Thirteen young people died at a house fire in New Cross, south London on 18 January, 1981. They had been attending a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock, aged 16. Thirteen people died in the inferno including Yvonne and her brother. To this day, the 1981 New Cross Fire remains a mystery causing anguish and anger.
Even by the standards of the time, the New Cross Fire was a horrific incident. And I say that because house fires claiming lives often got surprisingly little media coverage. In this case, the tone of the media commentary and the attitude of the police played into an already existing sense of grievance among many black people in south London and beyond.
It’s reasonable to say now that this house fire set in train a series of events that would lead to the riots that convulsed cities across the UK in the spring and summer of that year.
A 2001 article in The Guardian details how the police focussed on the idea of something illegal going on at the party – or possible a fight between partygoers being the root cause. In contrast, many black activists believed the fire had been an arson attack with racist motives.
In a way, the cause was overshadowed by the reaction to the event. To many black youth, it seemed that the establishment revealed its indifference to those caught up in the New Cross Fire.
For example, there was no statement of condolence from the prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Whereas now, a tragedy like Grenfell – and similar incidents – are treated with a far greater degree of sensitivity.
Local anger resulted in a Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March, 1981 – new photographs of which were featured in a recent exhibition. It took a long route from Fordham Park in south London, through Peckham and Camberwell, on to Blackfriars and Fleet Street, then finally through the west end to Hyde Park.
Official estimates put the turnout at around 6,000 while the organisers claimed 20,000 – these kind of disparities for demo turnouts were really common at the time. The authorities always wanted to play down attendance whereas the organisers wanted to inflate the numbers. The truth was always somewhere in between.
Tragically, to this day, the cause and motive behind the New Cross Fire remains a mystery. But in the months ahead, simmering anger at the police boiled over on to the streets.