Alice Anderson, Australia's First Woman Garage Proprietor

By Loretta Smith

Alice Elizabeth Foley Anderson, born in Melbourne in 1897, entered a world on the brink of “modernisation”: Australia was the latest frontier, a pioneer colony shaking off its convict shackles; there was the groundswell of first wave feminism and, of course, there was the motorcar. At the time, her brilliant engineering father had a successful business with John Monash and together they introduced the most modern of materials–reinforced concrete–to Victoria, in the form of bridges and pipes. Despite this, Joshua Thomas Noble Anderson (JT) was not an astute businessman, and had the family either ‘rolling in money or in rags.’ As a result, Alice’s childhood was spent in relative poverty, much of it in the freedom of the Australian bush at Narbethong in the Yarra Valley sixty-six kilometres northeast of Melbourne. There, she learned to shoot, fish and ride as well as any man. Endowed with her father’s intelligence and her mother’s determination, Alice ignored the traditional bounds of her sex and chose independence over marriage in a most unlikely profession. Denied a university education through lack of family finances she rose to become, in her own words, ‘the pioneer of women in the motoring industry.’ ​ Alice was presented with her first car–a luxurious Hupmobile tourer on her eighteenth birthday in 1915. An extravagant gift from her father, but it came with a hefty price tag. JT had purchased the £700 vehicle on a whim, ahead of establishing his transport cooperative, the Black Spur Motor Service, in Healesville. The cooperative purchased char-a-bancs (large open buses) as an alternative to horse and carriage transport but the board refused to take on the expensive tourer. Unable to afford any more than the £240 deposit (which would have bought a lesser car outright) JT passed the Hup and its debt it onto his enterprising daughter. ​ Alice was overjoyed. She would have been grateful had she received a book and a birthday cake! When all five-foot-three of her slid into the drivers seat she was immediately swallowed up by the enormity of the car’s dimensions: the wide padded leather seat designed for a man of her father’s proportions; the foot peddles she could barely reach, and the steering wheel, the height of which, sat at eye level. But the feel and smell of that fine-grained leather, the wood and freshly painted metal, the pungency of grease and gasoline had her head racing. The char-a-banc drivers at JT’s transport cooperative could teach her to drive. She would get her driver’s license and move to the city. This magnificent ‘present’ would be the ticket to her future. ​ By the end of 1916 Alice had secured a junior clerk position at the Caulfield Town Hall, a suburb adjacent to Malvern, where she had spent her early childhood. Alice was the only female amongst thirty employees. She quickly became a favourite amongst her fellow workers who were taken in by her outgoing charm, wit, warmth, sense of fun and, not least, her Hup, which she proudly drove to work. ‘She used to take the car over to Caulfield and from the moment she was there, she was the darling of the whole staff…they liked the look of the car, she kept it beautiful,’ recalled Alice’s sister Claire. ​ Alice’s touring car was a shining magnet. It was a rare sight, a young woman owning such a large vehicle. Where JT had attempted and failed to promote motor tourism with the Hup, Alice was determined to succeed. Unlike JT—caught in a web of tensions and competing interests back in Healesville—Alice had a willing and ready audience in her Caulfield colleagues. Admiration for the car and her anecdotes about life in the bush had them eating out of her hand long before she suggested, ‘I could take your family up to the Dandenong’s where there (are) lyrebirds and you can see them and I could make you a chop picnic!’ They were more than happy to take Alice up on her offer and were prepared to pay for the privilege. And once the first couple of families had taken a trip the word spread. ‘Get Miss Anderson to take you up there!’ Almost overnight, Alice had every weekend booked out. In 1917, when Alice decided to quit her well-paid wartime position, she was taking a gamble that the Hup would continue to bring in paying customers throughout the week, not just crowded into weekends as she had been doing. Her leap of faith followed the Anderson family song line of ‘doing the unusual, trying new ideas and breaking barriers.’ She carried in her genes the buoyant optimism and adventurous nature of her father but she had also learnt, by way of his failings, that a successful business needed a sound foundation with real potential for growth. If this business was to flourish, one needed to tap into what the public desired and foster good public relations. Alice had a captive audience; word of mouth had worked well but for the business to keep thriving she needed to extend her availability. ​ The idea of a private motorised service was not new: motor garages commonly offered a chauffeur service along with petrol sales, mechanical repairs and driving tuition; and there had been a fleet of motorised taxicabs in existence in Melbourne as early as 1909. The original taxicab fleet, made up of Renaults, were fitted with meters so passengers could observe the charges for every mile driven. Other early cars used as cabs were the Hudson Tourer, Buick and Pearce Arrow. There were companies such as Burton’s and Stanley’s Private Service. These cabs worked the alongside horse-drawn hansom cabs that had transported city dwellers since Melbourne had been established. Up until this time all cabs had male drivers—many ex-chauffeurs—until the first registered woman taxi driver in Melbourne, Jollie Smith began driving in 1918 under the trade name Pamela Brown. ​ The business Alice conducted from the cottage could not be described as a taxi or even a chauffeur service, as was understood at the time. She did not work out of an established motor garage, she did not wait along main streets to pick up clients, nor was she indentured to a wealthy family as their driver. What made Alice’s situation unusual was the rare combination of a young woman owning a beautiful touring car and needing to work for a living. ​ Alice’s full-time motor business began informally in 1917 from the house where she boarded with a Miss Cattach at 67 Cotham Street, Kew. The cottage was a ‘horrid little house (that was) very cramped,’ said Claire, who stayed from time to time. And Mrs. Cattach was a ‘funny old landlady who used to wear total black—bonnets and things—and who was very Scottish-Australian, strict and very economical: she had her bath every Saturday night and she would wash her stockings in the bath. Oh, she was funny!’ Alice kept the Hup in the small wooden shed at the back of the cottage, accessed via the laneway next door. Despite her ascetic quirks, Miss Cattach allowed Alice use of the telephone for business calls, no doubt at a cost. ​ With Alice’s networking abilities, it wasn’t long before she also became the darling of wealthy families with young daughters who wanted to have fun but of course, required a chaperone to keep them from ‘mischief’. Never mind that Alice was no older than many of her charges and no stranger to mischief herself. She had proven herself knowledgeable, reliable and popular as one of the few women drivers in the business. The girls flocked from the city, suburbs and country towns—all to spend a thrilling day shopping or evening dancing and going to the theatre with Alice. When she took a group of young women to town, Alice offered them an array of options. Basing the concept on her weekend tours, she often suggested which shops they may find interesting and lead them to their purchases. In Melbourne CBD, Bourke Street was the retail hub with department stores such as Myer and Buckley and Nunn’s. There, one could sample the latest local and imported clothing and shoes, perfumes, velvets, laces and silk stockings. In and around these stores were the arcades full of boutique shops away from the dirt and noise of the main thoroughfares. The Royal Arcade, for example, connected Bourke with Collins Street, the elite street of Melbourne. This arcade was modelled on those in Paris and London. It had elegant bow-fronted shop windows and a high glass roof decorated with wrought iron and coloured fanlights. ​ The block between Collins and Bourke Streets housed the iconic Coles Book Arcade, said to be the biggest bookstore in the world. It boasted two million books as well as selling a huge variety of stationery, fancy goods and ornamental toys. The main building was three stories high with a glass-roof and balconies that circled a long internal court. To step into Coles Book Arcade was to enter another world where, amongst a dazzling array of books, there were palm trees, live monkeys, a smiling gallery of funny mirrors, confectionary stalls, the ‘goose that laid the golden egg’ and a band that played every afternoon. ​ Afternoon or evening trips were dedicated to theatres and dance halls. In the city, there was the Alexandra Theatre, the Theatre Royal, and the most glamorous of all, the Princess Theatre on Spring Street with its marble staircase and foyer. Light opera and vaudeville were the main attractions, though because of the war fewer overseas actors and travelling troops strutted the stage. Local performers, such as the vaudeville duo Stiffy and Mo (Nat Phillips and Roy Rene) became frontline acts. Dances in town halls and ballrooms across Melbourne and inner suburbs still flourished during the war, though the paucity of men had many young women dancing together, no doubt romanticising after the brave young soldiers who must soon return. Alice enjoyed these outings, shocking onlookers in her driving gear, substituting for absent male dance partners whilst ensuring her girls kept away from ‘mischief’. ​ Personally, Alice had never been one for frocks. She was most comfortable in shirts and trousers, whether driving a motorcar or not. Such attire was novel and daring. Most motoring fashions of the day focussed on the feminine: ‘smart motoring millinery’ such as ‘soft hand-made straw hats with veil attached in all the latest colourings’, ‘beautiful coats and wraps in tweed cloth with fur collars and cuffs’ and soft leather gloves ‘for motoring wear’. As early as 1917 however, concessions were being made for the more practical woman, especially motorists, but only when the situation demanded. These fashions were highly influenced by activities on the Home Front, with an openly mannish, albeit feminine twist. ‘The woman is not born who does not desire to be stylishly clad and shod,’ declares one article, ‘but owing to the increasing demand for practical garments for women motorists, expert designers have given much time and thought to the requirements of “Milady at the Wheel,” and brought before her many garments which ought to charm and satisfy even the most pernickety of the fair sex.’ A newly imported French coat, for example, sported ‘loose mannish lines and big pockets and buckled adjustable belt, similar to an officer’s trench coat’. Designed to be worn with the coat was ‘the new peaked cap, which is ideal for motoring, travelling, and all sports wear’ but had ‘a much slighter peak than a man’s, otherwise it would not have the subtle distinction and air of true elegance that is its great characteristic... Breeches and leggings have been adopted when the occasion demands, and have been invested with womanly charm.’ ​ Alice too wore breeches, laced boots and gaiters, a collared shirt, short tie, three-quarter length belted overcoat, leather driving gloves and peaked cap, though she made no attempt to invest her attire with any more ‘womanly charm’ than her magnetic personality, and with her curly hair cut short as a boy’s at the back and fell forward into a wavy fringe, she was often mistaken for a young male chauffeur. The clothing Alice chose to wear reflected several highly styles: the sporty woman’s horse riding outfit, the uniform of a chauffeur, and our soldiers on the battlefield. The outfit aligned Alice and her business with a powerful trademark impression of adventure, of female daring, commitment and patriotic do-or-die. ​ On reading the first existing business card for “Miss Anderson’s Motor Service”, designed by Alice’s sister Frankie in July 1918, one could have mistaken the business for a fully working garage with numerous staff and facilities. The address was cited as number 67 Cotham Road—Miss Cattach’s cottage—which Alice audaciously named the ‘Kew Garage’. Her two cars, advertised as the ‘seven-seater Hupmobile and five-seater Dodge touring cars, and taxis’ gave the impression of a much larger fleet. On the reverse of the card, not only did Alice provide a detailed tariff for trips and tours; she offered a testing and repair service as well as driving and mechanism tuition, the cost for a “full course” being a rather expensive £10/10. The promotion showed exceptional bravado, coming as it did from a young woman who had just turned twenty-one years old and worked out of an old shed in the backyard of the cottage where she was merely a boarder! Alice was putting herself in direct competition with her male counterparts—who offered such garage services as standard— without the infrastructure. ​ There is no definitive record of when Alice took on her first employee, but an article headed, ‘The First Woman to Run a Motor Garage in Victoria’ in the August 1918 edition of The Australian Motorist, tells us Alice ‘plans to make her business an “all women” organisation” and ‘no man will have a chance on her payroll, but clients of both sexes will be taken care of, and expert attention will be bestowed on their cars.’ This was the most radical, groundbreaking business decision Alice could have made. She was determined to provide women with the opportunity of autonomy and independence as drivers and mechanics both professionally and in their private lives, just as she had done for herself. Alice also set about connecting more generally with women of motoring interest and influence to create a strong female motoring community that, by extension, would shore up support for her business. The August 1918 edition of the Australian Motorist not only mentioned Alice’s latest garage venture, it also noted that, ‘Miss Anderson wrote to the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria a short time ago asking if they would provide rooms for members, adding she would guarantee an additional number of women members to warrant the expense of additional accommodation.’ ​ The following meeting on 19 June 1918 noted that Alice’s statement ‘that if the club could provide a writing room and lounge for lady members she is confident she can secure quite a number of ladies as members. It was agreed to reply stating we are endeavouring by every means possible to obtain new premises where we provide ample for ladies but in our present ones our accommodation is so limited that there is absolutely no space which we could set apart for this purpose.’ Alice clearly assumed women did need and want their own separate areas, and this assumption appears not to have been disputed. It is clear from the General’s Committee’s minutes at the time that a women’s section at the club was genuinely considered and it was only a lack of space that held the club back from fulfilling Alice’s request. ​ However, while there may have been an issue of space and the Automobile Club of Victoria (as it was initially named) had accepted women members since 1909, not every member of the all male board, it seemed, was keen to support a women only section. An off-the-cuff comment to a Herald representative by the club’s solicitor, Mr Fay, in 1916 did not necessarily reflect the board’s view on women drivers but his remarks nevertheless revealed a pervading chauvinism. ‘Women drivers lack the nerve and judgement of the stronger sex,’ he said. They are not so alert as men, and become confused in a crisis. They are all right on an empty country road, but when quick action is necessary women have not the decision or strength to manoeuvre the car properly.’ And whilst the Journal published a regular ‘Women’s Interests’ column, it also included derogatory jokes about women drivers. ​ When the RACV finally moved to larger premises in 1925 the newly established Automobile Club of victoria Club Journal wrote in its September 1925 edition, ‘To celebrate the formal opening of the rooms set apart for lady members of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, the president (Mr. E.W. Cox) and Mrs. Cox gave an “at home” at the club. Guests were received in the lounge, which was effectively decorated with bowls of peach blossom and Japonica. Later they were shown through the attractive rooms which have just been completed.’ ​ However, in the Journal of April 1926, a different view of the rooms prevailed, making it clear female members would not be viewed separately form their male counterparts. The wife of the RACV President, Mrs Cox, decorated the lounge and card room in ‘exquisite furnishings and luxurious appointments’, which apparently attracted more women members but she (and therefore presumably the club) was ‘against making a separate women’s section’. An experienced motorist in her own right, Mrs Cox emphasised her first consideration was to ‘the Club itself, apart from the interests of any section, whether of men or women.’ ​ Undaunted by the RACV’s response Alice again took advantage of the Australian Motorist journal to promote the idea of a separate women’s motor club and to outline the type of premised required. The article can be read more broadly as an overall call to women to take a stand for gender equality. Afternoon tea parties were not high on the agenda. In fact the ability to further contribute to ‘patriotic efforts’ countered any possible suggestion that the proposal of a women only motor club encouraged any form frivolity or indeed socially unacceptable behaviour (though calling for women with ‘sportive instinct’ may have raised a few eyebrows). The general requirements are a large reading and writing rooms [sic], with refreshments procurable, and somewhere where one can have a warm bath after motoring into town on a dusty or muddy day; a place to rest before making a return journey; and a place to meet other women motorists. A Club would do much to further the interest of women in the motoring world, as well as bringing motorists in touch with one another, when the novice may gain many “tips” from an old hand at the wheel. It may be considered by some that this is not a time to start out on a new venture. But, on the other hand, this is a time when women are showing themselves to be independent, and anxious to advance with the times, to increase their status in the motoring world. The Club, when formed, could assist in many patriotic efforts, and prove its value in a hundred different ways. In time it will form itself into a good, strong body of women with sportive instinct, who have common sense in their composition, and who will eventually reap the benefit of the efforts in this direction. ​ It rests with the ones who come forward at the start to make a “go” of it, and if the right women come forward there is little doubt that eventually they will have a membership to be proud of. ​​ The first meeting to discuss the formation of the club was at the Patriotic Tea Rooms in the Centreway, Melbourne, on 20 August 1918, and included ‘a small but influential membership of experienced, capable and patriotic women drivers.’ Alice did not preside over the meeting but she proposed that the club, based in Australia’s capital city, become a national organisation called ‘Women’s Automobile Club of Australia’. The motion was seconded and Alice named as on of three vice presidents. The members also agreed to involve themselves with the motoring women of the Red Cress Motor Corps who had been supporting soldiers and their families throughout the war effort. ​ Throughout 1918 Alice’s business went from strength to strength. She kept employing and training more women in driving and mechanics, all out of a tiny shed that spilled into a very crowded laneway and onto the street. Alice had all her staff don practical male attire and some, like Alice, cropped their hair and were mistaken for men or boys. They wore either khaki overalls or brown chauffeur uniforms (a more formal version of what Alice had worn when she started) with coat, shirt, tie, breeches, peaked cap and driving goggles. ​ It was time for Alice to seek out her own premises. Since early 1918 she had been eying a large empty block for sale diagonally across the road from number 67 on the corner of Cotham Road and Charles Street. At night, exhausted form a long day managing an ever-increasing list of staff, chauffeur and tour bookings, mechanical repairs and driver training, Alice dreamed of building her own, far from ordinary, purpose-built garage on the site. In her mind’s eye she imagined three storeys: one for the motor repairs, one for the workshop, with the penthouse reserved as sleeping and eating quarters for her growing band of ‘garage girls’—an idyllic place of female industry and collegiate harmony. ​ The first challenge to realising any such dream was finding the necessary male guarantor to underwrite Alice’s bank loan. Her father was more than happy to oblige but the financial world deemed JT too much a risk, mired as he was in a series of failed business ventures. After JT’s guarantee fell through Alice made a decision to keep her financial affairs altogether separate from family. She sought backing elsewhere and would never disclose the name or names of those who eventually supported her, leaving her family to speculate who the mystery man was. ​ Alice succeeded in purchasing the block across the road, number 88 Cotham Road, Kew. In doing so, she made a commitment to building her garage. This was a huge risk for a single woman of twenty-two, especially one who could not rely on family to come to her rescue if disaster struck. That she managed to obtain financial backing at all was testament to the good will that flowed to Alice: she was genuine, ingenious, charming and generally well respected. Her next successful step would be to design and build a garage that was unique, though not quite as extensive as she had first imagined. Her dream garage was not only beyond her budget but the was had created a shortage of available materials. ​ Alice’s garage may have been limited to one storey but the roofline was designed especially high so that noise and fumes could dissipate easily. The practical floor layout was sufficient to house several motorcars, a workshop, spare parts, a lathe, sewing machine, a kitchenette, bathroom and shower, an office—and a bedsit. Alice may not have been able to provide lodgings for her staff, but she made sure she had her own sleeping quarters to keep the business occupied day and night and to avoid the need to pay board. The garage was a traditional male workspace enhanced by Alice’s smarts and everyday needs. (JT may not have been able to support her financially but Alice had clearly inherited a little of his engineering brilliance.) ​ Alice finally took possession of her completed building on Christmas Day 1919, a few days before the new decade. The Great War, the first mechanised war in history, had ended, and the motorcar was free to become the plaything of a new generation. Here Alice was, still in her twenty-second year, with keys to the great padlock that opened the large wooden double doors to the garage she had designed and built to her own specifications. The entrance was a handsome stucco façade, its curved central roofline and decorative pillars displaying the moniker THE KEW GARAGE in large relief above the entrance. There may have been other garages in Kew, but there was no other Kew Garage, just as there was no woman in Australia other than Alice who could call herself a garage proprietor. She had served her apprenticeship and was well placed to encourage others of the fairer sex to experience freedom and adventure behind the wheel of a motorcar.