Pickhandle Mary, the Irish activist who fought for workers’ rights in South Africa

Irish Connections: Mary Fitzgerald Square, in Johannesburg, is named in honour of the trade unionist and feminist

Newtown: the Johannesburg Carnival at Mary Fitzgerald Square. Photograph: Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu/Getty

Newtown: the Johannesburg Carnival at Mary Fitzgerald Square. Photograph: Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu/Getty

 

We tend to think of Johannesburg as a hotbed of crime, but like all big cities it has its cooler sides, too. The Newtown area of the inner city, in particular, has done a bit of a South African Temple Bar in recent decades: with three theatres, two art galleries, a museum and a weekly market, it sees itself as playing a leading role in preserving the city’s sociocultural heritage.

Those sociocultural ripples, it turns out, spread far and wide. Anyone at a music event in Newtown nowadays might well find themselves in a large outdoor space that rejoices in the name of Mary Fitzgerald Square. Used by strikers as a meeting place in the early years of the 20th century, it used to be called Aaron’s Ground but was renamed in 1939 to honour an Irish-born trade-union activist who is better known in South Africa as Pickhandle Mary.

Little is known about her early life. According to the website South African History Online (sahistory.org.za), Fitzgerald was born in Ireland around 1885. She arrived in Cape Town when she got a job as a typist for the British army. She then switched to typing for a miners’ union in Johannesburg. Horrified by the conditions under which the miners worked, she quickly became involved in feminist protest and industrial action.

At the Labour Party conference in 1909 she was the only woman among 54 delegates, which inspired her to lead the fight for equality and votes for women; in 1921 she was the first woman to be elected to Johannesburg city council. She also became editor of a radical publication called the Voice of Labour.

Some say she was christened Pickhandle Mary after she led protesting women into a shop armed with pick handles

As for the nickname, some say she was christened Pickhandle Mary after she led a group of protesting women into a hardware shop armed with pick handles. Or was it after she spoke at a protest meeting during a 1911 strike by Johannesburg tram workers, brandishing a pick handle that police had used to break up the strike?

Either way, this devoted activist is remembered in a part of Johannesburg that has constantly reinvented itself while staying resolutely left of centre.

In the late 19th century Newtown was called Burghersdorp, its proximity to Johannesburg city centre – and to the railway line – making it home to businesses and immigrants from all over the world. By the turn of the 20th century it was known as the Brickfields; the region being rich in clay, brickmaking was a good way for local people to earn money.

In April 1904 the fire brigade set the district alight, allegedly to combat an outbreak of bubonic plague but destroying pretty much everything in the process. Within six months the area had been surveyed, replanned and renamed Newtown, a commercial district where fortunes in milling, sugar production and food merchandising would be made.

In the following decades a certain amount of deprivation and dereliction set in, but the square is now the centrepiece of the Newtown urban renewal project and surrounded by structures significant to the city, including the Market Theatre, which hosted the “struggle theatre” opposing the apartheid regime in the 1980s; Museum Africa; the old Turbine Hall; and the Worker’s Library.

Mary Fitzgerald died in 1960. It’s a fair bet that she’d be pleased to see her name live on in such a colourful, vibrant place.

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