Mary "Pickhandle" Fitzgerald made her name in Johannesburg for her trade union activities and a number of firsts - first woman trade unionist, first woman printer and first woman city councillor.
She was born in Ireland in 1882 and after immigrating with her father to Cape Town in 1900, she got a job at The Castle as a secretary.
She moved to Johannesburg in 1902 with her husband, John Fitzgerald, with whom she was to have five children. She soon found a job as a shorthand-typist with the Mine Workers' Union, where she became involved in collecting money for burials of phthisis victims.
Many miners were dying from phthisis - a disease in which the fine underground sand coated the lungs and made them as hard as a rock and thereby considerably shortened a miner's life - with no compensation for their dependants. The workers were disorganised and working under appalling conditions, with mine accidents accumulating.
Before long she was making rousing speeches to union members and became the country's first woman trade union organiser. She became more and more vocal and was involved in the miners' strikes of 1913 and 1914.
In 1911 she was involved in a tramway strike. Leading the strikers, they met the police in market square in the city centre. The police were armed with pickhandles which they had been given by people working on the roads nearby. In the chaos, with the police trying to avoid wheelbarrows that the strikers had positioned to block the horses, the police dropped their pickhandles. The strikers grabbed the pickhandles and carried them to all future protest meetings. Mary became leader of the Pickhandle Brigade, earning her the nickname of "Pickhandle Mary".
Between 1915 and 1918 union membership increased seven-fold. Unions were getting more organised, and needed to print their pamphlets in greater numbers. Mary trained as a printer, then qualified as a master printer, becoming the first woman printer in the city. She then printed all the union pamphlets and acquired Modern Press, which printed the Voice of Labour.
In 1911 she met Archie Crawford, and went to an international union meeting with him. In 1914 Archie and other strikers were deported. Mary went with him, although still married to her husband, and had her fifth Fitzgerald child in England. After protests to the South African government, the deportations were rescinded and Archie returned.
It appears that Archie had a moderating influence on Mary - in 1915 he encouraged her to stand for the Johannesburg Town Council elections. She even used a photograph of herself with a pickhandle on her election manifesto.
In November 1915 she won a seat - the first woman to hold public office in Johannesburg, at a time when women did not have the vote in South Africa. She served on the Council until 1921, becoming chairman of the Public Health Committee, and deputy mayor and acting mayor during 1921, when circumstances required it.
At the end of the First World War she divorced Fitzgerald, who, despite being a striker, had remained removed from and unhappy with her actions. In 1919 she married Archie. In 1921 Mary was sent by the government to represent them at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, as official adviser to her husband, a delegate. Through this act and others Mary and Archie started losing the support of the workers.
Mary had started to lose interest in public life, and did not stand for Council again in 1922. The Communist Party won leadership of the South African Industrial Federation, ousting Archie.
Archie remained in the trade union movement, and Mary settled into domesticity. Trade unions had been recognised, and women played a more active role in business and politics. She raised their child, Archie. In 1924 Archie her husband became ill with enteric fever, and died in hospital before she arrived to visit.
She was heartbroken and retreated completely from public life, living with her daughter. In 1930 women in South Africa got the vote. In 1960, at the age of 78, she died and was buried at the Brixton Cemetery.
Mary Fitzgerald Square
In 1939, the City Council approved the naming of the market square inNewtown as Mary Fitzgerald Square. But it was only in 1986 that therenaming took place with a plaque placed on the MuseuMAfricA building.In December 2001 the square was re-opened as a newly paved space, to bea major venue for arts activities, accommodating 22 000 people