I was six when the New Cross fire happened, so my memories of it are dim to say the least. In the early hours of 18 January 1981, a fire at at a 16th birthday party on New Cross Road killed 13 young people. They were all black, all aged between 15 and 20. A survivor took his own life a couple of years later. Today, a memorial plaque was unveiled at the site of the fire.
It was thought at the time that it was a racist attack – there had been others in south-east London during the 1970s, and these were the days of a significant National Front prescence in the area. Some still believe it was a racist attack. What is known, though, is that abusive letters were sent to victims’ families, who were treated harshly by both the police and the media.
Some weeks later, supporters’ of the victims’ families marched from Fordham Park to Hyde Park, angered at the way they had been treated. The Sun headlined its story: “The Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London”. Later still, a wave of riots swept through Britain’s inner cities – notably in Brixton. The Scarman report into the Brixton riot spoke of “a tale of failure“ in the police’s relations with black communities.
In recent years, we’ve watched the casual racism and sexism of 70s and 80s Britain in police drama Ashes to Ashes, where if your face didn’t fit, you were a non-person. In the 1970s and 1980s, great swathes of New Cross and Deptford found their faces didn’t fit – and were reminded of it on a daily basis.
The last inquest into the fire deaths, in 2004, recorded an open verdict.
The sense of injustice remains. Playwright Rex Obano, who is helping to organise the memorial event at the Albany on Friday, was featured in an article in The Guardian this week. He stated: “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.” – Transpontine: New Cross Fire – the bleakest moment.
Until the week before the fire I was living on the Old Kent Road, next to the Dun Cow, a little bit further up the road from the New Cross end where the fire took place, so such a terrible event felt very close to home.. A week after the fire we turned up at a flat in Clapham North invited by a couple we hardly knew… Talk naturally turned to the New Cross fire. The casual racism with which one of the party introduced it quickly developed into a into a shocking and callously racist dismissal of a group of young black people’s lives… That we apparently shared their abhorrent racist views was their unspoken assumption. – Deptford Visions: The New Cross Fire, a memory
As a fledgling reporter on the South London Press, the Deptford fire was my first big story… That same weekend a number of teenagers died in a fire at a disco in Ireland, prompting an immediate letter of condolence from Buckingham Palace. No such message was sent to the families of those who died in Deptford. This only fuelled the suspicion that the establishment, the police, the media and white society in general regarded the deaths of black people as less important. – Martyn Bedford, The Guardian
Three decades on, and 439 New Cross Road is a smart terraced house. For those not around at the time, it’s hard to comprehend just what happened that year. But what can’t be denied is that its effects are still being felt. At least now, the site of the tragedy has some official recognition.
Transpontine’s posts on the fire and its aftermath make for enlightening, and moving reading.