In the early morning on Sunday 18 January 1981, a fire broke out at 439 New Cross Road in the London Borough of Lewisham. The house had been full the night before, with revellers celebrating the sixteenth birthday of Yvonne Ruddock and the eighteenth birthday of her friend Angela Jackson. Thirteen young Black Britons, including Yvonne and her brother Paul, lost their lives as a result of the fire. Two-and-a-half years later, Anthony Berbeck took his own life, becoming the fourteenth victim of the massacre. Forty years on, it is vital that we continue to remember the story of the New Cross Massacre.

For four decades, the cause of the fire has remained a source of serious contention. Police officers at the scene of the fire initially blamed the neo-fascist National Front. This theory was corroborated by eyewitnesses who reported having seen a white man drive away from the house in a light-coloured Austin Princess moments after the fire had started. Moreover, local far-right extremism and the longer history of racist arson attacks in the area suggested that the fire was a deliberate attack. Despite this, it wasn’t long before the police began to blame the victims.

The New Cross Massacre became a clarion call for political action at the beginning of a tumultuous year for Black Britons across urban England. The police were widely seen to be scapegoating young Black Britons for the tragedy and the media barely reported the massacre.  Meanwhile Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher failed to send condolences despite sending a similar letter to the Taoiseach following the Stardust nightclub fire in Dublin three weeks later.

Image by Vron Ware for Searchlight: The Anti-Fascist Monthly. Photographs now held by Autograph ABP (CC BY-NC 4.0)

In the face of this silence, activists from across London established the New Cross Massacre Action Committee. The Action Committee sought to raise awareness of the tragedy, raise money for the bereaved, and establish the true cause of the fire. They created a campaign to memorialise the victims and conducted their own investigation which would take seriously the testimonies and experiential expertise of people on the ground.

The victims of the fire were very publicly memorialised during the Black People’s Day of Action (2 March 1981) when up to 20,000 people (estimates vary) marched for over 12 miles through central London—from New Cross Road to Hyde Park—with many carrying aloft placards bearing pictures of the thirteen victims, their names, and dates of birth and death. It was a profoundly moving act of memorialisation and defiance. Nevertheless, the popular press focused overwhelmingly on the minor disturbances that occurred on an otherwise overwhelmingly peaceful demonstration. The symbolism of the march drew on Black British history, and articulated new Black futures. Through the occupation of urban space, the marchers filled the silence rendered by the state’s indifference to the loss of Black lives and proclaimed: ‘Come what may, we are here to stay’.

Image by Vron Ware for Searchlight: The Anti-Fascist Monthly. Photographs now held by Autograph ABP (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The silence over the loss of thirteen lives was also filled by music and poetry. In towns and cities across England, concerts and readings were held to raise funds for the victims’ families and those injured escaping the fire. One event in Leeds in August 1981, branded ‘An evening of black cultural expression’, included poetry, music and dance alongside hair-plaiting and painting competitions. Though much of the political action focused on London, the tragedy spurred action across the country.

Artists like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Johnny Osbourne also wrote poems and songs, telling the story of the massacre, and condemning the silence which followed it. Sir Collins, who lost his son Steven in the fire, produced a whole album in tribute to the thirteen young Black Britons—the album features Steven’s voice, recorded when he was much younger. The poet Nefertiti Gayle later memorialised the tragedy alongside acts of racist violence in London, the United States, and Apartheid South Africa.[1]

An inquest was held into the deaths in May 1981, but an open verdict was returned; the jury could not (or would not) specify the cause. The verdict was disputed by those who believed that the fire had been the result of a racist arson attack, and the conduct of the Inner South London Coroner, who oversaw the inquest, caused particular dismay, exposing systemic flaws in the investigation of controversial deaths.

A second Coroner’s inquest into the New Cross fire held in 2002 also returned an open verdict—though, crucially, the partygoers were fully cleared of any responsibility. Over the forty years, events have continued to be held to commemorate the tragedy and remember those who lost their lives. A series of public memorials have been installed naming the fourteen young men, women, and children who lost their lives as a result of the fire—these include plaques on 439 New Cross Road and Lewisham Town Hall, and a memorial in Fordham Park. This year marks the fortieth anniversary, but unlike the thirtieth when public events were held at the Albany Theatre in Deptford, the COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdown will inevitably mean that commemorations will take a different form this year.

The New Cross Massacre exposed the indifference and disdain with which government and the media have treated the loss of Black lives. In 2021—after a year which saw Black Lives Matter protesters once again take to streets across the world in protest against racist violence, and people of colour disproportionately impacted by coronavirus—there has never been a more urgent moment to remember the victims of past racial violence, and, just as anti-racists in New Cross and beyond did forty years ago, to resist the racism endemic in modern British society.

The fourteen victims of the New Cross massacre were: Rosaline Henry; Patricia Johnson; Humphrey Brown; Gerry Paul Francis; Owen Wesley Thompson; Andrew Gooding; Peter Campbell; Lloyd Hall; Patrick Cummings; Steve Collins; Yvonne Ruddock; Glenton Powell; Paul Ruddock; and Anthony Berbeck.

 

Aaron Andrews is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Leeds Beckett University working on the AHRC-funded project ‘Forged by Fire: Burns Injury and Identity in Britain, 1800-2000’. He has published on inequality and the inner city in Britain and his article on the cultural politics of the New Cross massacre is forthcoming with History Workshop Journal. He tweets @DrAaronAndrews.

 

[1] Nefertiti Gayle, ‘Every Time Me ‘memba’ (no date) reproduced in Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, London, 1985, pp. 211 and 239.

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