New Cross house fire
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The New Cross house fire was a devastating fire that occurred during a party at a house in New Cross, south-east London, in the early hours of Sunday, 18 January 1981. The blaze killed 13 young black people; one survivor committed suicide two years later.
Some in Britain were shocked by what they perceived as indifference among the white population and accused London's Metropolitan Police Service of covering-up the cause, which some suspected was an arson attack motivated by racism. Protests arising out of the deaths in the fire led to a mobilisation of black political activity.
Nobody has ever been charged in connection to the fire, which forensic science subsequently established was started inside the house, either by accident or deliberately.
The party was a joint birthday celebration for Yvonne Ruddock (who died) and Angela Jackson (who survived) and was held at No. 439, New Cross Road. It began on Saturday, 17 January and continued throughout the night and into the early hours of Sunday.
At the time, there was a fairly high degree of racial tension in the area and far-right groups including the National Front were active. There had also been early complaints about noise from the party.
The initial police suspicion was that the party had been fire-bombed either as a revenge attack or in an attempt to stop the noise; there was also an alternative theory that a fight had broken out, from which the blaze emanated. Subsequent forensic investigation found that the fire had started by an armchair inside the front-room of the property at 5:40 am, and police ruled out the theory that a fight took place.
On the Sunday after the fire (25 January), a meeting was held at the Moonshot Club in New Cross, attended by over one 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 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 2 March the Action Committee organised a "Black People's Day of Action", when 20,000 people marched over a period of eight hours from Fordham Park to Hyde Park carrying placards including: "Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said", "No Police Cover-Up" and "Blood Ah Go Run If Justice No Come". One slogan read: "Dame Jill Knight Set The Fire Alight!" — an apparent 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 police. This unexplained action created delay, confusion and frustration, and was seen as an 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.
A survivor of the fire, Anthony Berbeck, apparently committed suicide on 9 July 1983 by jumping from the balcony of a block of council flats in south London. He had become mentally disturbed following the death of his friends in the blaze.
The inquest into the deaths of the 13 teenagers 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 did not 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, This 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.
The deaths in the fire were 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 14 January 2011 an event called 'Remembering the New Cross Fire 30 Years On' was held at the Albany Theatre in Deptford. The event was hosted by Kwame Kwei-Armah and was an evening of spoken word, film, discussion and Lovers rock music. It featured contributions from Alex Pascall, Professor Gus John, filmmaker Menelik Shabazz, spoken-word artists El Crisis and Zena Edwards, novelist Courttia Newland and musicians Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson. Many of the victims' families and the survivors attended the event.
St. Andrew's church in Brockley has a strong connection with the victims as many of them attended the youth club there. In October 2002, Lewisham council installed a special stained-glass window at the church in their memory. On 16 January 2011 a memorial service was held there, with speakers including George Francis, chair of the New Cross Fire Parents Committee; Lewisham council leader Steve Bullock; and Joan Ruddock, MP for Lewisham Deptford.
The victims were also commemorated in January 2011 with a blue plaque from Nubian Jak Community Trust. There is a stone memorial in Fordham Park, Deptford, listing those who died; facing the stone memorial is a bench with a memorial inscription. Both were installed in 2012.
There is also a memorial to the victims consisting of 13 trees with a plaque at either end on Hackney Downs in east London.
- Alexis Akwagyiram, "Did the New Cross fire create a black British identity?", BBC News, 18 January 2011.
- Darcus Howe, "New Cross: the blaze we cannot forget", The Guardian, 17 January 2011.
- "New Cross fire - a turning point?", Barling's London, BBC, 18 January 2011.
- "Eyewitnesses describe killer fire", BBC News, 11 February 2004.
- Terri Judd, "23 years on, new inquest opens into black youths killed in fire", The Independent, 3 February 2004.
- Hugh Muir, "Hideously diverse Britain: Memories of the New Cross tragedy never fade", The Guardian, 11 January 2011.
- Gordon-Orr, Neil (2004). Deptford Fun City: a ramble through the history and music of New Cross and Deptford. London: Past Tense Publications.
- "1981: Nine die in New Cross house fire" - BBC News "On this Day".
- Picture taken at New Cross March
- Remembering the New Cross Fire 30 Years On - promotional video