Unionist and leader of the pick-handle brigade
Although she was born in Ireland in 1885 and lived in Cape Town from the age of 15, Mary Fitzgerald can boldly claim her place as one of Johannesburg’s personalities.
Her reputation as an outspoken unionist in the early 1900s ensured her a place in the city’s history books, and the old market square in Newtown bears her name.
Fitzgerald began her career as a typist in Cape Town. In 1902 she moved to Johannesburg with her husband, John Fitzgerald, utilising her shorthand typing skills in her first job at the Mine Workers’ Union.
Through her work, Fitzgerald became aware of the ghastly conditions under which miners laboured – the danger of injury and ill health in the form of phthisis, the tuberculosis of the time, which miners contracted from inhaling the by-product of fine sand. Phthisis resulted in many miners’ deaths and Fitzgerald collected money to pay for their burials.
Fitzgerald’s outspoken criticism saw her become the country’s first female trade unionist, leading strikers in the 1911 tramway strike at the very square that was later named after her. Bedlam ensued and the striking miners blocked police on horseback. The police armed themselves with pick handles, which they obtained from people working on the roads. When the pick handles were discarded, the strikers collected them. From then on, they carried pick handles to all their protests, and Fitzgerald was dubbed “Pick handle Mary”.
As union membership increased and unions mobilised, they needed to hand out printed pamphlets. Fitzgerald qualified as a master printer and acquired a printing press, from where the Voice of Labour was run off.
In the early 1910s, Fitzgerald met Archie Crawford, whom she later married. At the time she was still married to Fitzgerald, but he was increasingly disapproving of her involvement in the union movement. When Crawford and other strikers where deported to England, Fitzgerald accompanied them.
The deportation was rescinded and, upon Fitzgerald’s return, Crawford encouraged her to stand for the Johannesburg Town Council elections. She won a seat in the 1915 elections, becoming the first woman to hold public office in Johannesburg – at a time when women did not even have the vote (suffrage was only extended to women in South Africa in 1930). She chaired the Johannesburg City Council’s Public Health Committee and serving as deputy mayor and acting mayor during 1921. She was arrested during the 1922 mineworkers’ strike.
In 1919, Fitzgerald married Crawford and was sent to represent the government at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, an act that made her unpopular.
Thereafter, the appeal of public life wore off and Fitzgerald turned her attention to her family (she had five children with Fitzgerald and one son with Crawford). In 1924, Crawford suddenly died of enteric fever. Fitzgerald never truly recovered – she retreat entirely and lived with her daughter. She died in 1960, at the age of 75, and was buried at Brixton Cemetery.