New Cross house fire

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New Cross house fire
Date18 January 1981; 41 years ago (18 January 1981)
LocationNew Cross Road, New Cross, south-east, London, United Kingdom
TypeFire
Deaths13 (1 suicide two years later)

The New Cross house fire was a 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 aged between 14 and 22, and one survivor took his own life two years later.[1]

No one has ever been charged in connection with the fire, which forensic science subsequently established started inside the house. Inquests into the deaths were held in 1981 and 2004. Both inquests recorded open verdicts.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, a New Cross Massacre Action Committee (NCMAC) was set up, chaired by John La Rose, which organised a "Black People's Day of Action" on 2 March 1981, when some 20,000 people marched over a period of eight hours through London, carrying placards that bore statements including: "13 Dead, Nothing Said".[2]

Fire[edit]

A forensic science report produced for the Metropolitan Police in 2011 ruled out a firebomb attack, finding instead that the fire had started when somebody in the house set fire to a foam-filled armchair in the front room of the property at 5:40 am on Sunday morning.[3] There had been some early complaints from neighbours about excessive noise from the party. A white Austin Princess car was seen driving away from the fire.[4]

The party was a joint birthday celebration for Yvonne Ruddock (one of the victims of the fire) and Angela Jackson (who survived) and was held at No. 439, New Cross Road. It began on the evening of Saturday, 17 January 1981, and continued throughout the night and into the early hours of Sunday, 18 January.[5]

Victims[edit]

The victims of the fire were all young Black British people between the ages of 14 and 22.[6] They were:

  • Andrew Gooding, age 14
  • Rosaline Henry, age 16
  • Patrick Cummings, age 16
  • Patricia Johnson, age 15
  • Owen Thompson, age 16
  • Lloyd Hall, age 20
  • Humphrey Brown, age 18
  • Steve Collins, age 17
  • Gerry Francis, age 17
  • Peter Campbell, age 18
  • Glenton Powell, age 16 (died in hospital)
  • Yvonne Ruddock, age 16 (died in hospital)
  • Paul Ruddock, age 22 (died in hospital)

A survivor of the fire, Anthony Berbeck, apparently died by suicide on 9 July 1983 by jumping from the balcony of a block of council flats in south London. He had been traumatised by the death of his friends in the blaze.[7]

Inquests[edit]

Police also ruled out the theory that a fight had taken place.[8] The inquest into the deaths of the 13 teenagers, began on 21 April 1981.[2] The initial police suspicion was that the party had been firebombed, 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. The jury returned an open verdict.

In 2002, a new action in the High Court led to an order for a second inquest, which was held in 2004.[9] This second inquest also resulted in an open verdict.[2] The coroner said that the fire was probably started deliberately by one of the guests, but as he could not be sure of this, he returned an open verdict.[10]

Aftermath[edit]

One week after the fire, on 25 January, a meeting was held at the Moonshot Club in New Cross, attended by more than 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 (NCMAC) was set up, chaired by John La Rose,[2] 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.

Documents and papers related to the New Cross Massacre Action Committee's campaign are held in the archives of the George Padmore Institute and can be accessed by the public.[2][11] The Black Power group Black Unity and Freedom Party (BUFP) published an account of what happened on the night of the fire in their journal, Black Voice.[12]

The New Cross fire, described by Darcus Howe in 2011 as "the blaze we cannot forget", is significant as a turning point in the relationship between Black Britons, the police and the media, and marks an "intergenerational alliance to expose racism, injustices and the plight of black Britons".[13]

Black People's Day of Action[edit]

The Action Committee organised a "Black People's Day of Action" on 2 March, when 20,000 people marched over a period of eight hours from Fordham Park to Hyde Park carrying placards that bore statements including: "Thirteen Dead, Nothing Said", "No Police Cover-Up" and "Blood Aga Run If Justice Na Come".[14] One slogan read: "Dame Jill Knight Set The Fire Alight!"[15]; 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.[16][17]

Tribune described the march as "the largest mass movement for racial justice on British soil at the time", but also noted that "journalists stationed in the offices of Fleet Street chanted monkey noises at the protestors down below."[18]

Memorials[edit]

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, Gus John, filmmaker Menelik Shabazz, novelist Courttia Newland and musicians Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson. Many of the victims' families and the survivors attended the event.[19][20]

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.[21][22] 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.[23]

The victims were also commemorated in January 2011 with a blue plaque from Nubian Jak Community Trust.[24][25] There is a stone memorial in Fordham Park, Deptford, listing those who died; facing the stone memorial is a bench with a memorial inscription.[26] Both were installed in 2012.

There is also a memorial to the victims consisting of a park bench, plus 13 trees with a plaque at either end, on Hackney Downs in east London, and a memorial plaque on the wall of Catford Civic Hall listing the names of the "fourteen young people who died in the New Cross Fire of 18th January 1981".

In 2017, the "13 Dead, Nothing Said"[27] exhibition was hosted at Goldsmiths College, University of London. The exhibition[28] shows photographs documenting the Black People's Day of Action, taken by Vron Ware, who had attended the march on 2 March 1981.[29]

Depiction in media[edit]

In 2020, a BBC Radio 4 documentary entitled "From the Ashes of New Cross", an episode in the series Lights Out, was broadcast to mark the 40th anniversary of the fire.[30][31] The New Cross fire and the protests that followed were part of the Steve McQueen co-directed television documentary series Uprising shown on BBC One in July 2021.[32] The New Cross fire and the protests that followed are pivotal to the 2020 Steve McQueen drama Alex Wheatle,[33] part of the filmmaker's Small Axe series for the BBC. In March 2018, poet Jay Bernard's performance work investigating the fire, Surge: Side A, won the 2017 Ted Hughes Award for new poetry.[34][35][36] Blood Ah Go Run, a 1981 film by Menelik Shabazz, documents the response of the Black community to the fire.

The deaths in the fire were commemorated or mentioned 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", Linton Kwesi Johnson's "New Crass Massakah"[37] and UB40's "Don't Let It Pass You By". The events are referenced in The Young'uns song "These Hands" on the album Strangers, which won BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards "Best Album" 2018.[citation needed]

Rex Obano's radio play Lover's Rock (BBC Radio 3, broadcast on November 2012) is a fictional account of the events leading up to the New Cross Fire.[38]

Further reading[edit]

  • Gordon-Orr, Neil (2004). Deptford Fun City: a ramble through the history and music of New Cross and Deptford. London: Past Tense Publications.
  • The New Cross Massacre Story: Interviews with John La Rose. Prologue by Linton Kwesi Johnson and epilogue by Gus John. London: New Beacon Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1873201312.[39]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Bowcott, Owen (3 February 2004). "Inquest begins into 14 victims of 1981 fire". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e "New Cross Massacre Campaign", George Padmore Institute (GPI). Collection Ref No.: GB 2904 NCM.
  3. ^ Burrell, Ian (22 October 2011). "Report says New Cross fire was not race attack". The Independent. Archived from the original on 18 June 2022. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  4. ^ "1981: Nine die in New Cross house fire". BBC. 1981. Retrieved 26 May 2018.
  5. ^ Akwagyiram, Alexis (18 January 2011). "Did the New Cross fire create a black British identity?"". BBC News.
  6. ^ "The New Cross Fire". Black History Studies. Retrieved 31 August 2021.
  7. ^ "Eyewitnesses describe killer fire", BBC News, 11 February 2004.
  8. ^ Lahiri, Dee (15 May 2001). "'I don't think I can die before I find out what happened to my son'". The Guardian.
  9. ^ Judd, Terri (3 February 2004). "23 years on, new inquest opens into black youths killed in fire". The Independent. Archived from the original on 18 June 2022.
  10. ^ Pallister, David (7 May 2004). "Coroner repeats open verdict on New Cross Fire 7 May 2004". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 July 2021.
  11. ^ Johnson, Linton Kwesi (26 August 2011). "Preface to New Cross Massacre Story published by New Beacon Books". LKJ Records – Linton Kwesi Johnson. Retrieved 16 October 2020.
  12. ^ "1981 BUFP New Cross Massacre" (PDF). Black Voice. 12 (1). 1981 – via woodsmokeblog.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  13. ^ Hunter, Virgillo (9 June 2019). "The New Cross Fire (January 18, 1981)". BlackPast. Retrieved 16 November 2020.
  14. ^ White, Nadine (2 March 2020). "Black People's Day Of Action: Inside The 1981 New Cross Fire March That Brought Britain To A Standstill". HuffPost.
  15. ^ "New Cross Fire – 13 dead and nothing said!". I Rise. 20 January 2001. Retrieved 22 May 2022.
  16. ^ Howe, Darcus (17 January 2011). "New Cross: the blaze we cannot forget". The Guardian.
  17. ^ Barling, Kurt (18 January 2011). "New Cross fire - a turning point? | Barling's London". BBC.
  18. ^ Almeida, Adam (18 January 2021). "'13 Dead, Nothing Said': The New Cross Fire at 40". Tribune.
  19. ^ Muir, Hugh (11 January 2011), "Hideously diverse Britain: Memories of the New Cross tragedy never fade", The Guardian.
  20. ^ "Remembering the New Cross Fire", The Albany, January 2011.
  21. ^ "New Cross fire victims memorial". News Shopper. 8 October 2002. Retrieved 25 July 2021.
  22. ^ Hopweed, Nicole (2002). "New Cross Fire Memorial Window at St. Andrew's Church, Brockley, London SE4 - detail". Axis. Retrieved 25 July 2021.
  23. ^ "New Cross fire: Memorial service and commemorative plaque unveiling". Brockley Central. 15 January 2011. Retrieved 25 July 2021.
  24. ^ "New Cross Fire - New Cross Road, London, UK", Blue Plaques on Waymarking.com.
  25. ^ "Memorial plaque for New Cross fire victims unveiled". BBC News. 18 January 2011.
  26. ^ "New Cross Fire Memorial in Fordham Park", Transpontine, 25 February 2014.
  27. ^ "13 Dead, Nothing Said" exhibition at Goldsmiths - Exhibition video, 10 March 2017.
  28. ^ "13 Dead, Nothing Said" | 16 May 2017 – 27 May 2017" – Exhibition notes by Les Back.
  29. ^ Lancaster, Victoria (18 March 2017). "Photographs uncover 1981 New Cross march for racial equality". East London Lines. Retrieved 16 November 2020.
  30. ^ "From the Ashes of New Cross". Lights Out. BBC Radio 4. 26 October 2020.
  31. ^ Leszkiewicz, Anna (4 November 2020). "Remembering the New Cross house fire". New Statesman. Retrieved 25 July 2021.
  32. ^ Kanter, Jake (10 May 2021). "Steve McQueen To Co-Direct BBC Race Relations Documentary Series 'Uprising'". Deadline Hollywood.
  33. ^ Haynes, Suyin (11 December 2020). "Alex Wheatle on the Life Story That Inspired Steve McQueen's Latest Small Axe Film". TIME.
  34. ^ "Jay Bernard wins Ted Hughes new poetry award". BBC News Online. BBC. 28 March 2018. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  35. ^ Lea, Richard (28 March 2018). "Jay Bernard's 'personal and brave' poetry wins Ted Hughes award". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  36. ^ Benjamin, Colin (8 June 2019). "British writer launches poetry show based on 'New Cross Massacre' which killed 13 Blacks". Black Star News. Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  37. ^ "Linton Kwesi Johnson - New Crass Massahkah". Archived from the original on 21 December 2021 – via YouTube.
  38. ^ "Lover's Rock, Drama on 3 - BBC Radio 3". BBC. 11 November 2012.
  39. ^ John, Gus (6 December 2011). "30 years after the New Cross fire: challenging racism today". Socialist Worker.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°28′33″N 0°01′49″W / 51.4757°N 0.0304°W / 51.4757; -0.0304