An online memorial service will take place today to mark 40 years since the New Cross fire disaster, which led to the deaths of 14 young people.
Thirteen people died in the early hours of 18 January 1981 when the fire broke out at a 16th birthday in a house on New Cross Road. The victims were all black, aged between 15 and 20, and a survivor took his own life a couple of years later.
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 National Front presence in the area. Abusive letters were sent to victims’ families, who were treated harshly by both the police and the media. The last inquest into the fire deaths, in 2004, recorded an open verdict.
The disaster was followed by the the Black People’s Day of Action, with 20,000 protesters marching peacefully from Fordham Park to Hyde Park. The fire and its aftermath is seen as a turning point in the history of multicultural Britain. Martyn Bedford, a former local reporter, wrote in a letter to The Guardian a decade ago: “The 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.”
With the current Covid-19 restrictions, a physical memorial service is not possible, but Lewisham Council is hosting an online memorial service, which was recorded at St Andrew’s Church in Brockley. It will be available from 3pm on Sunday at lewisham.gov.uk/newcrossfire.
The 30th anniversary was marked with a memorial plaque being placed on the site of the fire, at 439 New Cross Road. Events to mark the 40th anniversary include a window exhibition at the Broadway Theatre, Catford, from March and a series of community projects led by Goldsmiths, University of London. Goldsmiths – which hosted an exhibition of photos of the Black People’s Day of Action in 2017 called 13 Dead, Nothing Said – is also funding local projects to explore the history of the black community in Lewisham.
Damien Egan, the elected mayor of Lewisham, said: “Forty years on, it is still difficult to imagine how the families and close friends of those young people felt dealing with the tragic loss of loved ones. The Black Day of Action was a brave and powerful act that resonates now as people have come together to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Lewisham prides itself as being an open borough that celebrates our diversity and has a history of standing up against racism. Not only will we continue to remember the terrible tragedy of the New Cross fire each year on this day, but we will keep speaking out in our communities and schools to make sure that we understand black struggle in history and in current times.”
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