New Cross Fire
New Cross Fire

New Cross Fire [Jan 18 1981]

The New Cross Fire was a devastating house fire which killed 13 young black people during a birthday party in New Cross, Southeast London, in the early hours of Sunday, 18 January 1981. The blaze killed 13 young black people aged between 14 and 22, and one survivor took his own life two years later.

The black community were shocked by the indifference of the wider population and accused the London Metropolitan Police of a cover up. It was suspected to be an arson attack motivated by racism. The protests arising out of the fire led to a mobilisation of black political activity and the largest ever street march by a Black community in Britain. To date no-one has ever been charged, but the case represents a landmark in British African Caribbean history and race relations. Inquests into the deaths were held in 1981 and 2004. Both inquests recorded open verdicts.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, a New Cross Massacre Action Committee (NCMAC) was set up, chaired by John La Rose, which organised a "Black People's Day of Action" on 2 March 1981, when some 20,000 people marched over a period of eight hours through London, carrying placards that bore statements including: "13 Dead, Nothing Said". The New Cross fire – described by Darcus Howe in 2011 as "the blaze we cannot forget" – is significant as a turning point in the relationship between Black Britons, the police and the media, and marks an "intergenerational alliance to expose racism, injustices and the plight of black Britons”.

The Community organisation Black History walks did several more events throughout 2011 in remembrance of the 1981 New Cross Tragedy. Steve McQueen, British filmmaker commemorated the New Cross Fire in a documentary series called Uprising.

Three decades after 14 young people tragically lost their lives after attending a house party in New Cross, the Nubian Jak Community Trust, in partnership with Lewisham Council (and consultation with Black History Walks), installed a blue plaque at the address where the tragedy took place. The ceremony took place at 439 New Cross Road, Lewisham, London, SE14 6TA, on Tuesday 18th January 2011 at 2:00pm.

The plaque was the climax of a series of events happening over 4 days beginning with a Remembrance Evening at the Albany Theatre, Deptford, on 14th January hosted by the playwright Kwame Kwei Armah. This was followed on Sunday 16th January, by a 3pm Memorial Service at St Andrews Church, Brockley SE4. Then two days later, on Tuesday 18th, exactly 30 years to the day that the catastrophic fire took place, a blue commemorative plaque was unveiled by family members of those that perished in the fire. Also attending was the mayor of Lewisham, dignitaries, and members of the public. The unveiling of the plaque was done by Sandra Ruddock, George Francis, and Jenny Berbeck. All lost a family member as a result of the New Cross Fire.

In 2006 a new student bursary scheme was created in memory of the New Cross Fire Victims. The scheme awards annual grants to two current or former students of schools and colleges in Lewisham, wishing to study at Goldsmiths University of London. The scheme, which was initiated by Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham, has the backing of all the families who lost loved ones in the New Cross Fire. It is a positive lasting legacy to help future Lewisham students. After the plaque unveiling there was a ceremony at Goldsmith College to celebrate the recipients of the 2011 Bursary awards.

The tragedy of the New Cross Fire must never be forgotten and at this time we are remembering the loss of those young people and all the potential they would have offered our community. The bursary scheme, the plaque at the site of the fire and the memorial service are all significant ways that will ensure we continue to remember. Sir Steve Bullock, Lewisham Mayor

This plaque will ensure that future generations continue to honour the memory of those young people who lost their lives and to reflect on the long struggle of their families to understand what happened. Joan Ruddock MP for Lewisham Islington North

On behalf of all the families, I am happy to acknowledge the plaque which is being placed on the house, and pleased that it will serve as a memorial of what happened to our loved ones back in 1981. George Francis – Spokesperson on behalf of the New Cross Fire Families

The New Cross Fire Plaque, coming on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, is a timely reminder of the resilience shown by the families, and a community who lost so many young lives who did not get the chance to fulfil their potential. It is hoped that the plaque will serve as a permanent reminder to the world that they will never be forgotten. Jak Beula, Chair of the Nubian Jak Community Trust.

Location: 439 New Cross Road, Lewisham, London, SE14 6TA New Cross Fire [Jan 18, 1981]