Blog by Maurice Mcleod, Chief Executive, Race on the Agenda.
If black lives didn’t seem to matter in 2020, they mattered even less four decades earlier.
Forty years ago this weekend (Sunday 18 January 1981), a joyous 16th birthday party in a South London home, turned into a tragedy after 13 black youngsters were killed when the house became a deadly inferno.
Friends Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson were celebrating upstairs in Yvonne’s parents’ house with around 70 friends when a fire started on the ground floor and trapped many of the youngsters in the house. 13 young people died that night and a 14th, Anthony Berbeck, was so traumatised that he took his life two years later.
The New Cross Fire is hardly remembered by many white Londoners, but it is seared into the consciousness of Britain’s black communities. As well as a tragedy for all the families involved, the event was also a seminal moment in relations between Britain’s Black community and the government.
By and large, those migrants who came over from the Caribbean in the 50s and 60s as part of the Windrush generation were obediently subjects of the Commonwealth, who dutifully answered the call from Queen and mother country. However, their children’s generation growing up in the 70s and 80s had a rather different view of their parents’ adopted home. Rather than the welcoming mother country, they found it to be a hostile environment where those in authority seemed to care little for their welfare and whose citizens who were constantly demanding they to ‘go back to their own country’. While the Windrush generation may have accepted this hostility with weary resignation, their children would be less compliant. Those twin elements of a hostile host population and disinterested authorities, combined in the horror of the fire and the lack-lustre investigation that followed.
Many in the black community were convinced the fire was the work of racially motivated arsonists. In fact, when the police turned up, this was what onlookers were told by officers on the scene. The far-right National Front was active in South London at the time and there had been a spate of racist attacks in the area. Three years earlier, a black community centre, the Moonshot Club, was firebombed shortly after newspaper reports that burning down the club had been discussed at a National Front meeting.
As is sadly all too familiar when tragedies strike black communities in the UK, the initial reaction of the police left a lot to be desired. Officers investigating the New Cross tragedy quickly decided that the fire had actually started following a fight and focussed their efforts on trying to find a culprit from among the victims.
This pattern of police failing to investigate crimes against black people adequately because they initially treated black victims as suspects has been repeated countless times. The investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence twelve years later is just one prominent example.
The New Cross Fire and the community’s frustration with the police investigation sparked a Black People's Day of Action on 2 March, which saw 20,000 people march from New Cross to Whitehall. It was the largest black protest Britain had ever seen and it brought much of London to a standstill. The frustrations in Britain’s black communities were at boiling point and just weeks later a series of uprisings spread across the country with the most serious being in Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth, Chapletown and Moss Side.
Black people were convinced the reaction of the Government and police to the deaths of so many young people was largely indifference. The New Cross Fire proved that our lives didn’t matter.
Now 40 years on, there is still no official answer to why these young people died. There have been numerous investigations. There have been two inquests, decades apart, which both returned open verdicts. The last, in 2004, found that on balance of probability the fire was started deliberately but it wasn’t clear whether this was by someone at the party.
Deputy coroner, Gerald Butler QC said at the time:
"While I think it probable ... that this fire was begun by deliberate application of a flame to the armchair near to the television ... I cannot be sure of this.
"The result is this, that in the case of each and every one of the deaths, I must return an open verdict."
With every passing year, it becomes less and less likely that we will ever truly know what happened in that south London home all those years ago.
We can’t change the past but we can make sure that our police and criminal justice system is fit for purpose and treats all victims with care and compassion. We might never bring to justice those responsible for the tragedy but we can demand that crimes against our communities are taken seriously in future.
This is the least we can do for those who still bear the physical and emotional scars of that night and those who never got to grow up.
Victims of the New Cross Fire:
- Andrew Gooding (18.02.1962 – 18.01.1981)
- Owen Thompson (11.09.1964 – 18.01.1981)
- Patricia Johnson (16.05.1965 – 18.01.1981)
- Patrick Cummings (21.09.1964 – 18.01.1981)
- Steve Collins (2.05.1963 – 18.01.1981)
- Lloyd Hall (28.11.1960 – 18.01.1981)
- Humphrey Geoffrey Brown (4.07.1962 – 18.01.1981)
- Roseline Henry (23.09.1964 – 18.01.1981)
- Peter Campbell (23.02.1962 – 18.01.1981)
- Gerry Paul Francis (21.08.1963 – 18.01.1981)
- Glenton Powell (18.01.1966 – 25.01.1981)
- Paul Ruddock (19.11.1960 – 09.02.1981)
- Yvonne Ruddock (17.01.1965 – 24.01.1981)
- Anthony Berbeck (17.08.1962 – 09.07.1983)
Blog by: Maurice Mcleod, ROTA Chief Executive