- New Cross Fire
The New Cross Fire was a devastating house fire which killed 13 young black people during a birthday party in New Cross, southeast London on Sunday 18 January 1981. Some were shocked by what they perceived as the indifference of the white population, and accused the London Metropolitan Police of covering up the cause, which they suspected was an arson attack motivated by racism; the protests arising out of the fire led to a mobilisation of black political activity. Nobody has ever been charged in relation to the fire.
The party was a joint birthday celebration for Yvonne Ruddock (who died) and Angela Jackson (who survived) and was held at 439 New Cross Road, going on throughout the night. There was a fairly high degree of racial tension in the area and far right groups including the National Front were active; there had been early complaints about noise from the party. The initial police suspicion was that the party had been bombed either as a revenge attack or to stop the noise.
On the Sunday after the fire (January 25), a mass meeting was held at the Moonshot Club in New Cross, attended by over a thousand people. The meeting concluded with a march to the scene of the fire and a demonstration there, which blocked New Cross Road for several hours. The New Cross Massacre Action Committee was set up and organised weekly mass meetings in New Cross which saw increasing participation as the police investigation announced that there was no evidence of arson and that the fire was believed to be accidental.
On Monday March 2 the Action Committee organised the 'Black People's Day of Action', when 20,000 people marched over a period of eight hours from Fordham Park to Hyde Park with slogans including 'Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said', 'No Police Cover-Up' and 'Blood Ah Go Run If Justice No Come'. A telling slogan was 'Dame Jill Knight Set The Fire Alight!' A reference to a controversial speech by Dame Jill Knight, a right-wing member of the ruling Conservative party which was widely interpreted as condoning or even encouraging 'direct action' against noisy parties.
The march was overwhelmingly peaceful but The Sun newspaper reported it with the headline "Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London". References in other newspapers were typically cursory mentions. None mentioned the fact that the march was cut in two at Blackfriars Bridge by the police. This unexplained action created delay, confusion and frustration, and was seen as a blatant attempt to stop the march. It also isolated the stewards and march leaders from the general public who had joined at the rear. The press indifference or hostility led to increasing division between some elements of the black and white communities.
Another party attendee, Anthony Berbeck died later, after falling from the balcony of a block of council flats in South London on 9 July 1983. He was at the party and became mentally disturbed following the death of his best friends.
The inquest into the deaths saw criticism of the police, although some witnesses admitted having lied in their statements. The coroner's summary for the jury was heavily directed towards suggesting the fire was accidental, and the jury returned an open verdict which implied agreement. The victims' families challenged the procedure and while the High Court agreed that the summing-up was inaccurate, it refused to overturn the verdict.
In 2002 a new action in the High Court led to an order for a second inquest, which was held in 2004 . The second inquest also resulted in an open verdict, but in the intervening period more information had been discovered in police files and advances in forensic science had removed some of the uncertainty about how the fire had broken out. While there are still some who believe the fire to have been a result of arson, the belief that it was an accident is becoming increasingly accepted – although the criticisms of the initial police investigation and the public indifference are maintained.
The tragedy was commemorated in a number of reggae songs and poems at the time, including Johnny Osbourne’s '13 Dead and Nothing Said', Benjamin Zephaniah’s '13 Dead' and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s 'New Crass Massakkah'.
On 16th January 2011 a church service was held to remember the victims of the 1981 New Cross Fire, 30 years on.
The church has a strong connection with the young victims as many of them attended the youth club there. In October 2002, Lewisham Council installed a special stained glass window in their memory.
Speakers at the service include George Francis, Chair of the New Cross Fire Parents Committee, Sir Steve Bullock, and Joan Ruddock MP for Lewisham Deptford. Date: 16 January 2011, 3pm Venue: St Andrew’s Church, Brockley
In January 2011 the victims of the New Cross Fire were commemorated with a Blue Plaque from Nubian Jak. The event was filmed by www.ReggaeTV.biz TV Channel and will be aired internationally from August 2011.
- Nine die in New Cross house fire (BBC News 'On this Day')
- Gordon-Orr, Neil (2004). Deptford Fun City: a ramble through the history and music of New Cross and Deptford. London: Past Tense Publications.
- 1981 fires
- 1981 in London
- Fires in London
- History of Lewisham
- New Cross
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