mechanical instruction on demonstration engines; for an extra fee women could work alongside mechanics on their own cars; a programme enabled women to work as pupil-mechanics to learn the mechanical side of motoring.

Anderson was a member of the Lyceum Club, Melbourne. Her all-women business, though it struggled financially, became famous throughout the city's eastern suburbs and employed as many as eight khaki-uniformed chauffeusses and mechanics in the early 1920s. Short and energetic, with shingled hair, Anderson usually dressed in uniform and peaked cap. Press articles were written about her and she contributed motoring columns to Woman's World. Attempting to build on ideas of female independence expressed during World War I, she declared that her ambition was to turn garage work into a profession suitable for women. That ambition was not to be tested. In August 1926 she visited Alice Springs with her friend Jessie Webb. On their return Anderson died of a gunshot wound to the forehead on 17 September in hospital at Kew after having accidentally injured herself while cleaning firearms. She was buried in Boroondara cemetery with Anglican rites. Her estate was sworn for probate at £5195.

The garage continued with her friend Ethel, sister of Freda Bage as the new manager, though with less success. It was still operating in 1942 when the last of the staff left to join the women's services in World War II. Anderson was part of a generation who conceived of women's advancement in terms of economic and professional equality. Long before organized feminists took up the slogan, she had chosen to 'give a girl a spanner'.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Lake and F. Kelly (eds), Double Time (Melb, 1985)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • Australian Motorist, 2 June, 1 Dec 1919
  • Home (Sydney), Dec 1920, p 74
  • Adam and Eve, June 1926
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 Aug, 17, 18 Sept 1926
  • Argus (Melbourne), 18 Sept 1926, p 41.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Georgine Clarsen, 'Anderson, Alice Elizabeth (1897–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/anderson-alice-elizabeth-12772/text23041, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Alice Anderson, n.d.

Alice Anderson, n.d.

University of Melbourne Archives

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