On Thursday 27 March I was part of a group of over 100 people who gathered in the foyer of Wellington Trades Hall on Vivian Street to remember the death of caretaker Ernie Abbott. Abbott was killed 30 years ago, on 27 March 1984, in a bomb attack on Trades Hall. He had noticed a suitcase left unattended in the foyer, outside one of the rooms in which union meetings had been held that day. When Abbott picked up the suitcase it exploded, killing him and substantially damaging Trades Hall. Ernie’s watch, which stopped at the time of the explosion, showed his death to have occurred at 5.19 p.m. At the memorial gathering this was the time that signalled the start of three minutes of silence in remembrance.
The attack was one of the few acts of terrorism to occur in New Zealand, but no one claimed responsibility. It to this day remains an unsolved crime, despite the offer (now lapsed) of a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the bomber. The bombing occurred at a time of increasing industrial tensions and frequent strikes. This tension was heightened by the wage freeze Robert Muldoon had introduced in 1982. Muldoon, who had been prime minister since 1975, had carried out a long running campaign against what he described as militant unions. Muldoon claimed they were run by ‘pommy stirrers’, bringing British class hatreds that had no place in New Zealand. He also maintained that communists had undue influence in the unions. These claims struck a chord with many New Zealanders holding more conservative and anti-union views.
It seems likely that the Trades Hall bomb was planted by a lone right-winger with a hatred of unions. It was probably aimed at union leaders who were holding a meeting in the hall earlier that day. A number of unionists recalled walking past the case around 5 p.m. as they headed off to another meeting. Abbott moved the case, triggering the explosion, when he was mopping the foyer, his regular activity at that time of the evening.
Ernie Abbott was more than just the Trades Hall caretaker. Originally from Liverpool, he had served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. During his careers as a merchant seaman and as a wharfie he had been an active unionist. As Trades Hall caretaker from 1966, he was a member of the Caretakers and Cleaners Union and at the time of his death was union vice-president. In a bitter irony, Abbott had been made a life member of his union the day before the bombing.
At the memorial gathering speakers recalled the events of 1984 and paid tribute to Ernie Abbott. They recalled his role as a ‘stirrer’ at Trades Hall, provoking arguments between ‘poms’ and Scotsmen. Speakers gave differing views on Abbott’s reputation as ‘a grumpy old bastard’. Peter Cranney, who became vice-president of the Caretakers and Cleaners after Abbott’s death, said he always got on well with Ernie, who welcomed the chance to lean on his mop and have a yarn. Cranney also recalled Abbott’s two dogs, Patch and Patch II. Ernie’s first dog called Patch famously jumped off the Trades Hall roof in pursuit of a seagull. Patch survived the fall but thereafter had a limp. His successor, Patch II, was badly burned in the explosion but survived. On his recovery Patch II was fostered out to a new home.
Speakers compared Abbott’s death to those of Frederick George Evans, killed in the Waihī miners’ strike of 1912, and Christine Clarke, who was killed by a driver breaking a picket line at Lyttelton in 1999. Others compared his death to those workers who were killed each year in industrial accidents. The ceremony included a showing of Rod Prosser’s documentary film The hatred campaign on the 1984 bombing. In fine union tradition, tunes such as ‘The Internationale’, were played by the Brass Razzoo Solidarity Band. There were calls for the memorial ceremony to be held annually in the future.