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Louisa Dodd: Eccentric Chelsea Pioneer and First Lady Cabbie

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Louisa Shelber, later Mrs Dodd, riding side saddle c1900. Courtesy of Chelsea & District Historical Society

Louisa Josephine Dodd was a well known eccentric but lovable Chelsea identity who ran a cab business. When her death was prematurely reported in June, 1954 she thought it a great joke and thanked the reporter responsible suggesting he should “write it again some time”. Known affectionately to all of Chelsea as ‘Ma Dodd’, she died in her sleep at Cheltenham Old Peoples’ Home, in 1956 when she was eighty seven years of age. [1],

Louisa Josephine Shebler was born in 1869, the daughter of Mr and Mrs Augusta Schebler, the owners of the Golden Fleece Hotel at Melton. She was a vivacious tomboyish girl who was the pride and joy of her father. As a young girl Louie, as she was known, was one of the best horsewomen in the district winning at one show the first prize for the best horsewoman, astride and side saddle, for driving the best two-in hand and four in hand and for the jumping event.

Louie loved her horses and she was still riding in 1950 when she was aged eighty-one years. Her comment was that “I may not be as young as I used to be, but I feel as fit as a fiddle. I don’t see why I should give up horse riding just because I am 81.” [2] Her photograph in the local paper at that time showed her on her horse rounding up cattle in preparation for their 10 mile drive to the Dandenong Market.

Louie had plenty of admirers but remained single until she met a handsome young Englishman, George Henry Dodd whom she married in 1901when she was thirty-two. On their marriage Louie’s father set her up with a cab business and a fine home with plenty of grazing land at the foot of Broadway, Bonbeach. Her husband George, who was more interested in the turf than the land, selected Chelsea as the business site because of its close proximity to Aspendale, Epsom and Mentone racecourses. It was on race days that he plied the cabs for hire to patrons, carrying them from the respective railway station to the course.

George drove the cab while Louie stayed home and looked after their daughter Ethel, however the marriage was not successful and the couple separated. George went back to Melton and eventually ran the Golden Fleece Hotel while Louie stayed at Chelsea running the cab business. For a while she employed drivers but finding that was unsatisfactory she decided to drive the cab herself. She was known as one of the first ‘Lady Cabbies’ in the State.

In 1917 Louie moved to Chelsea Road to be closer to the railway station and her cab business. She erected a ‘waiting room and lavatory’ in Station Street, opposite the station. In that same year James Carr informed the public that he had taken over the livery and letting stables of Mr A H Dod and that his vehicles were available for hire and that his cabs would meet all trains. Louie responded in the next issue of the paper pointing out that James Carr had made an incorrect announcement telling people that he had taken over Dodd’s livery and letting business, “I have always carried on the business and I continue to do so … I have only moved to ‘Loretta’ Chelsea Road , the first house from the crossing.” [3]

From material in a subsequent issue of the paper, it appears that Louie was confused by James Carr’s statement informing people of a ‘change of ownership’. An advertisement published in the News of October 6, 1917 indicates that the business of A H Dod, cab proprietor, was conducted from Cheltenham and not Chelsea railway station. The similarity of surnames and name of locality perhaps caused the confusion?

Louie, a powerfully built woman, usually wore men’s clothing and had plenty of stamina yet slept only three or four hours out of twenty four. She milked her cows, had livery stables for her riding school and drove passengers in sufficient time to catch the first train in the morning, and met the last Melbourne train at 12.45 at night in order to drive her customers home to remote places along sandy and lonely tracks.

Initially she drove a wagonette drawn by a ‘pair of polished horses who trotted briskly’ and a handsome cab before she was forced to buy a car because of increasing competition. [4] The story goes that she never had any driving lessons just taught herself. During World War Two and petrol rationing she again used her handsome cab, a novel sight waiting for fares at the railway station.

In 1945 a controversy erupted at a Council about Louie’s cab. The Mayor of Chelsea, Cr Cheeseman voiced his belief that Mrs Dodd’s horse drawn cab should be brought up to the standard of the City. “People have to be protected from a hygienic point of view,” he said, moving a motion that the cab must conform to council’s wish. Mrs Telfer reported that as a young girl she preferred to walk home rather than accompany her father in Ma Dodd’s cab. [5]

Cr McColl opposed the motion pointing out that he respected her as a woman of spirit and pluck, and Council had benefited from fines imposed on Mrs Dodd because of her wandering stock. [6] He proposed that the Health Inspector approach Mrs Dodd and report the outcome at the next meeting. Cr McColl acknowledged he had never ridden in the cab “but if outside appearances are anything to go on council may purchase the cab as a museum piece for the new Town Hall.” [7]

In response to the Council discussions two letters appeared in the Chelsea News of June 15, 1945. W Hopley while acknowledging Mrs Dodd’s cab may not be up to standard suggested, “if some people would mind their own business and not let Mrs Dodd’s cattle out the Council would not be as rich in revenue. As regards the museum. When the new Town Hall is built by the time these gentlemen who run the City’s business get together there will be quite enough in the museum without Mrs Dodd’s cab. Let it be remembered Mrs Dodd still works and has saved the government hundreds of dollars by not drawing a pension.”

Perce Millar the second correspondent pointed out that Mrs Dodd had helped to put “Chelsea on the map not by flag wagging or speeches but by hard toil. Moreover she had saved many a digger returning from hospital and old aged people wanting to shop and collect their pensions a long walk.” He wondered, “Who was trying to supplant the lady with an up to date car. One never knows does one. There might be a nigger in the woodpile.”

Ethel Leech, Louie’s daughter, gave her response to Cr Cheeseman’s initial proposal and Cr McColl’s suggestion that the cab was a museum piece. [8]

“I would like to thank Cr McColl, Mr Hopley and Mr Millar for their chivalry in their championship of Mrs Dodd. They did not offer their all in the last war to stand by silently while Chelsea’s lady pioneer needed loyalty. When this fair Australia of ours was threatened by invasion and bombed by the Japanese the government needed all of the petrol they could get. Mrs Dodd had to discontinue plying for hire with her recently acquired car to conserve petrol for our army and air force. This gallant lady, with her usual courage, went forth and bought the present cab to carry on until the war was won. This is the spirit that won the war for Britain. The recent old cab has played its fill share in winning this war though some people don’ stop to think so. While Mrs Dodd runs her cab she earns the blessing of many a tired war worker who is glad at the end of the day’s toil to travel home in it. Many the sick person she has conveyed free of charge and she never failed a confinement case or one of sickness no matter what hour of the night distracted folks have called on her; she has been at once in attendance.

I fail to agree with Cr Cheeseman that a City cannot be built on sentiment. Frankly I think this city was already built before we ever heard of Cr Cheeseman. It certainly was built on the sentiment and love that pioneer Mrs Dodd and her like who have stuck to Chelsea through thick and thin. They did their city building for love of Chelsea and not the glory reflected there from. Mrs Dodd came to Chelsea when it was only a trackless ti-tree sand waste sporting one shop where the Hotel Chelsea stands today. She has been a ratepayer for 35 years and has paid sufficient rates, taxes etc to build a new Town hall, museum and all.”

Author

Margaret Diggerson

Footnotes

  1. Today known as the Kingston Centre.
  2. Chelsea News, May 12, 1950.
  3. Chelsea News, September 15, 1917.
  4. Newspaper report.
  5. White, P., Talking with Piri, Interview with Joy Telfer, 2001 page 166.
  6. Mrs Dodd had appeared before the Cheltenham Court and later the Chelsea Court on several occasions for ignoring local by-laws regarding wandering stock.
  7. Chelsea News, May 25, 1945.
  8. Chelsea News June 29, 1945.

Article Cat. People
Article Ref. 127

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