Lessons from the New Cross Fire - 30 Years on

By Toyin Agbetu | Tue 18 January 2011

In memory of Lloyd Hall, Paul Ruddock, Andrew Gooding, Peter Campbell, Humphrey Geoffrey Brown, Anthony Berbeck, Steve Collins,Gerry Paul Francis, Owen Thompson, Patrick Cummings, Roseline Henry, Patricia Johnson, Yvonne Ruddock, Glenton Powell

The New Cross Fire that ultimately claimed 14 lives on 18 January 1981 ushered in an era of uprisings and reforms that challenged racist Britain to its core. Toyin Agbetu recalls this crucial part of African British history.

On Sunday 18 January 1981, at a joint party to celebrate the birthdays of Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson, a devastating fire was to tragically affect the lives of family, friends, and community for ever. 439 New Cross Road, Deptford was to become the site where 13 young Africans, mostly under the age of seventeen, all lost their lives as a racist government alongside its inept police force, added fuel to the grief of a mourning community that was already being blighted by incessant acts of state oppression and racist terrorism.

Immediately after the incident, police officers told Mrs Ruddock, the grieving mother of two of the victims that they were investigating the matter on the basis that a fire bomb had been thrown at the house. Reports at the time claimed that “Police believe revenge may have been the motive. Officers had been called to the house earlier in the evening after receiving complaints about noise levels”.

The community worker Sybil Phoenix was invited by the police to attend the incident and she graciously opened up her house to Mrs Ruddock who had not only lost her children but also her home. But one of the undisputed heroes of the day was the veteran broadcaster and community champion, Alex Pascall. At the earliest opportunity and with much risk to his career, he broadcast his findings across the BBC radio network through the trailblazing programme, Black Londoners which thankfully he ended up heading for 14 years.

Whilst African people all over the country were numb with grief, the following Sunday evening, Alex Pascall went to the house and interviewed Mrs Ruddock, the mother who had lost not only her daughter Yvonne, in the blaze but also her son, Paul. The broadcast was a landmark in community media affairs and led to massive offers of support across the UK ranging from counseling to the eventual establishment of a fund worth over £20,000 for the families to address their needs.

Yet despite the magnitude of this disaster, there was no public response to the families from Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister of the conservative government at the time. Disgracefully, there was also total silence on the matter from the British monarch who refused requests that she send a letter of condolence to the families who were still suffering from the trauma. Indeed, suffering parents were receiving anonymous hate mail bemoaning the fact that more innocent Africans hadn’t perished. The scourge of racism that surged through the veins of Britain’s underclass and its political elite meant that both the head of state and her government did not believe the incident was of any major significance (to make matters worse, shortly afterwards both the monarch and prime minister publicly are said to have sent messages of condolences to the families of those lost in a similar incident involving european victims).

Placing these barbaric acts of immorality in context, in 1981, to distract the British public from the reality of ideological imposed economic impoverishment, the royal family had announced that Prince Charles and Lady Di were to marry, this was at a time when the Thatcher regime was not only aggressively terrorising African people in the UK who they formally labeled ‘educationally subnormal’, but it was also ruthlessly exploiting Africans in the Caribbean and the Continent, whilst simultaneously oppressing the Irish, by attacking their people and holding the controversial ‘Diplock’ trials where juries were removed in order for a sole judge to lock up people without due process (this lead to the famous hunger strike by activist Bobby Sands).

With reference to Africans, in 1978, Thatcher infamously remarked that Britain “might be rather swamped by people of a different culture”. She and her people hated Africans – with a passion. Whilst today we can successfully claim to have demolished denigratory institutional labels like ‘coloureds’, ‘BME’, ‘urban’, ‘BAMER’, ‘people of colour’ and ‘visible minorities’ - back then the government was very successful in fueling conflicts within the Pan African community by infiltrating and disrupting our communities with drugs and undercover agents whilst causing conflict in our neighbourhoods by teaching our children in their schools to divide into groups of ‘west Indians’, ‘west Africans’ and ‘mixed’ n words.

Thatcher’s racist words attracted much praise, especially it is believed, from the royal family, but in 1981, the monarch herself was finally forced to recognise that not everyone within her domain was amused by their nonchalant attitude when a young 17 year old seeking infamy, fired a replica pistol at her as she rode past during the Trooping of the Colour. Marcus Simon Serjeant, was jailed for five years under the 1842 Treason Act.

Indeed, several decades after the Germanic monarch, Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg Gotha’s (also known as Windsor) ignoble display of incivility towards the families of the New Cross Fire incident, she would later be reported as having sent “a heartfelt message of support to Jade [Goody] as the star [sic] lay dying”. Goody who passed away shortly afterwards, was born on the same year as the New Cross Fire tragedy took place and grew up to become famous for her vile racist bullying in the Channel 4 television programme ‘Big Brother’. She became a perfect barometer of how deeply ingrained racist attitudes continue to persist, decades later, throughout an ignorant Britain, crossing class, gender, time and space boundaries.

And yet, whilst it was the lack of response from the monarch, executive and legislature that lit the flame exposing an inhumane lack of empathy when it came to African lives, it was actual response of both the media and police that fueled the angst of millions with their callous reporting and racist investigations that would successfully seek to deny justice itself.

Despite the initial firebombing report given at the time, the Metropolitan Police unofficially retracted its statement and publicly announced that it refused to investigate the crime as an arson attack motivated by racism. It is important to remember that this was at a time when the police were not only proud of being institutionally racist but also openly corrupt, assaulting and arresting Africans with impunity as they were exempt from the Race Relations Act which would have placed a duty upon them to challenge racism within its ranks and policies (this would remain the case for another twenty years).

However, back in 1981, the Pan African community was not as politically illiterate as it seems now. There was also a stronger liberation movement that having recently come to the UK direct from our homes, had still retained a sense of what justice was, of pride, self reliance and righteous resistance. The police were about to implement ‘Operation Swamp 81‘ or ‘sus‘ as the overt stop and search policy introduced at the beginning of April 1981 was nicknamed where racist police officers in Brixton were given permission from government to arrest African people, young and old, simply on suspicion. For those within this movement, that remembrance of our ways cultivated a fearless spirit which ensured our collective dignity came before individual ego.

A few months later, the first Brixton uprising became the first serious, domestic challenge, to the British state since the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Not only did the state get ‘a bloody good hiding’ from our young people, there was also a transformation of British politics leading to Bernie Grant, the first, and to this date, only dedicated Africentric MP coming to parliamentary power in 1987.

Even today, when children are taught about human rights in schools, the focus is typically placed upon Wilberforce for ‘abolishing’ the enslavement of Africans, it is placed on Ghandi for revolutionising the world with non-violent protest, it is placed on Martin Luther King for daring to dream that one day racists will change their minds if we stop using force to defend ourselves against violence and instead, simply love them enough.

Well all these myths are a gross distortion of history.

(As some of us may know, slavery was NOT abolished in 1807, Wilberforce opposed the Haitian Revolution, advocated whipping enslaved Africans and was a supporter of the colonial enslavement of Africa. Ghandi, sold out his people to the British, looked down on those without wealth and when traveling in South Africa revealed his hatred of Africans. And finally, Martin Luther King’s greatest speech was not about a ‘rainbow’ dream which Malcolm X rightly referred to as our ‘nightmare’, but his brilliant words created whilst imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama after the heroic acts of Rosa Parkes, as well as his valiant Vietnam speech, which he made as he finally reached political maturity. Words that remain true to this day as they did when he first uttered them. )

I mention all this in the context of the Notting Hill Fire because if you have been educated by the British schooling system then once again it is likely you have been lied to. The true actions and achievements of Africans in Britain have been deliberately omitted from the curriculum text books and instead replaced with ‘white’ washed tales of ‘black firsts’. The first ‘black’ person to achieve this, the first ‘black’ person to achieve that, in short the first African to mimic what a european has already achieved.

But that is not history, that is catch’up c**n ery.

The real truth is that in 1981, as for centuries before this date, African people have been making history whilst others have been doing their best to erase all memory of it. This is a by product of eurocentrism as universalism. However we also have to accept part of the blame for failing to document, archive and recreate our history in formats that remain accessible to future generations.

New Cross Fire: A racist investigation leads to cover up of Truth

Blood Ah Go Run If Justice No Come

So let’s continue...

Exactly what happened as the police refused to act in the interest of justice, when they deliberately colluded with the media to release lies and statements of disinformation? Well I’m not a historian, others can fill the gaps with far more detail than I can, but what I do know is that the established local community activists such as Rosalind Howells, Sybil Phoenix and Mavis Best who were experienced in campaign work led with much of the day to day ground work, whilst several organisations came together including the headlining New Cross Massacre Action Committee which was formed to support the families.

The impact of the New Cross Fire and news of the British government’s deliberate offensive reticence became so huge it was not only a national issue, but also an international one. As such it led to the families being legally represented by leading human rights lawyers (including Michael Mansfield and Rock Tansey).

Sadly as this happened, public detail of the women involved became very limited, but rest be assured much of the work was carried out by our sistas. Community workers such as Mia Morris, Ama Gueye, Rosanna Lewis, Stella Dadzie and many, many more all contributed in activities ranging from handling administration, organising gatherings, assisting families function through their trauma, to feeding workers, educating young people and creating literature and banners. Despite conditions at the time rendering many of them voiceless (for political, cultural and security concerns) their support both outside and within the historic New Cross Massacre Action Committee enabled involvement from revered community workers such as Gus John, Alex Pascall, Minka Adofo, John La Rose, Menelik Shabazz, Darcus Howe and Linton Kwesi Johnson, to help organise what would become known as the ‘black peoples' day of action’.

As a result, on the 2 March 1981 up to twenty thousand African people, including leadership from young people and women from all over the country marched for over eight hours from Fordham Park to Hyde Park with slogans including: 'Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said', 'No Police Cover-Up', 'Blood Ah Go Run If Justice No Come'.

Superbly captured by the filmmaker Menelik Shabazz, collectively as we marched past Fleet Street, the city of London was brought to a standstill and for a brief moment, Britain’s most influential racists in suits were terrified their time of privileged, ‘white’ supremacist fueled inequality was up. Eventually a mission statement was produced to indicate a collective desire to secure justice for the victims and their families. But to appease the growing anger around the political disquiet surrounding the whole situation, the police announced that they had found evidence of ‘a liquid substance which may have assisted the spread and intensity of the fire’. Since then, Ros Howells, a community worker based in Deptford at the time has spoken about how the mainstream newspapers insinuated that “something illegal had been going on at the party”.

Then in a similar manner to the ill-fated Stephen Lawrence investigation that was to follow, the police started to aggressively investigate the survivors as if they were criminals. Robert McKenzie one of the survivors said 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.”

A thousand people were interrogated and the data both manipulated and misinterpreted to present an explanation sympathetic to the racist views of the British state. Despite a coroner's inquest revealing a serious “material irregularity” that cast sufficient doubt over the integrity of the police investigation, which included false charges, coerced confessions and gross misconduct, the jury returned an open verdict.

The coroner was subsequently accused by members of the victims’ families of misleading the jury, but even in the face of a High Court agreeing with this assessment it was ruled that the verdict should stand. After much protestation a second inquest was held but it also returned an open verdict in May 2004. Finally, in March 2005 further permission to challenge the verdict was refused to the families.

To date, no-one has ever been charged in relation to the incident.

Thirty years later I’m asking have we done enough to secure justice? As the brutish police force and a ConDem government continue to replicate the conditions that led up to our uprising in 1981, can we honestly say that we are ready to defend ourselves and family?

The slogan of the day during the time was 'Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said'. The activists then, who are now elders did not ramp. During this time African families were under constant racist attack by civilian groups like the National Front (yesteryears English Defence League - for young readers).

However, despite the serious threat of state sanctioned persecution, physical and psychological assault, malicious prosecution, false imprisonment and deaths in custody, our leaders of the time mobilised and although not always securing justice, they defended us by establishing a network of supplementary and independent community schools, refuge centres, restaurants and bookshops, they created spaces where we could go and learn in a safe, environment, a place where we could just be.

Today I look around and much of what that heroic generation built enabling us to move forwards in safety has almost disappeared. All have gone, but not only from state attack, but also from community neglect. Back in the day they used to firebomb our venues. Today they leave us to our own devices or pull the funding (our own tax money) confident of a lacklustre response in defence.

Frankly its not only demorallising, but also embarrassing.

Too many of us seem to have been appeased with the award of grandiose titles giving us an illusion of inclusion in state affairs, too many of us seem to have been pacified with government bribes, parliamentary trinkets of representation and royal accolades of obedient praise that denote many of us as spineless members and indeed benefactors of a morally repugnant empire.

We seem unable to say No.

And yet today, even whilst too many of our children suffer educationally, politically, and worst of all, spiritually, a moral decay, we fail to speak of the ‘so many dead nothing said’ in the here and now. Indeed, we the heirs of a glorious liberation movement, appear to have traded it all in for the security of a status enhancing job, X-Box/Playstation and 50 inch plasma TV.

'Blood Ah Go Run If Justice No Come' ?

Well it’s our blood that’s still running.

The very few elders who were active then are now leaving the movement, the UK or this very life/realm, often suffering from burnout or disillusion whilst others are forced to live in poverty. Meanwhile our children have no idea of the number of positive community workers who are still around, working with limited resources, trying, crying even, whilst swapping evangelist preaching with liberatory teaching.

I even meet progressive non-Africans who have more interest, some even doing more work, for our liberation than the majority of us. I’ll be the first to admit that blame is now giving way to shame despite our continued exposure to unjust pain

And yet, the only way we can ensure we never again have to utter the words – ‘13 Dead and Nothing Said’ is by having the courage, the integrity to speak out on the issues that directly affect us, to annually give respect to our Ancestors by remembering their names, honouring their deeds, building on their accomplishments.

‘13 Dead and Nothing Said’

30 years ago, 1981 was a transformative turning point in our community. Together we said no to injustice, together we built movements that offered solutions, supplementing education, creating politically literate cultural media and cutting loose those naysayers that whinge whilst sitting on the fence. It was a true glorious renaissance right here in the UK that was just as important as the Harlem Renaissance, a rich and revolutionary progressive movement whose removal from the ‘white-washed’ history books does not deserve its relegation from the archives of our own progressive media.

‘13 Dead and Nothing Said’

Never again should we have to utter these words.

Some of you may know that alongside Education and Community Development, I am also studying Law (Human Rights and Constitutional) at university. During my studies on the history of human rights (western perspective) it becomes clear that it was our Ancestors, who through their resistance to enslavement and struggles to secure civil rights, took forward the first generation of rights (liberté). Less known or written about in British history books, is that it was the actions of our elders of which the actions that took place in 1981 are a symbol of that, established the second generation of rights (égalité). Today, it is us that were supposed to usher in the final generation (fraternité) – collective self determination.

Sadly this has not yet materialised.

This Tuesday at 9pm, I will be hosting a special edition of the Pan African Drum. Through Nyansapo we will be broadcasting a programme that instead of focusing on the nostalgia of the 18 January 1981 tragedy, will concentrate on the real lessons learnt. What did we do, what could we do, what today as we lose another thirteen, fourteen, fifteen hundred, week after week, month after month, year after year, what MUST we do.

This programme and article is just a couple of the ways I know best of helping. We have journalists, poets, singers, writers, scholars, lawyers, doctors, programmers, teachers, healers, musicians, broadcasters, artists, dancers, designers, filmmakers, actors, producers, managers, students, mothers, fathers, children, I beg you all please come join us, participate, listen, reflect and then contribute in any way you feel able – passionately silently if need be, as long as it is with cultural integrity.

You see everyone who has access to a computer or online media can with a mouse click share or create their own message of Pan African solidarity. We can all do something, from helping a young person realise their potential to supporting an elder live their remaining years in dignity. You see, for unless we do these things for ourselves, our blood will continue to run, until one day, the vampires will have drained us dry – and then collectively we die.

I won’t pretend that I’m not tired, frustrated, broke and on the verge of being burnt out, but despite all that, as a parent, a human, a Pan Africanist - I’m not about to let that happen, are you?

May the Ancestors guide and protect us.


Toyin Agbetu is a writer, film director, poet, and founder of Ligali, the pan African human rights based organisation.

Black Peoples Day of Action (Artist: Unknown)

External Links
* Comment is free New Cross: the blaze we cannot forget
Remembering the New Cross fire, 30 years on
Who started the New Cross Fire?
Nyansapo Radio - The Pan African Drum (Podcast - Broadcast 18 Jan 2011)

Ligali is not responsible for the content of third party sites

New Cross Fire Campaign
Opinion: Who remembers the innocent?

Speak Out!

Alex Pascall famously said “We had less but did more” - Are we utilising today’s media to the best of our benefit? What started the fire? Is justice still important?
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The tragedies of 1981 ushered in a true glorious renaissance right here in the UK that was just as important as the Harlem Renaissance, it was a rich and revolutionary progressive movement that has since been removed from ‘white-washed’ history books

Toyin Agbetu, The Ligali Organisation

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