Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New Cross Fire: the bleakest moment

My first memory of New Cross comes from around 1981, years before I lived here. I was in the back of a car being driven by a friend's parents across London to Kent, in the days before the M25 made it possible to drive around London instead. In the traffic jam we stopped by the haunting burnt out shell of a house, which we immediately recognised from the TV coverage as the scene of the terrible New Cross Fire.

On Saturday 17th January 1981, a 16th birthday party was held at 439 New Cross Road for Yvonne Ruddock. In the early hours of the next morning, a fire broke out and 13 young black people, all between the ages of 15 and 20 years old, were killed. Yvonne Ruddock was among the dead. One survivor killed himself a couple of years later, so the death toll is often given as 14.

There's an excellent BBC Windrush Years documentary about the fire, first broadcast in 1998, which you may be able to find online. It describes the New Cross Fire as ‘the bleakest moment in a decade of alienation and bitterness', and includes interviews with people who were at the party. Sometimes the actual event gets lost behind its political and cultural significance - we must never underestimate the horror of the night, with the terrible injuries, physical and mental, suffered by the survivors, and the dreadful scenes that greeted emergency services and others when they arrived at the house. Harry Powell, a witness, recalled: ‘I lived on Alpha Road... as I turned the corner I realized there was kids ... jumping out of the window, fire was blazing, screaming’.

Shocking too was the racist response to the fire, with abusive letters sent to victims’ families. In this climate, it is not surprising that many believed that that the fire was the result a racist attack and the police initially suggested that it may have been caused by a firebomb – a theory they later rejected in favour of claiming that the fire had been started following an argument in the party.

Local black people recalled that there had been other racist arson attacks in the area. In November 1977 a newspaper reported that a National Front meeting had included talk of burning down the Moonshot, a New Cross youth club popular with young black people. On December 18th, it was indeed gutted in a firebomb attack and had to be rebuilt.

The Albany in Deptford was a centre of local anti-racist activity, including ‘Rock Against Racism’ gigs, a three day ‘All Together Now’ festival, a benefit to scrap the suss laws and a successful anti racist show called ‘Restless natives’. On the 14th July 1978 the Albany (then at 47 Creek Road) was gutted by fire. The next day a note was pushed through the door of the building saying ‘GOT YOU’.

Back in January 1971, in nearby Ladywell, three petrol bombs had been thrown into an African-Caribbean party in Sunderland Road, seriously injuring several people. Two white racists were later jailed for the attack, and as with the New Cross Fire ten years later, the police were accused of inaction. In fact in the following week, the police arrested eight members of the Black Unity and Freedom Party in a fracas on their way home from visiting the fire’s victims at Lewisham hospital. A march by 150 black people and supporters to Ladywell police station a few weeks after the fire saw further arrests.

Throughout the 1970s there had a significant far right presence in south East London. In 1976, the National Front and the National Party achieved a combined vote of 44.5% in a Deptford council by-election. And on 13 August 1977, a National Front March to Lewisham started in New Cross, in Achilles Street by Fordham Park. The clashes between the NF, anti-fascists and the police on that day became known as the Battle of Lewisham.

But it wasn’t just the possible racist attack that inflamed anger. While local community activists like Sybil Phoenix rallied round to support those affected, there was little or no official support, not even the usual messages of condolence from the Queen or the prime minister. The police interrogated party goers as if they were criminals rather than victims, and the press reporting was largely unsympathetic. As Linton Kwesi Johnson recalled ‘a lot of people were angry... not just about what happened, but about the way the whole business was handled by the police and the way it was reported in the press and the media'.

On the Sunday following the fire a mass meeting was held at The Moonshot Club, attended by over 1000 people. From that meeting there was a demonstration to the scene of the fire, which blocked New Cross Road for several hours. A New Cross Massacre Action Committee was established and organised weekly mass meetings in New Cross. It also called the Black People's Day of Action on Monday 2nd March 1981.

On a wet working day, at least 15,000 (some say 20,000) 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', 'Blood Ah Go Run If Justice No Come' – the largest single political mobilization of black people ever seen in the UK. LKJ was a steward on the march, and remembers that 'all along the march we kept on picking up more people... school children were climbing over fences to come and join the demonstration in Peckham'. Other walked out of their workplaces to join in.

The march passes Clifton Rise in New Cross

Although the march was mainly peaceful, The Sun reported it with the headline: ‘The Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London’, with other press reports featuring headlines like 'Black day at Blackfriars' and 'When the black tide met the thin blue line'. Paul Gilroy, who took part, relates that 'we were deeply disappointed that the justice in our claim and the tragedy itself was still considered to be secondary to the sensation'.

Black People's Day of Action - the New Cross Massacre Action Committee banner on the march

Thirty years later the families of those who died still have no answers. A second inquest in 2004 recorded an open verdict, and nobody has ever been charged. Many now query the racist attack hypothesis, but the sense of injustice remains. Playwright Rex Obano, who is helping to organise the memorial event at the Albany on Friday, was featured in an article in The Guardian this week. He stated: "To me, the New Cross fire, the fact that no one in authority seemed to care, forced the black community to unify, to find its voice in a way it hadn't before. This politicised people from all over the country. They marched in protest: thousands of people on a workday. I was 13 at the time and I always thought the older generation was comparatively passive. New Cross shows it wasn't like that at all. They dealt with so much. There had been other uprisings. But this was a line in the sand."

It is no coincidence that in the month following the New Cross Fire demonstration, Brixton erupted in the first of what was to be a long hot summer of riots in cities across the country.

See also: New Cross Fire remembered at the Albany and on Radio 4

(updated post, March 2016 - the original post included clips from the BBC documentary mentioned, but these have now been taken down from youtube)


Deptford dame said...

Excellent post thanks, and particularly for the clips that you have included.

eleanargh said...

In case you haven't seen, there's a plaque to be unveiled at the house on Tuesday at 2pm - information at Operation Black Vote here

abw said...

Thank you so much for this excellent post.

Sanjit said...

An excellent post, and a reminder of the fact that the whole case remains unresolved.

Anonymous said...

I remember this very well. Two kids from my school were killed in the fire. It just didn't seem real at the time but I passed the building every day and reality sank in.