The recent ‘Small Axe’ series by Steve McQueen featured by the BBC featured events in Black History and racism that many even the Black community had largely been forgotten about. There is a passing reference to the New Cross Fire at 439 New Cross Road, on the 18th of January 1981 killing 13 young Black people between the ages of 14 and 22 in the film ‘Alex Wheatle’. The film is based on the life of the author Alex Wheatle who was arrested during the April 1981 Brixton uprising, a response to the racist police investigation into the New Cross fire, the massacre.
As a reminder that young people whatever colour their skins have parties, McQueen’s film ‘Lovers Rock‘ is a stunning enactment of just such a party. Maybe like the one those young people were having in New Crosss Road in 1981.
To this day the New Cross Massacre remains an unsolved festering sore in Black relations with the police and authorities at the height of arrogant institutional racism.
There can be no peace from this poor investigation and the quick promotion of the idea that someone in the party started the fire (not backed up with any form of proof), and the authorities promotion to the public of a subversive party, organised by Black people up to no good, when in fact it was a joint birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson just like any other teenage birthday party, Black or White. The efforts to spread this mis-information and the lack of genuine investigation in an area where there was recorded high racial tension, leads to mistrust of the authorities to this day and leaves many, many unanswered questions.
You cannot escape the facts that this racially motivated investigation paved the way for the Grenfell Tower evasion of moral codes, but as we so often say ‘No Justice No Peace’.
This injustice will be revisted over every decade, as you can see below, until justice and decency prevail as we now enter the 40th Anniversary of this tragic event. We start with the article written for the New Statesman in 1999 by Darcus Howe, followed by an article by Dee Lahari for the Guardian in 2001. On the 30th anniversary of the massacre, Black History Studies posted a blog. Video of the the placing of the Nubian Jak Community Trust Plaque on 439 New Cross Road in 2011 for those who died in the fire. Documentary on BBC Radio 4 in 2020. Finally, the article by Huffington Post in 2020 with interviews from eye witnesses at the time.
This is a long read, but worth it. It’s up to us to know our history.
In 1999 Darcus Howe wrote in the New Statesman
Why I still think the New Cross fire was a massacre
I have tried hard not to re-enter the New Cross fire issue, in which 13 black children were burnt to death at a birthday party in Deptford, south London, 18 years ago.
At the regular weekly assembly that followed the fire, activists voted to have a national demonstration and I was elected organiser. Twenty thousand demonstrators marched across London from New Cross to Hyde Park, accusing the police investigation into the fire of being fraudulent and charging that a petrol bomb was thrown into the house by some demented racist.
To this day, the cause of the fire has not been officially established. Some of the parents, mainly the Francis and Gooding families, continue to campaign for a new inquest. Mr Francis has said publicly that, of the five adults at the party, one of them is concealing information that would lead to a new inquest and a solution to the mystery.
A couple of journalists and maybe a parent or two tried to suggest that I undermined the police inquiry by deliberately raising the matter of a petrol bomb. I was, they seemed to be saying, a political opportunist or a troublemaker. Now that the issue has returned on the back of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, my detractors have returned, aided by slack journalistic reportage. My caution about a re-entry into the fray turns on my respect for the grief still in the hearts of those parents who lost their children.
But I can no longer hold my peace. One day last week, a letter was hand-delivered to my home. It began:
“Dear Darcus, this is Gee Ruddock, will you please, please contact me re the New Cross fire.”
It was Ruddock who held the party in the house at 498 New Cross Road to celebrate her daughter’s 16th birthday party. She lost two children, Yvonne and Paul. She has kept quiet all these years, been hounded by the police, accused of all sorts of things. Like myself, she can no longer remain silent. In her case, it is being suggested – and cruelly so – that she is withholding information that could help solve the mystery.
The first time I ever set eyes on Gee Ruddock she was staying at a hostel in Lewisham. It was about 24 hours after the fire. Ruddock was lucid, obviously drowned in grief, but in full control of her faculties.
On two occasions, within an hour or two of the fire, two different police officers told her that it had been caused by a petrol bomb. The first officer was on the scene outside the house, the second at King’s College Hospital. The evidence was live and direct. A group of young men at the bus-stop had seen a white man alight from an Austin Princess, hurl a fire-bomb into the party and speed away. Later an incendiary device was found outside the window. Add to that a bottle with a wick tucked into it.
Imagine, then, the anger that shot through the black community. “Massacre” was as apt a description as you could find. As the anger rose, the incendiary devices disappeared. The petrol-bomb theory was quickly replaced by the theory of the fight. Under the aegis of a chief superintendent who had prosecuted me in a trial 11 years earlier, the theory developed that a fight between young blacks had been the central cause of the fire.
It was the deceased Wesley Thompson, we were told, who fell out with another guest, who set fire to the settee and proceeded to the top floor where he was burnt to death. A sort of kamikaze type, I suppose.
Gee Ruddock recalls all of this in an amazingly detailed way. She is determined to set the record straight. After all, she was the only parent present at the party. She has given several statements to the police who trawled through her private life and gathered every titbit of gossip and malicious rumour. Gee Ruddock is a fighter. She says a bomb caused the fire.
I believed her then and I continue to do so.
‘I don’t think I can die before I find out what happened to my son’
In January 1981, Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister for nearly two years, John Lennon’s Imagine was at the top of the charts, and Britain was a long way from the visibly multicultural society it is today. The youngest son of George and Tina Francis had been asked to DJ for a friend’s birthday party. “Gerry loved music,” says George Francis. “He lived for his music – he couldn’t wait for that night.” His wife Tina remembers Gerry practising his DJ skills at their home in south east London. He was 17 and had ambitions to work in the music industry.
The party was to celebrate the 16th birthday of Yvonne Ruddock at her home in Deptford. It was a Saturday night – January 17. More than a hundred of her friends had been invited, including Robert McKenzie, who was a friend of her brother. Like the hosts and most of the guests, Robert was a black teenager who was into soul music and the latest designer fashions.
“It was a great night,” he remembers. “We were all friends, enjoying the music, enjoying the atmosphere. It was a happy occasion – like being part of one big family.”
But in the early hours of the morning the family celebration turned to tragedy.
“I remember lots of smoke, people pushing to get out of the windows.” says McKenzie. “I managed to push my girlfriend and followed her.”
For the Francis family, the bad news was broken by a phone call on Sunday morning.
“I picked up the phone,” says George, “and heard this voice saying Gerry is dead.”
Thirteen of the people in the house died – including the birthday girl, Yvonne Ruddock, and her brother. One of the survivors was so traumatised that he committed suicide two years later.
To this day the cause of the fire has not been established. But detectives investigating the fire now say they have fresh evidences that could lead to a new inquest. Spurred by the £50,000 the Met has put up for information about the incident, police officers are hopeful that 20 years later they can find out what really happened.
At the start of the original investigation, police believed it was a racist attack – that a firebomb was thrown through a downstairs window. The first officers on the scene said as much to people who had escaped from the house. But after studying scientific evidence, they concluded the fire had started inside the house – either by accident or on purpose. Officers came up with the theory that a fight had broken out between a group of boys at the party – and that the boys involved held the key to their inquiry.
McKenzie was one of the boys called in for questioning.
“They refused to listen to me when I told them that there wasn’t a fight,” he says. “They had their version of events and I felt I had to go along with them. In the end I caved in and told them what I thought they wanted.”
Eight boys who had been at the party made statements to the police, testifying that a fight had taken place. The local community, who remained convinced that the fire had been a racist attack, were angered and hurt by the turn the investigation had taken – a hurt compounded by public indifference and media hostility.
Ros Howells – now a Baroness – and then a Deptford community-worker remembers the tone of newspaper articles concerning the case.
“There was an assumption that something illegal had been going on at the party,” she says. “They didn’t believe it could just be a group of children enjoying themselves. It was at that point that the black community started to believe that the lives of their children were worthless – we felt the view was ‘What’s 13 dead? Let’s have a few more’.”
Six weeks after the fire, more than 10,000 people angered by alleged police brutality and incompetence took part in a protest march. The cause of the fire was never established. Later that year, a wave of riots took place in cities across Britain, most famously in Brixton. Later Lord Scarman described the relationship between the police and the black community as “a tale of failure”.
Today the police are trying to put the bitterness of the past to one side. Detective Superintendant Mike Parks has led the new investigation. He believes in some ways they have been helped by the passage of time – 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 the it broke out – 5.40am.
A team of officers have gone through all the original paperwork. But does it hold any clues as to why the original investigation failed to come up with any answers? Choosing his words carefully, Mike Parks says:
“I can’t answer for what happened in the past, but I have looked into this thoroughly and I think it was a competent investigation.”
However, the police have submitted documents to the coroner which they believe contain grounds to support an application for another inquest.
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.”
Mike Parks considers this carefully.
“The officers were investigating an extremely serious, tragic incident. They had to ask tough questions, they had to explore every option. Unfortunately, people often feel this way when they are questioned by the police.”
Three months after the fire, at the beginning of May 1981 – before the police had come to any conclusions – an inquest took place at County Hall in London. Helen Shaw, from the pressure group Inquest, is shocked by the speed of events.
“Today,” she says, “if police were investigating a controversial, serious case like this it would take up to two years, or even longer, before an inquest would be called. To me it seems as though the authorities just wanted to hurry things up so the whole issue could be shut away and forgotten about.”
The man in charge of the inquest was the most experienced coroner in the country – Dr Arthur Gordon Davies (now retired), he remembers the case vividly.
“It was a very volatile, highly charged event,” he says. “My concern was to stop blood on the streets. We’d had one riot already – I wanted to do everything possible to prevent another one.”
The New Cross Massacre Action Committee, which has been set up by the black community to support the bereaved families, maintained a presence outside the building. The families were represented by leading human rights lawyers, including Michael Mansfield and Rock Tansey.
“These people were there using my court as a theatre to play out their own political beliefs.” says Dr Davies. “They wanted to have a go at the establishment – and to them I represented the establishment.”
In an inquest, a coroner has complete control over what evidence is put before the court and is the only person who can sum up to the jury. Dr Davies spent a third of his summing up discussing the theory that a fight had broken out at the party – even though every one of the statements supporting that idea was retraced in the court.
“I saw no evidence that the police had applied pressure onto these young men,” he says. “Other outside influences had put pressure on them to say things, but not the police.”
The jury returned an open verdict. Families bereaved by the fire were appalled.
“It was a farce,” says George Francis.
Helen Shaw of Inquest says:
“Everything that could go wrong for families in the criminal justice system went wrong for these families.”
Police officers involved in the new investigation say they have completely ruled out the idea that a fight broke out at the party. They have also ruled out the idea of an attack from someone outside. But campaigners say that by wasting time pursuing the so-called fight theory, the police lost crucial evidence and any credibility.
The recording artist and poet Linton Kwesi Johnson is one of the founding members of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee. Twenty years on he is deeply cynical about the Met’s new investigation.
“Over the years they’ve had various theories,” he says. “Now they are going on about forensic science. Forensic science can say anything the police want it to say. The one theory they’re refusing to investigate is whether it was a firebomb thrown in a racist attack. Politically it would be too difficult for them to say if that were the case.”
Most of the families bereaved by the tragedy now accept that the fire was started by someone inside the house. But given the history of the investigation, doubts will inevitably remain about the police’s version of events.
Rock Tansey QC, who represented some of the families at the original inquest, believes that a public inquiry is needed so the events of the past can be properly examined.
“Public inquiries are expensive,” he says, “but they are by far the best way to find out the facts of a case. I think the government owes it to these families – and all sections of the community – to do this.”
“I’ll never give up,” says Tina, the mother of Gerry Francis – now in her 70s. “I love my son far too much. I don’t think I can die before I find out what really happened to him.”
From Black History Studies
New Cross Massacre
The New Cross Fire killed 13 young Black people during a birthday party in a house in New Cross, southeast London on Sunday January 18, 1981. The party was a joint birthday celebration for Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson and was held at 439 New Cross Road, going on throughout the night. There was a fairly high degree of racial tension in New Cross, as it was well known that the far right group the National Front were active in the area. It has been claimed that there had been early complaints about noise from the party leading the police to deduce that the house had been bombed either as a revenge attack or to stop the noise.
When arrests were not forthcoming, the Black community was shocked by the indifference of the white population, and accused the London Metropolitan Police of covering up the cause, which they suspected was an arson attack motivated by racism. The protests arising out of the fire led to a mobilisation of Black political activity, but nobody has ever been charged in relation to the fire and the Police now claim that this was not an arson attack.
In addition to the original 13, Anthony Berbeck died after falling from the balcony of a block of council flats in South London on July 9, 1983. He was at the party and became disturbed following the death of his best friends.
Victims of the New Cross Fire:
- Andrew Gooding (18.02.1962 – 18.01.1981)
- Owen Thompson (11.09.1964 – 18.01.1981)
- Patricia Johnson (16.05.1965 – 18.01.1981)
- Patrick Cummings (21.09.1964 – 18.01.1981)
- Steve Collins (2.05.1963 – 18.01.1981)
- Lloyd Hall (28.11.1960 – 18.01.1981)
- Humphrey Geoffrey Brown (4.07.1962 – 18.01.1981)
- Roseline Henry (23.09.1964 – 18.01.1981)
- Peter Campbell (23.02.1962 – 18.01.1981)
- Gerry Paul Francis (21.08.1963 – 18.01.1981)
- Glenton Powell (18.01.1966 – 25.01.1981)
- Paul Ruddock (19.11.1960 – 09.02.1981)
- Yvonne Ruddock (17.01.1965 – 24.01.1981)
- Anthony Berbeck (17.08.1962 – 09.07.1983)
See also the films of the event that took place, “Remembering the New Cross Fire” Celebration/commemoration gathering on the 14th January 2011, at the Albany Theatre in Deptford.
Nubian Jak Community Trust Plaque for those who died
From the Ashes of New Cross
BBC Radio 4 2020
On 18th January 1981, Yvonne Ruddock was celebrating her 16th birthday party in the family home at 439 New Cross Road in south-east London. What followed devastated countless families, scarred the community and shifted the position of black politics in British society. A fire broke out in a downstairs room and 13 young people were killed, including Yvonne and her elder brother Paul. A 14th young person died subsequently.
With the 40th anniversary of the fire approaching, Lights Out revisits the events of that night and their aftermath. The musician Johnny Osbourne encapsulated the official and media response to the fire in his song Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said.
At first, the police and local community suspected arson – a racist attack. After all, this was only a short time after the Battle of Lewisham in which black residents and activists had successfully confronted a National Front march just up the street. But no one was ever charged and, at the Inquest, an open verdict was returned.
Survivors of the fire – including members of the Ruddock family and Wayne Haynes, who was DJ’ing that night, along with community activists such as Sybil Phoenix who were witnesses to it and the subsequent Black People’s Day of Action – share their understanding of what happened and what the New Cross Fire has come to symbolise.
With a specially commissioned sequence of poems by unofficial Lewisham Laureate, Mark ‘Mr T’ Thompson.
Produced by Cherise Hamilton-Stephenson and Alan Hall
A Falling Tree production for BBC Radio 4
This brilliant piece from the Huffington Post in March 2020
Black People’s Day Of Action: Inside The 1981 New Cross Fire March That Brought Britain To A Standstill
Organised by the Action Committee headed by the late Darcus Howe:
It made history as one of the most significant political demonstrations ever to take place in Britain.
The Black People’s Day of Action march took place on March 2, 1981 – six weeks after the New Cross fire that claimed the lives of 13 young Black people.
A 14th victim, who had survived the blaze but was unable to cope with the trauma of seeing his friends perish, died by suicide two years later.
The question of whether or not “Black lives matter” predates the last few years; back in the 1980s, Black people felt there was a public lack of regard for the loss of young Black lives in the blaze.
The police were accused of not properly investigating what happened; the government was silent on the issue.
March 2, 1981: Grieving protesters march from New Cross to the House of Commons after 13 Black people were killed in the New Year fire at Deptford, south London.
For many, it seemed as though Black lives were not of importance. The decision to mobilise was borne of frustration with that notion.
Many Black families felt the time had come to stop being compliant with a society that didn’t accept them.
Only 50 people were expected, but hundreds turned up to a meeting on January 25, 1981, at the Moonshot Club in Lewisham, a Black youth centre, and decided to march in protest.
The New Cross Massacre Action Committee was set up, led by the late Darcus Howe and John La Rose, which kickstarted plans for the day of action.
Some 20,000 people marched across London to demand justice for the victims of the New Cross fire and insist that the establishment listen to the Black community.
People came from as far as France to attend, and fleets of coaches descended into the capital from cities such as Birmingham and Manchester.
Some 13 red banners bearing the names of the victims – mainly children – were carried by the crowds in addition to a coffin to be left at No.10.
The demonstration stopped traffic on Blackfriars Bridge, brought Britain to a standstill and signalled a turning point in the movement for race equality.
It went on to spark a series of nationwide uprisings – also referred to as “riots” – in Brixton, Liverpool, Moss Side and other inner city areas in the months and years that followed.
I think it’s important that the New Cross fire tragedy isn’t forgotten, particularly in the context of 2020 where we see it reflected in Grenfell, for instance – another huge fire which mostly affected ethnic minority communities – Joshua Anthony
The situation was further exacerbated by brewing racial tension. Police officers would harass young Black men through legislation such as the “sus laws”, while poverty and unemployment limited the prospects of many inner-city residents.
Some four decades later, the cause of the New Cross fire is still unknown.
Eye-witnesses suggested it was a racist arson attack; there was an account of a man who fled the scene in a white van.
The Lewisham area had a strong far-right presence, with regular attacks on Black people, community centres and youth clubs.
Three years before the New Cross fire, the Moonshot club – a Black community centre in Lewisham – was firebombed in December 1977, shortly after newspaper reports that burning down the club had been discussed at a National Front meeting.
The following year, the Albany centre in Deptford was set alight shortly after an anti-racism event was hosted there. A note was pushed through the door the following day saying “got you”.
Journalist Eddie Botsio, who has previously commissioned a documentary on the New Cross fire, told HuffPost UK:
“When tragedies like this occur, grieving families look to the authorities for answers and for someone to be held accountable.
“Whether they’re Liverpool fans at Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence’s parents in Eltham or the families of those who died at Grenfell, time and again ordinary people go to extraordinary lengths trying to get answers from those in positions of power.
“Yet in their pursuit of accountability, for many bereaved families, justice remains elusive and illusory.”
Still, one thing is certain: the fire and subsequent Black People’s Day of Action demonstration were a catalyst that led to widespread change in Britain. Things would never be the same again.
Leila Hassan Howe, Darcus’s widow and co-organiser of the march, told HuffPost UK:
“People felt very strongly that, with all that had gone on with Margaret Thatcher and all of the racism at the time, this was really the final straw.
“People were angry that no one had taken the death of 13 young Black people seriously, by any stretch of the imagination.
“One of the things that angered us at the time was the way the media had treated this. They didn’t treat it as a racist attack – it didn’t really get a lot of attention, the politicians really hadn’t said anything – so we decided we were going to march.”
Leila, a former Black Unity and Freedom Party member, explained that the move was deliberately designed to disrupt society.
It was decided, at Darcus’s suggestion, that the demonstration take place on a working day, as opposed to a weekend, for maximum impact.
″We wanted to demonstrate in a different way,” she said. “We didn’t want to have a rally, on a Saturday, in Trafalgar Square with speakers and then everybody goes home.
“We had to show British authorities that this was a step too far and we’re not going to put up with it.
“Once we got moving, you could feel the power of that march. It was people marching with purpose.”
The route was agreed with the police beforehand but the demonstration snowballed. In no time at all, numbers quickly began to swell with people hopping off buses and leaving school to join the cause.
Calvin Francis, then 15, walked out of his class at Peckham Manor School to be a part of the protest. He was grieving the loss of his friend, Patricia Johnson, who had died in the blaze.
“I was supposed to go to that dance [where the New Cross fire broke out] that night, but the party I was at in Lewisham Way was sweeter,” he told HuffPost UK.
“When I got home, my granny was awake waiting for me and told me what she heard on the news – LBC radio.”
On the day of the march, he said, most of his school “just got up and walked out to join it” as it passed the gates.
There was a confrontation between police and demonstrators when the procession approached Blackfriars Bridge and the authorities tried to stop them getting past, Leila said.
“Once we’d crossed Blackfriars Bridge,” she told HuffPost UK, “we were in commercial London and the police didn’t want the disruption, even though they had in theory agreed to the route.”
Though the march was largely peaceful, it was this clash that dominated news headlines with stories like “Day the blacks ran riot in London” in The Sun newspaper, “Black day on Blackfriars” and “Britain enters the era of the great terror!” – back when the National Front enjoyed the legitimacy of circulating its own publication.
As protesters marched down Fleet Street, London’s newspaper capital at the time, accounts describe reporters hung out of windows shouting racist abuse, making monkey sounds and throwing banana skins at the crowd.
“All the newspapers were based there,” said Leila. “People who were working at the newspapers were hanging out of the windows, shouting abuse at us. But we were busy shouting ourselves, chanting ’13 dead, nothing said’, so we were making our own noise, I have to say.
“The coverage of the march was awful. It was very negative.”
June Thompson, an administrative worker, described the day as “significant”.
“I’d never been on anything like that in my life but I was inspired to go,” the 55-year-old told HuffPost UK.
Thompson was a part of the action committee and helped oversee the creation of the demonstration banners and “13 dead, nothing said” T-shirts. She still has hers, nearly 40 years later.
“One voice with one purpose – to get our message across,” she said. “At the time there was a lot of racial tension within the air. It came to the stage where people felt like enough is enough.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever see a day like that again.”
Wayne Haynes, 56, is a survivor of the New Cross fire.
It was his sound system, “Gemini”, that was providing the music in the house party and he narrowly escaped with his life after jumping out of a window.
He watched the Black People’s Day of Action march from his hospital bed where he spent six long months recovering from injuries sustained during the blaze.
“Do you know what? As a Black man, I am so proud of that day,” he told HuffPost UK. “They showed it [on TV] like it was a coronation. The whole day I lay my hospital bed in Greenwich District Hospital, smiling. We brought London to a standstill.”
Wayne, who believes far more than 20,000 people attended the march, said:
“It wasn’t just a great day for Black people. It was a great day for Britain because, on that day, Britain showed the rest of the world that, hear what, we ain’t having it no more.
“The racism, the slavery, the everything – we’re not having it no more.”
As a result of the fire, Wayne has had 140 skin grafts after suffering first degree burns. He smashed his hip into 163 pieces, damaged his sciatic nerve and up until this day cannot feel anything below his knee.
The music connoisseur has a hole in his foot that won’t heal and damaged tendons; doctors have discussed the possibility of amputating his foot.
Wayne is now classed as being disabled, hasn’t been able to work since the tragedy, and doesn’t leave his house very often.
“Do you know what? The fire destroyed lives. We have no reason why it happened, who done it, why did you do it?”
He continued: “As soon as anyone mentions the fire, I don’t even think about myself. I think about those kids first. For most of those parents, they’re going to die and never know what happened to their children. For most of those children, for which I knew most of, they didn’t get a chance to live.”
There were 56 survivors, he says, and the consequences have been severe. One man has a psychiatric breakdown on the fire anniversary, every January, without fail.
“There are other people out there whose minds, it’s just not working for them. Their brain, every year coming up to January, their mindset is gone. They’re the people that I think of.
“Not one of the 56 injured got counselled, not one of us.
“If this had happened anywhere else in the world, there’d probably be 56 millionaires. We’ve got nothing. Right now, I’m still fighting for them to give me back my disabled card that they took away last year. That’s what this country’s done for me. That’s what they’ve done for these people in the fire.”
While Brother Leader Mbandaka, co-chair of the National Afrikan People’s Parliament, didn’t attend the day of action, he followed news of the demonstration closely. It would help spur him into political activism years later.
“I felt hopeful, overwhelmed by the whole thing. As a young man, knowing that so many of our people came out, took a stand, seeing footage of thousands of African people marching the streets, I really felt empowered,” he told HuffPost UK.
“Only a couple of years later, I started to engage in community activism and the New Cross massacre was certainly one of the events of history that inspired me in that direction.
“When you think about the day of action, 25,000 African people took to the streets and that really shook up the establishment.
“I don’t think we would’ve seen all of these positive changes for racial equality had it not been for the ‘turbulent 1980s’ which helped to break down barriers.
“But I think our focus switched from continuing to organise independently for the empowerment of our people to the point that we can establish an independent, national representative body that can promote, preserve and protect the best interests of African people in the UK.”
Violence broke out as thousands of angry demonstrators marched through London to protest against the police handling of the investigation into a fire in Deptford in which 13 black people died.
Broadcaster Trevor Phillips described the march as:
“a revelation to everyone else and a shock to the Black community itself”.
“This was the first time that Black Britons had ever mobilised in such numbers – and the march was exclusively composed of black people,” he told HuffPost UK.
“The Black People’s Day of Action made visible for the first time the quiet rage of a community better known for Carnival and church at its treatment by the authorities.
“This wasn’t a march of radicals. Perhaps the most telling fact was that people of all ages and backgrounds joined the march – in fact as we were filming live we talked to people who had seen it from their office window, and there and then decided to leave their desks, put on their coats, and join the demo.”
Aged 14, Maria Carter joined the demonstration with her older sister.
“That was the only time I missed school, as opposed to being sick, but my mother knew that I was going; I wanted to be a part of it,” she told HuffPost UK.
“I had this sense of Black pride. I was really enthused and overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, and was overwhelmed by the amount of people that turned up.
“What I found really shocking to me was the very next day after the march, looking at the tabloids – The Sun in particular, The Mirror – and seeing their reports and thinking: ‘This isn’t what I witnessed.’ actually cried reading some of the accounts, and I still have them. I bought all of the papers involved with that march, but I could not recall what they reported having seen.”
She added: “When we were planning at the time, a lot of people might have scoffed at this, said ‘nothing’s gonna happen’ – but we’ve never seen the gathering of Black people on such a large scale before in London. When it happened I think it shook and shocked people. They never thought it could actually happen.”
When the march was coming along Fleet Street, which was at the time the headquarters of our newspapers, you’ve got the reporters hanging out the windows calling us monkeys, (shouting) ’n****rs go home. The same reporters that are writing the stories.Wayne Haynes
Maria, now 53, and her older sister were a part of the action committee that organised the march. She has kindly supplied HuffPost UK with archive newspaper articles that she collected at the time for a scrapbook.
“I didn’t know the march would be a part of history at the time – but I was always really proactive when it came to civil rights and our rights as Black people,” she explained.
“I tip my hat to the late Darcus Howe for spearheading it.
“My sister and I sat with him – we were part of the action committee, we would attend meetings in Deptford. He was really instrumental in a lot of planning; he took a lot of flak from the media but it didn’t let it deter him; he kept going.”
Some people felt it took too long for those well placed in society to offer condolences to the Black community about the fire. By contrast, when tragedies happened to white people, the condolences would be free and forthcoming.
“We felt we were being ignored, that our Black suffering wasn’t akin to the white suffering and we were somehow second class citizens,” said Maria.
The fire, plus racial tensions before and after, stoked a sense of disenchantment within Carter that saw her leave Britain for Barbados – the land of her parents.
“I’d had enough,” she told HuffPost UK.
LONDON – APRIL 30: UB40 announce one of their two new vocalists, Maxi Priest and their new album 27/7 at the Intercontinental Hotel on April 30, 2008 in London, England. (Photo by Matt Kent/WireImage)
Grammy award-nominated singer Maxi Priest grew up in Lewisham, just 20 minutes from where the fire happened. He was a part of the demonstration.
On the night of the fire, he was out with his brother attending another house party but had planned to head to the one in New Cross.
“We were all united in grief over what happened and that’s also what drove that march,” he told HuffPost UK.
“I grew up with most of the people who were in that fire.
“News of the fire spread like wildfire. By the end of the night everybody had heard about the whole situation. We grew up together. I lost some very good friends in there like Peter Campbell and Gerry Francis.”
The “Close To You” singer said he had a “burning feeling of anger” about the whole situation.
“We marched several times for various situations in New Cross because of injustice against Black people; that was the climate of racism at the time,” he explained.
“We walked in twos and three and fours; as brothers and sisters and also as friends, running from some skinhead, greasers, or any of those kind of [racist] people.
“Black people were fighting for some existence, some recognition, some value to the fact that we were born here. We didn’t ask to come here and here we are with people telling us to leave and ‘go back to your own country’.
“I don’t know anybody from the government or establishment who came to check for us. Prince Charles came down to Moonshot Club after it was on fire; why he did, I don’t know, but I didn’t see anybody else.”
Years after the Black People’s Day of Action march, the impact of the New Cross fire continues to reverberate.
This is something Joshua Anthony’s family have to live with for the rest of their lives.
His uncle, Peter Campbell, died in the blaze aged 18 and Joshua has watched his grandmother campaign for justice on behalf of her late son ever since.
“This is someone who campaigned in the ’80s, ’90s, all the way through the 2000s, and […] yet there was no resolution, there was no support,” said the 28-year-old.
“I think it’s important that the New Cross fire tragedy isn’t forgotten, particularly in the context of 2020 where we see it reflected in Grenfell, for instance – another huge fire which mostly affected ethnic minority communities.
“We were all united in grief over what happened and that’s also what drove the Black People’s Day of Action march Maxi Priest
“Again, we see how investigations aren’t done in the most transparent way and [it’s] not necessarily the right people who are leading these investigations.”
Shortly after the Brexit referendum result in 2016, Norman Durker witnessed a woman ranting about the fire on the bus in south-east London.
Echoing Wayne’s description of the mental anguish caused by the tragedy, he told HuffPost UK:
“An air of anxiety was starting to develop [after the result] – I remember it clearly.
“It was all kicking off with an increase in racist incidents and the woman was muttering to herself, and ranting a bit, about the New Cross Fire and talking about death.”
Adding that he thought she was suffering from some type of post traumatic stress disorder, the 71-year-old said,
“I think was probably had mental health issues and able to just about function on a minimal level.
“The woman was talking about something that happened over 30 years ago and that, in itself, is an indication of unresolved trauma. You don’t need to be a professional to realise that.”
“I think she must have been involved in some direct or indirect way. Whether it contributed to her state, I just don’t know. For someone to come out of the blue and talk about some event that people have largely forgotten about is telling.”
Dr Aaron Andrew, a historian who has been researching the New Cross fire as part of his “Forged By Fire” project, told HuffPost UK:
“The implication of the state’s silence over the deaths was that Black people didn’t belong within British society.”
On the importance of his research into the topic, he continued:
“When we think of today, with the Windrush scandal and the way that the Grenfell community has been treated by parts of the state, there’s almost a moral and political responsibility to make sure that this story is fully integrated within that larger British history.
“That assertion of belonging and rights which was denied is something that’s really important.”