With the eyes of a stranger: Alice Anderson

Alice Anderson and friend, c1920s. 1988.0061.01553
Alice Anderson and friend, c1920s. Frances Derham collection,1988.0061.01553

Alice was born in 1897. Her father was an engineer and academic. When he lost money in business the family moved to the country where Alice and her siblings learned to ride, hunt, fish and generally be self-reliant. Their lack of funds meant that she could not attend university, even though the family moved in university academic circles because of her father’s former position – her nephew became a long-standing Vice Chancellor of the University. Alice was friends with many women academics, and was a member of the Lyceum Club to which many of them belonged.

After she left school she started repairing motor cars, and by 1919 at the age of 22 she opened a motor garage in Kew – the first garage run by a woman in Australia. She employed only women, giving them a sort of apprenticeship in washing and repairing cars, selling petrol, giving driving lessons and making chauffeur trips because few people had cars at the time.

In 1926 she drove a Baby Austin to Alice Springs with the historian Jessie Webb, one of the first women senior lecturers at the university. Webb did not undertake the return journey. A few months after Alice returned, she died whilst apparently cleaning her gun. She was 29.

There is nothing in her papers to confirms her sexuality. She never married, once writing to her mother that she didn’t “have time to get a man”. According to her statement to police following Alice’s death, her sister had suggested that Alice get married for a rest and Alice had replied “a rest do you call it, I think it is only a change of work. Up in Oodnadatta I just felt that if any decent man up there asked me to bake his bread and darn his socks for him I would do it in spite of the dust, heat and flies…”

Alice Anderson and Jessie Webb in an Austin 7 departing for Alice Springs
Alice Anderson and Jessie Webb in an Austin 7 departing for Alice Springs, 1926. Frances Derham collection, 1988.0061.01552

Alice has been claimed by the History of LGBTIQ+ Victoria report, and historians seem to lean on the side of assuming she was a lesbian, although careful to note the lack of evidence. It also seems rumours of her lesbianism were possibly spread by rival male garage owners to undercut her business.

The historian Loretta Smith, who has written a biography of Alice, described her experience of searching for information and documents:

“The [UMA] repository is a bleak double 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… 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… 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.”

Alice Anderson

Poem, probably written by Alice Anderson, c1920s. Frances Derham collection, 1988.0061.00751 unit 39. Please God/ That I may never look on you with the eyes of a stranger/ That this communion be ever renewed in fresh ways/ That the flame of eternity that is ours be written in light

Alice Anderson

Poem from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, probably written by Alice Anderson, c1920s. Frances Derham collection, 1988.0061.00751 unit 39. If in this shadowland of life thou hast/ Found one true heart to love them, hold it fast/ Love it again, give all to keep it thine/ For love like nothing in the world can last.

Besides these cryptic poems (reproduced here), is a couple of photographs that could be interrogated by researchers for deeper meaning. The first is of Alice and an unknown friend on a trip. There is something in how Alice looks at her, how she holds her waist and the tenderness of the way they hold hands that seems to suggest something more amorous. But is it right to read into photographs something that we want or think should be? And if we don’t are we doing a disservice to history too – are we then not recognising how overwhelming homophobia prevented people from openly living the lives they would if they could?

The second is a photo of Alice and Webb about to leave for Alice Springs. Webb is covered in a shawl to protect her identity from press photographers – one would imagine that going on a weeks’ long isolated car trip with a famously-suspected lesbian may not have been received well by her employers or society at large. The second poem is an excerpt from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. One can only wonder at the possible connection with Webb, who taught ancient history.

That lack of evidence is frustrating and it means – much like her death – that there can only be speculation, we can only look on Alice with the eyes of a stranger despite our own desire to know her better.


Loretta Smith, A Spanner in the Works: The extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia s first all-girl garage, Hatchette Press, 2019

Georgine Clarson, Alice Anderson, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2005


Pride Month in the University of Melbourne Archives

University of Melbourne Archives repository

This Pride Month, the University of Melbourne Archives is showcasing some of its personal archives of our gay and lesbian creators.

UMA is proud to be home to the Victorian Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archives and to support continued community involvement with this collection. This archive began as a community archive of women involved in the women’s liberation and lesbian feminist movements, including some papers of the earliest organisations, campaigns and events. We also hold collections from the University of Melbourne Student records which documents the early gay liberation movement, and some individual activists. Much of these documents are described in the Homosexuality and the University of Melbourne subject guide.

These collections document the important and inspiring movements for LGBTIQ+ rights and liberation and it is so rewarding that they are well-used by researchers. But this month we would like to showcase the more personal aspect of Pride Month in the Archive – a celebration of love in all its colours and an acknowledgement of the barriers that some have had to overcome.

Queer personal archives also hold some particular challenges to researchers and archivists. There is something deeply personal and intimate about the need to know and understand archives when it comes to the records of sex and sexuality – the desire to find yourself or people similar to you in the past, represented in the authority of the preserved record. It is important for LGTBIQ+ people to know that other LGBTIQ+ people existed in the past if for no other reason than the refutation of the offensive argument that this is all some sort of post-modern fad.

But the creation of archives is a social process that reflects broader unequal power structures. Marginalised people – by class, race, sexuality or gender – are far less likely to be represented in the collections. And where they are recorded it is often in ways that reinforce their marginalised status.

Historians have attempted to fill this gap or misrepresentation by reading against the grain – uncovering hidden meaning in records, or by using existing records (such as police files) in creative ways.

Archivists have a responsibility to ensure that records relating to LGBTIQ+ people (and other marginalised groups) are organised, described and accessed in appropriate ways. Determining what is appropriate means taking into account our affective responsibility to the record creators, subjects, donors, community, institution and researchers. The interests of these different groups may clash at times, and the conflict is not always able to be resolved. But an important first step is to celebrate the important collections we hold and acknowledge the incredible humanity contained within archives. All their ambiguities, contradictions, and moments of tenderness are as human as the people who created them.

The comparison of Christ with the Roman Pope: A new acquisition for the Print Collection

Image:  The comparison of Christ with the Roman Pope, 1753. Print Collection, The University of Melbourne

A colourful 1753 Calvinist broadsheet published in Amsterdam was purchased by the Print Collection in 2020 to help illustrate the power of the press on the popular imagination. The Protestant Reformation was an era of ideological and cultural change across Europe from the 16th century onwards and Calvinism was a form of Protestantism which developed in the Netherlands. Broadsheets played an important role in the dissemination of information and news during the Reformation and influenced the everyday people who encountered them.

The ephemeral broadsheet features a hand-coloured engraving at the top which depicts a humble Christ on a donkey on the left and on the right, a prideful Pope, who represents the Catholic Church, arrayed in luxury. The left column of letterpress under the image includes a short biblical text, preceded by the biblical reference, presented as Christ telling the reader what he says or does. The right column is presented as the words of the Pope and rhyming with the words of Christ, which say he does just the opposite.

Kerrianne Stone,

Curator, Print Collection

Meet an Archivist: Georgina Ward

Photograph of Georgina Ward

Today is #International Archives Day and we’re profiling Georgina Ward, Assistant Archivist at the University of Melbourne Archives.You might have met Georgina on the front desk of the Reading Room.

What’s been your most surprising discovery in the repository?

Honestly, for me the most surprising discovery in working with historic records is how they reveal injustices of their time that still exist today.  For example, at UMA we have a series of political posters collected by the Victorian Trades Hall Council Arts Office dated 1975-2004; these were produced by many organisations advocating for child care, refugees, sexual harassment, black deaths in custody, renting rights etc. What is surprising for me is to learn how slow progress is, decades on those exact same issues that are still being campaigned.

Is there someone you’ve discovered in your work who you really admire and if so, why?

One archivist I really admire is Kirsten Thorpe (Worimi, Port Stephens NSW) who advocates for a ‘transformation of practice to centre Indigenous priorities and voice in regard to the management of data, records, and collections’.  In recent years I have been involved in improving access to child welfare records held by UMA and have been highly influenced by Kirsten’s recent work on the Charter of Lifelong Rights in Childhood Recordkeeping in Out-of-Home Care for Australians and Indigenous Australian children and care leavers.  She is inspiring because she successfully facilitates change.

What key piece of advice would you give to a student looking at a career in archives?

I would advise that students place importance on networking, seeking out and engaging in professional development and listening to community needs. Having a broad understanding of the political and ethical landscape and being educated in international contemporary archival practice and of archival practice will ground you in what is a really rewarding professional experience.

You can learn more about the Archives and the work of Georgie and her team here.

Women of the Conservatorium: Ruby Gray

Ruby Gray in costume

The above photograph, found in the University of Melbourne’s Rare Music Collection, portrays Ruby Gray in full stage costume and make-up for an unknown role. Gray was a very early alumna of the University (Marshall-Hall) Conservatorium, graduating as a “Musical associate”: a fine soprano, as well as an accomplished pianist and accompanist. Gray was one of fourteen children of Irish emigrees Dr Andrew Sexton Gray, pioneering ocular and aural surgeon and founder of the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, and Bessie Gray (nee McNalty), ‘one of the belles of early Melbourne’.[1]

Ruby Gray commenced her studies at the Conservatorium in pianoforte and in 1897 was awarded an Exhibition for Performance, a recognition of her considerable talent.[2] At the time the incumbent of the Chair of Music was George William Louis Marshall-Hall. He was a brilliant, and highly controversial character—a bohemian who outraged ‘strait-laced Melburnians’ with his ‘wild’ public behaviour, ardent denouncement of pedantry and advocacy for the ‘power of emotive discipline’.[3] As Ormond Professor of Music, he devised a syllabus that moved away from the established emphasis on ‘pure technique’ and a strict examination system: in fact, on multiple occasions Marshall-Hall attempted to have these examination systems abolished. Instead, the focus of the Marshall-Hall syllabus was to bring out the ‘interpretive sensibility’ and ‘emotional responsiveness’ of each student-musician, working from a solid foundation of technical skill.[4]

In 1898, following the publication of Marshall-Hall’s blasphemously-titled book of poetry, Hymns Ancient and Modern, the Argus newspaper launched a savage attack on both the text and Marshall-Hall’s character, directly disputing his suitability to the role of ‘lecturer to the Young, especially the Young Women, of Victoria’.[5] Ruby Gray joined many of her fellow students in a letter of public protest against the ‘hostile’ treatment of their great and unorthodox professor.[6]

The Argus, (1898-08-12), ‘Professor Marshall-Hall – His Publications’.

From 1899, Gray began accompanying University Conservatorium concerts on the pianoforte as well as singing in performances of opera.[7] Additionally, from 1901, Gray gave a series of solo vocal and pianoforte performances at the Gray family home in Collins Street.[8] By 1902 Gray, by now associated with the Melbourne or Marshall-Hall (and no longer the University) Conservatorium after Marshall-Hall’s University employment ceased, was again acknowledged for her outstanding work as accompanist in acclaimed student performances, conducted by Marshall-Hall himself and often held in the Town Hall.[9] According to one critic, ‘Ruby Gray “accompanied” the voices, which is the highest praise that can be given to accompanists, whose tendency is to give brilliant solo performances and let the voice wander on as it pleases’.[10]

In tandem with her pianoforte career, Gray continued to develop her skills as a soprano. In December 1903 she starred opposite Lovie Mueller in Vaccai’s ‘Romeo et Guillietta’, a standout for many reviewers of the Marshall-Hall Conservatorium Annual Concert that year.[11] The performances of both Mueller and Gray in Romeo et Guillietta were ‘beyond praise’ and the pair received a ‘perfect ovation at the close’.[12] One critic observed that Gray’s Juliet’s ‘Italian style of beauty and slim youthfullness of figure suited her well for this part’ and praised her ‘light and penetrating soprano’ voice, which ‘gave full effect to the music’.[13]

Punch, (1903-12-17), ‘Miss Lovie Muller & Miss Ruby Gray’.

 By 1916 Gray was teaching both operatic singing and pianoforte at the Melbourne Conservatorium and Allan’s.[14] However, this by no means signalled the conclusion or even the winding down of her career as a performer. Dame Nellie Melba, having seen Gray perform during her student days, became ‘immediately interested in her work’ and in 1917, following a shared holiday in Honolulu, the pair embarked on a concert tour of the United States, with Gray acting as Melba’s accompanist.[15] In an interview with Australian Musical News, Gray described the experience as ‘a great revelation’, continuing that she ‘always feel deeply grateful to Melba for her wonderful kindnesses to me on that tour’.[16]

Following the US tour and a brief sojourn in New Zealand, Gray recommenced her teaching role at the Conservatorium, which was by then was under Melba’s direct patronage. Additionally, Gray continued to perform opera in venues across Melbourne, reinforcing her already considerable reputation as a fine exponent of opera and rousing enthusiastic crowds whenever she sang.[17]

The Australian Musical News, (1923-11-1), ‘Miss Ruby Gray’.

When interviewed for The Australian Musical News in 1923, Gray reflected on her career as a teacher across the Marshall-Hall and Melba Conservatoriums, as well as her gratitude for the guidance of Nellie Melba throughout her career:

‘I thoroughly enjoy all my work at the Conservatorium… I hold classes there for voice production, concert, and opera work. Much of my career has been identified with the Conservatorium, for I was a student there. Dame Nellie Melba has helped me with my own voice and has given me wonderful hints and assistance in imparting my knowledge to others. Many a time she has come into my room at the Conservatorium and helped me with the placing of a difficult voice in one or other of my pupils… I find that without exception the students who are placed under my care are very enthusiastic and keen to succeed. If a student is not keen, what is the use of it? Nobody can help her. It is most interesting to watch the growth of the young voice. Maybe it is tiny at the first, but with careful handling it blossoms out like a flower. Equally interesting is the knitting together of a broken voice or one that has been recklessly forced. In my opinion, no fault should be allowed to pass on from one lesson to another, for in two or three lessons it becomes a habit all the more difficult to remedy.’[18]

In 1925 Gray was recovering from a bout of appendicitis which prevented her from both teaching and performing.[19] However, following this brief pause in her career, she began performing once more in 1926 in a series of radio broadcasts and in 1927 accepted a post at the New Conservatorium as a singing teacher of the Melba method.[20] In February 1928 she also recommenced studio teaching at Allan’s.[21] In 1937 Gray was still teaching the Melba method to private pupils out of her childhood home on Collins Street.[22] In a career that spanned decades, Ruby Gray earned and maintained a reputation as one of the finest local musicians to come out of the Conservatorium to date. From her impressive technical skill to her riveting stage presence to a voice ‘that in finish, tone and colour would carry her anywhere’, she delighted.[23]

Caroline Colbran

Rare Music Intern


[1] The Argus, 1907-07-11, p. 7; The Home: An Australian Quarterly – Melbourne Musings, v. 51, no. 9, 1928-09-01, p. 12.
[2] Table Talk – ‘Music & Musicians’, 1897-11-26, p. 15.
[3] Radic, T (1986), ‘Marshall-Hall, George William Louis (1862–1915)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography  (Vol. 10).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The Argus – ‘Professor Marshall-Hall – His Publications’, 1898-08-12, p. 5.
[7] The Argus – ‘Conservatorium of Music Concert’, 1899-10-19, p. 3; Table Talk – ‘Conservatorium Opera’, 1899-12-14, p. 18.
[8] The Argus – ‘Advertising’, 1901-02-02, p. 16.
[9] The Australasian – ‘Music’, 1902-07-05, p. 24.
[10] The Arena – ’Music & Art‘, 1902-07-10, p. 19.
[11] Australian Town & Country Journal – ’Melbourne Lady’s Letter‘, 1903-12-23, p. 43.
[12] Ibid.
[13] The Arena-Sun – ’Music and Musicians’, 1903-12-17, p. 14.
[14] The Australian Musical News, vol. 4, no. 5 (Nov 1914), p. 136.
[15] The Australian Musical News, vol. 6, no. 8 (February 1917); The Australian Musical News, vol. 6, no. 12 (June 1917); The Herald – ’Woman’s World’, 1922-12-12, p. 10.
[16] The Australian Musical News, vol. 4, no. 8 (November 1923), p. 19.
[17] The Herald – ‘Woman’s World’, 1922-12-12, p. 10.
[18] The Australian Musical News, vol. 4, no. 8 (November, 1923), p. 19.
[19] The Herald – ‘Woman’s World’ 1925-06-06, p. 10.
[20] Advocate – ‘The Ladies Page’ 1927-03-10, p. 32.
[21] The Argus – ‘Classified Advertising’ 1928-02-04, p. 38.
[22] The Argus – ‘Advertising’, 1937-02-24, p. 21.
[23] Punch – ‘Music: Ruby Gray‘, 1920-10-20, p. 34.

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