Book Review: “A Spanner in the Works” by Loretta Smith (@HachetteAus @EasternRegional)

A Spanner in the Works: Extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia’s first all-girl garage (Hachette Australia, March 2019) by Loretta Smith

A well-written biography illustrates how a person experiences the events in their life. It presents a comprehensive and captivating story that reveals their values and visions. By analysing how that person’s views and actions are assessed by their contemporaries, it highlights not just their character but the characteristics of their time.

A case at hand is Loretta Smith’s superbly-titled book, A Spanner in the Works, which tells the extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia’s very first all-female garage.

Alice was born in Malvern, the well-to-do suburb of Melbourne, in 1897. Her father Joshua Anderson, together with John Monash, offered civil, mining and mechanical engineering consulting services across Victoria.

After a series of reckless business decisions and failures to secure work overseas, Joshua relocated his family to Narbethong in 1907. Here, in isolation and poverty, Alice learned to be resourceful and resilient, always ready to take on life’s challenges.

As automobiles became increasingly popular in Australia, Alice’s father launched a transport service between Healesville and Alexandra in 1915. From the mechanics working there, the girl quickly obtained driving skills and knowledge of motorcar maintenance and repair work.

In 1916, at the age of 19, Alice became the first woman to singlehandedly drive an automobile over the Black Spur. She proceeded to launch her own motor touring business, using a 1914 Hupmobile – a birthday present from her father after he failed to pay it off – to drive families across the Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges.

Highly innovative and entrepreneurial, Alice was the first woman in Australia to provide a private motorised service to the public. Having become a fully licensed mechanic in 1918, she launched Miss Anderson’s Motor Service in Kew, an inner suburb of Melbourne, It was an all-women garage, which sold petrol, repaired cars, taught driving, and offered 24-hour chauffeur service.

In 1920 there was one car for every 55 people in Australia, and by 1929 it was one for every 11. As women became increasingly interested and involved in driving, Alice shared her experience of learning to operate, maintain and repair cars via newspapers and magazines. In Australia, she was by far the most authoritative voice on women and motoring.

In 1926, Alice was sponsored to drive a Baby Austin from Melbourne through South Australia to Alice Springs. Soon after her triumphant return from the 2,400-kilometre-plus journey, her life was tragically and violently cut short. She was only 29

The book is a celebration of Alice Anderson’s legacy. In vivid details, it portrays not only the inspirational life of a pioneer, but how she stood out at a time when much of our society was still uncomfortable with the idea of women being free and independent in the public domain.

Whether or not you subscribe to the common view of the early 20th century that “women drivers lack the nerve and judgement of the stronger sex”, A Spanner in the Works is a worthy read. Not just a biography – it is a brief history of motoring in Australia. Highly recommended.

Extra Reading: “Pioneering female mechanic Alice Anderson back in the spotlight” by Carolyn Webb, The Age, September 18, 2015. Here is an image of Alice Anderson sourced from the University of Melbourne Archives via this article.

Studio portrait of Alice Anderson. Source: University of Melbourne Archives.

Note: This book review was originally titled “Biography of female entrepreneur a worthy read”, and published under the title “Entrepreneur biography a worthy read” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, June 6, 2022, P.26.

Update August 17, 2022: Here is further reading on Miss Anderson’s Motor Service, written by Sarah Matthews at State Library Victoria, August 5, 2022.

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