Alice Anderson in her Kew garage workshop, c1922

A researcher visits our repository

Loretta Smith, Author

Original posted on the Facebook page Alice Anderson Garage Girl.

Alice Anderson in her Kew garage workshop, c1922
Alice Anderson in the Kew Garage workshop working at lathe, c1922, Frances Derham collection 1988.0061, University of Melbourne Archives, OSBA/918

For those who have ever done research, have you experienced the wonder of discovering something unexpected in an unlikely place that stops your heart? I’ve had a few experiences like this through the course of discovering Alice’s story but what I’m about to tell you was the most arresting:

Alice’s eldest sister was Frances Derham, an expert in child art and education. Frances’ archival collection is stored at the University of Melbourne, and I knew from the descriptive list that there Alice material also existed there, as well as private letters etc. written by Alice and Frances’ father, JTN Anderson to their mother, Ellen Mary. Every few days I would take myself off to the Baillieu Library, having ordered a few boxes from the repository—until the staff took mercy on me and gave me permission to visit the repository directly, where I had immediate access to any one of the 100 or so boxes in the collection and didn’t have to walk miles for a car park.

The repository is a bleak single story brick building in a semi-industrial area of Brunswick. Inside is a mishmash of 19th-century antiques and 1980s office furniture. I sat in a room too small for the ancient leather-inlaid boardroom table as men in industrial grey overcoats wheeled out box after box of material. Many researchers had gone before me, rustling up information on Frances Derham, her husband, Alfred Derham, her (and Alice’s) father, JTN Anderson etc. but I believe I was the first to dig around for material specifically connected to Alice.

The treasure I discovered happened to be in a random bag of material containing mementoes of Alice’s brother, Stewart, who had accidentally drowned in 1913, aged 20. There was a photo taken a few days before he died, a piece of red ribbon from his Royal Garrison Artillery uniform—things that had been collected but possibly not touched since they had been put there by a grieving family a hundred years ago. It was in this bag that I discovered two tiny, carefully folded, pieces of paper wrapped around what turned out to be a miniature photograph of Alice in a car. I gently opened the layers, sensing that I was the first to do so and knowing I was not the intended recipient. The writing was Alice’s. Love poems. One famous, written in ink; the other in barely legible pencil, almost a whisper, an original composition from Alice to a secret lover who probably never received them. Alice was 29 when she died suddenly in tragic circumstances. Publicly, Alice was never romantically connected to anyone.

Loretta Smith is an author currently researching and writing a biography of Alice Anderson. Alice Anderson was the first woman garage proprietor in Australia and the sister of Frances Derham, whose papers are held at UMA.

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