• Alice Anderson wearing chauffeur uniform, c. 1918, Frances Derham Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.1988.0061.01551 (Frances Derham Collection, University of Melbourne Archives)
Born in 1926, Alice Anderson, dressed as a boy, taught herself to drive and fix cars, drive cross-country and trained more than thirty female chauffeurs. Why then, have most Australians never heard of her?
By
Sharon Verghis

4 Feb 2020 - 10:18 AM  UPDATED 4 Feb 2020 - 10:27 AM

Imagine the scene. It’s an icy winter’s evening in 1926 in Melbourne. A young woman from the bush slips on her driving goggles, gets behind the wheel of a tiny two-seater Austin 7, and sets off on a pioneering three-week 2,607-kilometre trip to the Never-Never.

She’d already blazed many trails in her short life before today.

Born in a colonial Irish immigrant family in 1897, Alice Anderson crammed several incarnations - businesswoman, inventor, adventurer, mechanical engineer, explorer – into an extraordinary life shortened at just 29 by her tragic gunshot death.

As owner of Australia’s first all-women garage (dubbed "garage girls"), and the first woman to provide a private motorised service to the public, she began smashing through prison bars of gender, class and social conventions from her early teens.

Flying the flag for female entrepreneurs and financial independence, she dressed as a boy, taught herself to drive and fix cars, and trained more than thirty young female chauffeurs at her garage in Kew.

Flying the flag for female entrepreneurs and financial independence, she dressed as a boy, taught herself to drive and fix cars, and trained more than thirty young female chauffeurs at her garage in Kew.

She invented a trolley device that would be copied and patented by an American entrepreneur to global success, built a thriving business patronised by Melbourne’s social elite, led pioneering touring parties through remote stretches of South Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania, and at the time of her death, was learning to fly.

It’s an outsized life with an extraordinary story, begging to be played on the big screen by a Cate Blanchett or Toni Collette. So, why then, have most Australians not heard of her?

It’s a question Dr Pamela O’Neill has been asking in her new research project, Aisling 20/20 Vision, celebrating the lives of twenty Irish-Australian women – including Anderson - who have shaped Australia.

A collaboration between the Consulate-General of Ireland and the Aisling Society of Sydney which O’Neill heads, the project spearheads a program of events including a one-day symposium at the State Library of NSW on the weekend to mark the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the Consulate in NSW.

Anderson is in extraordinary company.

Her fellow pioneers in the project range from the well-known - author Henry Handel Richardson and Olympic swimming legend Fanny Durack – to those on the margins of history.

Kathleen Butler worked on the Sydney Harbour Bridge - a giant tunnel boring machine being used on the Sydney metro railway project has been named ‘Kathleen’ in her honour.

These include engineer Kathleen Butler, who worked on the Sydney Harbour Bridge (a giant tunnel boring machine being used on the Sydney metro railway project has been named ‘Kathleen’ in her honour); activist and social justice warrior Anne Duffy-Lindsay,  Lizzie Fagan, grandmother of Patrick and Mick Dodson, who successfully fought for inheritance rights denied because of her Aboriginality; Ella Greenham, Queensland’s first female doctor; pioneering barrister Molly Kingston, suffragette Mary Lee.

Collectively, they contributed greatly to Australian life across education, women’s rights, charity organisations, storytelling, medicine, sport, business.

Most, however, remain on the sidelines of history – and this points not only to how narrowly history is written but how profoundly we neglect the contributions of women to Australian cultural life, says O’Neill.

Anderson is a case in a point. It’s an injustice, she says, that such a pioneer languishes in history’s footnotes (a recently released biography by Loretta Smith, A Spanner in the Works, is going some way to revive her legend).

It’s not just women who are marginalised in our writing of history; look at the stereotypes that abound in our telling of the story of Australian immigration, she says.

The Irish diaspora has been particularly vulnerable to clichés around class and social status, framed around depictions of working-class uncouthness, rigid Catholicism, and educational and social deprivation.

History is written by the victors, and so the story of Australian colonialism is told through the prism of a “very British” mindset.

“A key goal, thus, has been to bring out the richness and diversity of the Irish experience in Australia, to show the huge influence of Irish-Australian contributions across sport and music, politics and medicine, law and engineering. “

For University of Sydney Celtic studies student Anna Usmar, it’s all about reclaiming a rich heritage and identity that has too often been subsumed by the broader story of British colonialism and settlement in Australia.

Anderson’s story, which she spoke about at the weekend symposium, felt personally resonant.

“Her story really hit me in the face. I thought, how can it not be known? It felt like a gross injustice to me, and actually quite baffling.”

“Her story really hit me in the face. I thought, how can it not be known? It felt like a gross injustice to me, and actually quite baffling.”

“She’s roughly the same age as I am now, 29, 30, her garage was in Kew and I grew up around there, but I never heard anything about her.”

Part of this cultural amnesia can be attributed to the fact that unlike the Nordic sagas, “the Irish retelling of history is incredibly sporadic… it’s always been very colourful and moving but not highly detailed.”

Within the cracks of the narrative lie incredible tales like Anderson’s – and it’s crucial, she says, that they are exhumed and retold for new generations.

“Hers is such a modern story.”

She chuckles. “Alice has even inspired me to do a mechanic’s course and get more hands-on knowledge about cars.”

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