The Deptford Fire – months before the Brixton Riots


Thirteen young people died at a house fire in Deptford, south London on 18 January, 1981. They had been at a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock, aged 16. Thirteen people died in the inferno including Yvonne and her brother.

Even by the standards of the time, this 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. 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 fire remains a mystery.

A demonstration outside the house in Deptford

Toyah – the tale end of punk


It’s a funny old thing – but looking back over my copies of the NME, Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, etc, etc….up pops Toyah.  All the bleedin’ time.  As late as April 1983, No 1 magazine is telling us that Toyah has released ONLY two singles that year – The Vow and Rebel Run and ONLY one album – Love is the Law.   Can’t say I remember a single note from these songs or that august album.

In 1983, she also acted for six months in a “wrestling play” called Trafford Tanzi – and, her people pointed out, she acted in it for every night for six months unlike that Debbie Harry who only lasted two weeks in the US version.  Hmmm….I’m with Debbie Harry.  Maybe she just had better things to do.

Toyah, for her part, was her usual bubbly self:  “1983 was a very good year for me, a very busy year, with Tanzi and everything.  I found it enjoyable but not my best year to date – I’m hoping 1984 will be.”

She then went on to say that it was very good that Maggie Thatcher had got re-elected (not very punk of her) and it was going to take time for her policies to work.  However, Toyah didn’t think Thatcher would win the next election.  Wrong on both counts then.

Toyah then announced that she’d been having a go at bodypopping (don’t visualise if you’ve just eaten).  But unfortunately “my physique’s a bit wrong”.   Surely not.