Mary Fitzgerald (trade unionist)

Mary Fitzgerald (also known as Pickhandle Mary) (4 August 1883 – 26 September 1960) was an Irish-born South African political activist and is considered to have been the first female trade unionist in the country.

Mary Fitzgerald
Pickhandle Mary Fitzgerald.jpg
Fitzgerald on a 1915 Election poster
Mary Sinnott

(1883-08-04)4 August 1883
Died26 September 1960(1960-09-26) (aged 77)
Other namesPickhandle Mary
OccupationTrade unionist

Mary Sinnott was born into a farming family in the townland of Gortins, near Cleariestown, County Wexford in 1883.[1] Her parents were Thomas Sinnott, a farmer, and Margaret Dunne. They also had four other children: Dennis (b. 1880), Doris, Sarah (b. 1886) and Barbara. Mary attended the Presentation Convent in Wexford, where she qualified as a shorthand typist.

Her father Thomas travelled to America and got a job as a representative for the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Three months later, he moved to rapidly growing Cape Town as the company representative. In 1900, he returned to Wexford and travelled back to Cape Town with Mary with plans that the rest of the family would follow.

At first the fair skinned red-haired Mary found a job working at British military headquarters as one of the first female shorthand typists in South Africa. Her mother and siblings sailed from Southampton to the Cape in December 1900. In Cape Town, Margaret Sinnott started work as a dressmaker on her sewing machine while Dennis got a job on the tramways.

Everything was going well for the new immigrant family from Wexford until Dennis had a fall from the top of a tram and died of his injuries. His tram conductor friend John Fitzgerald visited the bereaved family. John and Mary were instantly attracted to one another. They married in St. Mary’s Cathedral and went on to have five children.

The Sinnotts and Fitzgeralds later moved to Johannesburg. There Mary became a typist for the Mine Workers Union. She witnessed the appalling conditions of the miners and soon became actively involved speaking herself at union gatherings. Though a short, quietly spoken woman she captivated her audience with her brilliant oration. She developed a firm friendship with suffragette Nina Boyle and became a pioneer in organising unions for women and in the fight for women’s votes and for equality of pay and opportunity.

While the Lockout was underway back in Wexford in 1911, Mary was involved in two Johannesburg tramway strikes. The strikers sat on tramlines to stop scab drivers from leaving the depots. Mounted police carrying pickhandles tried to quell the crowd in Market Square but when the police dropped some of their pickhandles in the battle, the crowd took possession of them. These they carried to protest meetings with Mary earning the nickname "Pickhandle Mary". Other sources attribute the name to an incident in the same year, when a group of protesting women broke into a hardware store armed with pick handles.

Mary was involved in many other strikes in Johannesburg leading her "pickhandle brigade" to break up anti-union meetings. She also travelled to England to speak at huge labour rallies.

In the first elections for the Johannesburg municipality in 1915, Mary was elected to the city council and served until 1921. She was the first woman to hold public office in the city.

Her father Thomas Sinnott died in Johannesburg in 1916.

In 1918 she divorced John Fitzgerald and married labour leader Archie Crawford in 1919. They had one child also named Archie. Mary’s husband Archie died in 1924 and she did not take part in public life after 1926.

On her retirement she was presented with a car bought by public donations, the first to be owned and driven by a Johannesburg woman.

In 1939, Market Square in Newtown, Johannesburg was renamed Mary Fitzgerald Square. The pickhandle she is said to have used is on display in Museum Africa, which is located on the square.

Mary died in 1960 at the age of 77.

In 2005, Mary Fitzgerald Square hosted the Johannesburg leg of the Live 8 series of concerts organised by Bob Geldof and the square was officially designated a ‘fan park’ during the 2010 World Cup.

As a typist for the Mine Workers Union in Johannesburg she was appalled by the conditions under which miners worked and became involved in related industrial action. In Johannesburg, Mary became editor of a radical publication known as The Voice of Labour which she used as a vehicle for contesting capitalist relations and worker rights in the industrialising and colonial city of gold.


  1. ^ "General Registrar's Office" (PDF). Retrieved 13 March 2019.