On Saturday 17th January 1981, a 16th birthday party was held at 439 New Cross Road for Yvonne Ruddock. Early the next morning, the 18th, 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. Many people believed that that the fire was a racist attack and the police initially suggested that it may have been caused by a firebomb, they later rejected this theory, claiming that the fire had been started following an argument in the party. Racists sent abusive letters to victim’s families and the police investigation was haphazard.
There had been several 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 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’. The rebuilt Albany is now home to poetry organisation Apples and Snakes. 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. 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. 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’, and ‘The Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London’.
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’. Thirty years on the families of those who died still had 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, said: “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.
Whilst I was far from New Cross, I was a teenager. The same age of many of the dead and going to reggae dances and parties most weekends. The anger and sense of injustice was felt by black people across Britain and by many people of all backgrounds across the city. Since then we’ve seen the government, media and police indifference and fabrication in the likes of Hillsborough. I well remember the sense of injustice but also that people came together in the face of it. There were a number of songs and poems about the incident. Ben Zephaniah’s and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poems can be heard below.
There’s also a record from longstanding record producer Sir Collins who lost a son in the tragedy.