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New Cross house fire

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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 thirteen young people aged between 14 and 22, and one survivor committed suicide two years later.[1]

No one has ever been charged in connection to the fire, which forensic science subsequently established was started from inside the house, either by accident or deliberately.

Circumstances

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.[2]

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 locally.

There had also been some early complaints from neighbours about excessive noise from the party.[3]

A white Austin Princess was seen driving away from the fire.[3]

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 5:40am on Sunday morning and police ruled out the theory that a fight had taken place.[4]

Aftermath and the Black People's Day of Action

One week after the fire, on 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.

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 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.[5][6]

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 of the reports 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 the march at the rear. Press indifference or outright hostility led to an 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 been traumatised by the death of his friends in the blaze.[7]

Inquests

The inquest into the deaths of the 13 teenagers saw criticism of the police. 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,[8] This second inquest also resulted in an open verdict.

Commemoration

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 Massakah".

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.[9][10]

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 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'[11] exhibition was hosted at Goldsmiths College, University of London. The exhibition[12] presents a body of photographs taken by Vron Ware documenting the Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March 1981. The images bear witness to an historic moment of community organising and resistance in post-war Britain.

Cultural references

  • 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" and UB40's "Don't Let It Pass You By".
  • The lyrics of Carter USM's 1992 song "The Only Living Boy in New Cross" can be read as a reference to the fire.
  • Rex Obano's radio play Lover's Rock (BBC Radio 3 - broadcast November 2012) is a fictional account of the events leading up to the New Cross Fire.[13]
  • In March 2018, poet Jay Bernard's performance work investigating the fire, Surge: Side A, won the 2017 Ted Hughes Award for new poetry.[14][15]
  • 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.

See also

References

  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. ^ Alexis Akwagyiram, "Did the New Cross fire create a black British identity?", BBC News, 18 January 2011.
  3. ^ a b "1981: Nine die in New Cross house fire". 1981. Retrieved 26 May 2018.
  4. ^ Dee Lahiri, "'I don't think I can die before I find out what happened to my son'", The Guardian, 15 May 2001.
  5. ^ Darcus Howe, "New Cross: the blaze we cannot forget", The Guardian, 17 January 2011.
  6. ^ "New Cross fire - a turning point?", Barling's London, BBC, 18 January 2011.
  7. ^ "Eyewitnesses describe killer fire", BBC News, 11 February 2004.
  8. ^ Terri Judd, "23 years on, new inquest opens into black youths killed in fire", The Independent, 3 February 2004.
  9. ^ Hugh Muir, "Hideously diverse Britain: Memories of the New Cross tragedy never fade", The Guardian, 11 January 2011.
  10. ^ "Remembering the New Cross Fire", The Albany, January 2011.
  11. ^ [1] '13 Dead, Nothing Said' exhibition at Goldsmiths - Exhibition video
  12. ^ [2] Exhibition notes by Professor Les Back
  13. ^ "Lover's Rock, Drama on 3 - BBC Radio 3". BBC.
  14. ^ "Jay Bernard wins Ted Hughes new poetry award". BBC News Online. BBC. 28 March 2018. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  15. ^ Lea, Richard (28 March 2018). "Jay Bernard's 'personal and brave' poetry wins Ted Hughes award". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 8 April 2018.

Further reading

  • Gordon-Orr, Neil (2004). Deptford Fun City: a ramble through the history and music of New Cross and Deptford. London: Past Tense Publications.
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