A party to celebrate the 16th birthday of Yvonne Ruddock at her home in Deptford-New Cross, south-east London will become known as the New Cross Fire of January 18, 1981 which claimed the lives of 13 black youth aged 14 to 22.
The party on January 17 Saturday night attracted more than a hundred of Ruddock’s friends, however, in the early hours of the morning, the family celebration turned tragic when smoke and fire engulfed the building as people pushed to get out of the windows.
Thirteen of the people in the house died – including the birthday girl, Yvonne Ruddock, and her brother. One of the survivors was so traumatized that he committed suicide two years later.
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Curiously enough, the cause of the fire has not been established. Again, no one has ever been charged over the issue.
The New Cross Fire tragedy highlighted hostility between black Britons, the police and the media.
On the night of the fire, nine black youth died. By February 9, four more black teenagers had succumbed to their fire injuries. Before the New Cross Fire, black homes and community centers were targeted and burnt down. Many black Britons believed that the National Front (NF), a fascist group, was responsible for those incidents as well as the New Cross Fire tragedy.
Corroborated eyewitness accounts placed a ‘white man’ in an Austin Princess vehicle at the New Cross Fire scene. Witnesses stated that he threw a Molotov cocktail into the house party. Others believed, however, that the fire started from a dispute between revelers.
After several subsequent failed inquests by The Metropolitan Police, black Britons were convinced that the police had failed the black community by not treating the 13 black youth deaths seriously.
A week after the fire, 2,000 mourners gathered at the Moonshot Youth Centre in South London to pay their respects and to ‘devote themselves to the struggle for justice.’
It was through the ‘assembly of the people’ that black-Britons discovered that the police was ‘forcing statements’ out of black youth without lawyers or parents being present.
Subsequently, the New Cross Massacre Action Group was formed and led by activists, writers, and civil rights campaigners John La Rose and Darcus Howe. They declared March 2, the ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ to demonstrate against the Met’s mishandling of the teenagers’ deaths.
On March 2, an estimated 20,000 demonstrators marched in protest against racial injustice in British society. For 10 hours campaigners marched eight miles from Fordham Park, South London to Hyde Park, Central London with placards stating, ‘Thirteen Dead, Nothing Said’ and ‘No Police Cover-Up.’
“Weeks after the demonstration, ‘Swamp 81’, a plainclothes police operation, was launched in Brixton, South London, the heart of the black Briton community. In early April, an estimated 943 peoples were stopped and searched by the police under ‘Sus laws’, an addendum to the 1824 Vagrancy Act, and 188 black youths were arrested. Many black Britons viewed those acts the state’s retaliation for the ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ demonstration. From April to the end of the summer of 1981, several significant uprisings occurred in various British cities.”
The wave of riots which took place in cities across Britain that year and most famously in Brixton, according to some observers, was instigated by the loss of the 13 lives and the apathy in finding justice for the perished.
Lord Scarman described the relationship between the police and the black community as “a tale of failure.”
Decades on, the police noted after studying scientific evidence that the fire had started inside the house – either by accident or on purpose.
The media hostility which followed assumed that something illegal had taken place unwilling to believe the party could just be a group of children enjoying themselves.
Ros Howells, who became a Baroness, stated the black community started to believe that the lives of their children were worthless in the eyes of the non-blacks, a view strengthened by the media portrayals and police action or inaction.
Detective Superintendent Mike Parks leading a new team to find closure believes due to advances in forensic science they have been able to pin-point the exact location of the fire when it started (by an armchair in the front room) and the exact time it broke out – 5.40am.
Robert McKenzie remembers the police interrogating him like he was a criminal. His terrifying experience escaping from the party was made worse by his experience at the hands of the police. “They gave me no respect and I felt like I had been arrested – not asked to share information. They didn’t want to listen to the truth.”
The jury returned an open verdict. 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.”