Thomas left Wexford for America, where he found employment as a representative for the Singer Sewing Machine Company. A few months later, he set sail for Cape Town. Having decided that the town had good prospects, he returned to Ireland to prepare the family for immigration to South Africa. In 1900, he left for Cape Town, with Mary who was then an attractive, red-haired, fair-skinned teenager. The rest of the family was to follow once they were established in Cape Town.
Shipping records list the following passengers on the Garth Castle departing from Southampton on 15 December 1900 for the Cape:
Miss M. SINNOTT (age 17, born ca 1883, single)
Mr D. SINNOTT (age 20, born ca 1880, single)
Miss S. SINNOTT (age 14, born ca 1886, single)
Mr F. SINNOTT (age 45, born ca 1855)
In Cape Town, Thomas started selling sewing machines, at 10 guineas each, on 28-month installment plans. Mary found work at The Castle, the headquarters of the British military in Cape Town, working for Colonel LONG as a typist. Dennis found work with the Tramways Department, where he later fell from a tram and died from his injuries. After Dennis' death, Barbara took John Brick FITZGERALD, tram conductor and a friend of Dennis, home to meet the bereaved family. Mary later married John at the Catholic Church Cathedral, and they went on to have five children - Mary (died at 6 months of age), Sidney, Kathleen (Kathy), Margaret (Peggy) and Thomas (Tommy).
Soon after the end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902, the Sinnott and Fitzgerald families left Cape Town for Johannesburg by train. They settled in Belgravia. Margaret looked after Mary's children, and Thomas carried on selling sewing machines. John applied for a job with the City and Suburban Tramways Company and was employed as a tram driver. Mary found work as a typist for the Transvaal Miners' Association. She always wore an ankle length dress or skirt in maroon, olive green, navy or black, with a crisp white blouse and a tie; with shoes, hat and handbag imported from England.
She was very concerned with the miners' well-being and often rode around the mines on her bicycle, collecting funds to bury phthisis victims properly. Phthisis is caused by the accumulation of mine dust in the lungs. She accompanied Union officials to gatherings that they addressed, and later started addressing these gatherings herself. She became very popular with the miners. In October 1909 she attended the South African Labour Party conference, the only woman among 54 delegates.
By 1911, when the workers on Johannesburg’s tram system went out on strike, Mary was a prominent labour activist. She lay on the tramlines, preventing scab drivers leaving the depot. The police arrived at the strike armed with pickhandles, In the subsequent clashes at Market Square, some of the pickhandles ended up in the hands of the strikers. They carried these to protest meetings, and this is how Mary earned her nickname of Pickhandle Mary.
In 1912 she attended a meeting chaired by Dora MONTEFIORE, a British sociologist and suffragette, to form the short-lived United Socialist Party. Mary also met Constance Antonina (Nina) BOYLE, another British suffragette and a journalist. She was one of the pioneers of the women's police service in Britain and in April 1918 was the first woman to be nominated to stand for election to the House of Commons. Two of Nina's brothers served in the Anglo-Boer War and Nina lived in South Africa at the time, working in the hospitals and as a journalist. While in South Africa she began to pursue her interest in women's rights, founding the Women's Enfranchisement League of Johannesburg. She returned to Britain in 1911. This friendship led Mary to campaign for women’s votes and equality of pay and opportunity. The Women’s Industrial League, which she founded, organised low-skilled female workers. She orgainsed a work boycott by Johannesburg waitresses which resulted in their improved pay and conditions.
She was also involved in the miners’ and general strikes of 1913 and 1914. Jammed against a wall by a police horse during the 1913 strike, she used her hatpin on the horse to free herself. She shouted defiance at the police and encouraged the strikers to stand firm. On 04 July 1913 a scuffle broke out between police, mounted soldiers and a riotous crowd in Market Square. The police were assaulted after strikers attacked them with stones. Strikers set fire to Park Station and the offices of The Star newspaper. Shop fronts were smashed, followed by looting. The strikers refused to disperse and fired shots at the military. One of the ringleaders, a tall red-headed miner from Nigel named Johannes L. LABUSCHAGNE, twice walked into the street, threw out his arms and shouted, "Shoot me!" The second time, when the crowd behind him began to move forward, he was shot dead. A 13-year old boy, Monty DUNMORE, was shot through the back while selling Strike Heralds to the crowd outside the Rand Club, and horses were killed in the crossfire. After the arson attacks, Mary was arrested for inciting workers to commit public violence. She refused to have her fingerprints taken and was imprisoned for six weeks at the Johannesburg Fort before the trial at which she was acquitted. She was the first woman to be imprisoned and tried for strike activities.
|Mary addressing strikers in Market Square, 1913|
Mary was at the front of Labuschagne's funeral procession. At a subsequent meeting of the strikers addressed by General Jan SMUTS, she jumped up on the platform, holding a baby. "This is Labuschagne’s baby, the child of the man that you shot," she shouted. The meeting descended into anarchy.
The 1914 general strike was catalysed by the government's decision to retrench railway workers in the National Union of Railway and Harbour Servants on Christmas Eve 1913. Martial law was imposed from January to March 1914. After the strike, General Smuts, then acting Minister of Mines, ordered the deportation to England of the instigators. They were J. T. BAIN, Archibald (Archie) CRAWFORD, R. B. WATERSON, G. MASON, D. MCKERRALL, W. LIVINGSTONE, A. WATSON, W. H. MORGAN and H. J. POUTSMA. Protests against the deportations followed, and the government rescinded the order, but not before the nine deportees were taken from their prison cells at night (without trial), taken by special train to Durban under armed escort and put aboard the steamship Umgeni, which sailed from Durban for London on the morning of 30 January 1914. The Umgeni arrived in London on 24 February 1914.
Mary first met Archibald CRAWFORD in 1911. Born in Scotland, and a fitter by trade, he came to South Africa as a soldier during the Anglo-Boer War. He became a foreman in the Pretoria Railway's Works soon after, until he was dismissed in 1906 for agitating against retrenchment. He became a trade union activist and a Labour councillor, and published the Voice of Labour between 1908 and 1912. They also printed The Strike Herald, which often publish the names of scab workers. When Archie was deported in 1914, Mary joined him, although still married to her husband and pregnant. She gave birth to her last Fitzgerald child in England.
Archie encouraged her to stand in the first Johannesburg Town Council elections in 1915, after women had received the municipal franchise. She won a seat, becoming the first woman to hold public office in the city. She served from 10 November 1915 to 26 October 1921, becoming chairman of the Public Health Committee in 1915, and deputy mayor in 1921 to Mayor John CHRISTIE. On her retirement she was presented with a car bought by public donations, the first to be owned and driven by a Johannesburg woman.
|Mary's election poster|
Between 1915 and 1918 union membership increased greatly. Unions were getting more organised, and needed to print more pamphlets. Mary trained as a printer, qualifing as a master printer, and becoming the first female printer in Johannesburg. She became co-owner Modern Press with Archie, which printed Voice of Labour. When Voice of Labour became defunct, they produced the Weekly Herald. In 1929 Mary had to abandon Modern Press.
In 1918, Mary divorced John, who although a striker, had remained uninvolved and unhappy with her activities. She married Archie in 1919 and they set up home in Bramley. In 1921 Mary took part in a strike in Durban and in the same year was appointed by the government as an official adviser to her husband at the International Labour Organization conference in Geneva. This trip made her unpopular with workers.
After 1921 Mary seemed to lose interest in union and political activities. She did not stand for Council again in 1922. Mary and Archie's only child, also Archie, was born in 1922. The Communist Party won leadership of the South African Industrial Federation, ousting Archie. He remained in the trade union movement, and Mary settled into domesticity. In 1924 Archie became ill with enteric fever, and died in hospital. After Archie's death, she took no further part in public life. From 1926 she withdrew almost entirely from public view and after a stroke spent her last years living with her daughter. She died in Johannesburg on 26 September 1960, and was buried at the Brixton Cemetery, alongside Archie.
In 1939 the Johannesburg City Council approved a motion to name the square in Newton, the Mary Fitzgerald Square. The square was previously known as Aaron's Ground and was initially a wagon site, but was used for the many strikers' meetings. The council never got around to the official dedication, and it was only so renamed in 1989. The pickhandle she is said to have used was kept at the Africana Museum in Johannesburg. In September 2005 a plaque in her memory was unveiled at Mary Fitzgerald Square - her son, Archie, was 81 when the plaque was unveiled.
Mary's father died in 1916.
Her sister, Dorrie, married Frederick William BROOKS (born in Grahamstown). She died in 1972, as did Frederick.
Sarah married James KELLY. She died in 1966, he died in 1951.
Mary's son, Tommy, had a daughter Glenda who married VAN OERLE.
A small brewery has named a brew after Mary - Pickhandle Mary Malted Oats Stout.
A book, Mary 'Pickhandle' Fitzgerald: Rediscovering a Lost Icon, was written by Frances Hunter, a South African journalist who now lives in Sante Fe, California.