24 November 2013


Mary SINNOTT was born in Wexford, Ireland in 1882, one of five children born to Thomas SINNOTT and Margaret DUNN. The family was Catholic. Her eldest siblings were Dorothea / Dorothy Eleanor (Dorrie) and Dennis, and her younger siblings Sarah and Barbara (Babs). Her mother's family had roots in County Meath. Mary attended Presentation Convent in Wexford, where she learnt shorthand, typing and bookkeeping.

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.
Mary Fitzgerald

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.

17 November 2013


After the Anglo-Boer War, Boers not only trekked to other parts of Africa, they also looked further afield. Argentina was the focus of a large group of Boers. Today, many of their descendants are still found in the Comodoro Rivadavia and Sarmiento areas. Between 1903 and 1909, up to 800 Boer families trekked by ship to Argentina’s east coast. Some of Argentina’s wealthiest sheep farmers are descendants of the first Boers.

Mr. GREEN and Mr. VIETMA were sent from Argentina to recruit new settlers in South Africa. Louis BAUMANN of Bloemfontein was one of the first Boers to move to the province of Chubut, Argentina. Ds. Louis P. VORSTER (Gereformeerde Kerk) of Burgersdorp undertook an investigative trip to Argentina. Upon his return, many Boers joined the new trek.

In October 1905, 322 Boers left Cape Town on board the Highland Fling. A few of the Boers' servants accompanied them. The ship had arrived in Cape Town in with a load of mules from Argentina, and was refurbished to carry the passengers. They arrived in Buenos Aires, and 17 days later boarded the Presidente Roca for Chubut, arriving in Comodoro Rivadavia on 05 December 1903. Comodoro Rivadavia, 2 500 km south of Buenos Aires, is the capital city of the Chubut province. The Boers settled here on land given to them by the Argentinean government. The government wanted to populate the area and recruited foreign settlers.

Once at their new destination, they found that the land was not suitable for farming, but that sheep farming was a good alternative. There was no fresh drinking water on the land, and drinking water had to be brought in by wagon. The Boers asked for a rig from Buenos Aires to drill for water. In 1907 they hit the the first oil well. If the law had been different the Boers would've been super-rich, as most of the oil was found on their land, but in Argentina the State owns all mineral rights.

In 1925 heavy snowfall led to a large loss of sheep, and many of these Boers had to start all over again. In 1934 there were still 900 Boers in Argentine, mostly in the Chubut province. Today, Comodoro Rivadavia is a city of more than 130 000 people. It has an Air Force base, from which Argentina orchestrated its attack of the Falkland Islands. Driving outside Comodoro Rivadavia one sees oil pumps everywhere.

In 1934, Senator Francois Stephanus MALAN visited the Afrikaans community in Argentina in answer to a plea for church and school aid. In 1938, about 600 Boers were repatriated to South Africa, helped by the South African government and churches.

The Afrikaans service of SABC Radio broadcast two programmes about the Afrikaners in Argentina, “Springbok op die Pampas” in 1979 and “Van Pampas tot Springbokvlakte” in 1980. In 1991 only two of the original settlers were still alive.

In 1992, there were approximately 1 000 of Boer descendants left in Argentina. The older descendants still spoke an old version of Afrikaans and surnames such as BOTHA, GRIMBEEK, HENNING, VENTER, VISSER can still be found. They have an annual festival where traditional dance, dress and food are offered. Many of the men have married Argentinean women. They and their children speak Spanish.

In early 1992, a tour group of 107 South Africans, visited Patagonia for 2 weeks. The visit was organised by Ollie VILJOEN, producer of the SABC-TV’s “Spies en Plessie” programme. The local newspapers, radio and TV took photos and did interviews with the 1992 visitors.

Amongst the visitors were many descendants of the original Boer settlers. One of them was the widow Johanna VAN DER MERWE (then 83 years old) from Bellville, Cape. She returned to South Africa with her parents in 1938. Johanna was married three times. Two of her sisters were also in the tour group. Her younger sister was born in Comodoro Rivadavia. She lives in South Africa and married a son of Pieter Hendrik HENNING (author of ‘n Boer in Argentina, published in 1942 by Nasionale Pers). He was involved in the repatriation scheme of a large group of Boers in 1938.

Enrique Carlos GRIMBEEK was born in Argentina but returned to South Africa with his parents. His parents farmed in the Prince Albert area but Henrique soon returned to Patagonia, where he became a wealthy man and married Petronella (Tant Nellie). Together with his two sons, he had a large amount of Merino sheep on the 180 000 acre farm La Begonia. He also provided water and gas to Comodoro Rivadavia. Another business sideline was the oil pumps on his land which produced millions of litres of oil every day. In October 1991, the New York Times interviewed Henrique, then age 79.

In Sarmiento, a Spanish-speaking shop keeper is a Boer descendant, Martin Sebastian VIVIERS. The local Reformed Church was built by the Boers. Another descendant is Nicholas AYLING who owns El Rancho Grande, the only restaurant in town, and farms sheep on the family farm, Media Luna. His mother is Maria Francina AYLING (maiden name VENTER) and known as Bee. Her grandfather was C.J.N. VISSER from Barkly East, one of the leaders of the trek. A bay north of Comodoro is called Puerto Visser after him. Bee lived in Cape Town during the 1930s and attended Jan van Riebeeck High School. She also attended the laying of the Voortrekker Monument’s corner  stone in 1938. When her father died, her mother inherited Media Luna and returned to Argentina with the children. Bee met and married Eric AYLING, a British expat in Buenos Aires. In  his book, My Life in Patagonia, Eric describes his Afrikaans bride as "very handy and capable in all moments of trouble".

Nellie BLACKIE (maiden name VAN WYK) was five years old when she arrived in Patagonia with her parents. She married Enrique BLACKIE (63 years old in 1991) and they had 10 children. They farmed northwest of Sarmiento. In 1992, Nellie was a pensioner and living in Comodoro Rivadavia. In 1992, Hester VAN WYK (then 83) was one of the oldest original settlers.

In late 1996, Ester Vera Kruger DE PIERANGELI, a Boer descendant, visited South Africa to look for family members. In 1992 she was the wife of Comodoro Rivadavia’s Mayor.

Today, a documentary feature film is being made to commemorate the 100 years history of the Boers in Argentine.

04 November 2013


The Two Minutes of Silence was started by Sir James Percy FITZPATRICK. He was born in King William's Town in 1862 and died in Uitenhage in 1931, eldest son of James Coleman FITZPATRICK, Judge of the Supreme Court of the Cape Colony, and his wife Jenny, both from Ireland. The couple had 4 children: Nugent, Alan, Oliver, and Cecily.

Our own Tannie Mossie (Joan ABRAHAMS of Bloemfontein) wrote a well-researched book in the 1990s about this - "Time from Africa - A two minute silent pause to remember - 11:00 on the 11th of the 11th month."

It shows the tradition started off in Cape Town with the noon gun on Signal Hill. It was the idea of Sir Percy FITZPATRICK, author of Jock of the Bushveld. Joan's book also shows the correct silence - one minute for one person, and two minutes for more than one person - one minute for the dead and one minute for the survivors.
Sir James Percy Fitzpatrick - Photo Wikipedia
Sir James Percy Fitzpatrick
In 1916, Sir Percy attended a church service in Cape Town and a moment of silence was held for dead soldiers. When he heard that 11 November 1918 was going to be observed as Armistice Day in London, he asked for a two minute silence throughout the British Empire as a tribute to dead soldiers.

Sir Percy's son, Percy Nugent George, was a Major in the Union Defence Force. He was killed in France in 1917.

Major P.N.G. Fitzpatrick
South African Heavy Artillery, 71st Siege Battery
Died 14 Dec 1917, age 28
Born in Johannesburg.
Volunteered on 04 Aug 1914 and served in the Rand Rebellion and German South
West Africa with the Imperial Light Horse.
Buried at Red Cross Corner Cemetery, Beugny

Sir Harry HANDS, then mayor of Cape Town, and Councillor R.R. BRYDEN, already observed a moment of silence after the firing of the noon gun was started. Sir Percy's suggestion was taken up and a two minute silence was held in Cape Town on 14 December 1918, a year after Nugent's death. Cape Town became the first city in the world to observe the two minute silence.

WWI ended on 11 November 1918 with the guns stopped on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. This is why 11 November was chosen in 1919 as the day to remember war dead.

At first, it was known as Armistice Day (armistice meaning an agreement between enemies to stop fighting). Now it is mostly known as Remembrance Day or Poppy Day.

The poppy story goes back to 1915 when a Canadian soldier, serving as a doctor, John McCRAE, was working in France. He wrote a poem that year about the poppies growing on the graves of dead soldiers:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

John McCRAE died of meningitis later in 1918.

An American poet, Moina MICHAEL, read the poem and bought poppies to give to friends. She also sold poppies and gave the money to needy ex-soldiers.  Eventually the Americans had women in war-ravaged France sewing artificial poppies and the money raised went to war survivors.

In Britain, former soldiers faced another battle - getting on with life. Ex-servicemen's societies united in 1921 to form the British Legion, to provide support to ex-servicemen, especially the disabled, and their families.

A French woman involved in the artificial poppy sewing project in France suggested that the British Legion sell the poppies to raise money. The British Legion signed on and 1.5 million poppies were ordered for 11 November 1921. The first Poppy Appeal made £106,000. The British Legion set up its own poppy sewing project, using disabled ex-servicemen. By the end of the 20th century, the British Legion was selling over 32 million poppies per annum.

Poppies were chosen not only  because of the poem, but also because they were the only flowers that grew abundantly on the battlefields. They also only bloom for a short time, just like the young men and women killed in wars.

In South Africa, the South African Legion holds street collections to raise funds to assist in the welfare work among military veterans. When you buy a poppy for Remembrance Day, you pay tribute to those who died, and you are helping those who survived and bear the scars of war.