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4 November 2020

Remembering the New Cross house fire

A BBC Radio 4 documentary marks the anniversary of the tragedy in south-east London 40 years on. 

By Anna Leszkiewicz

On 17 January 1981, Yvonne Ruddock was enjoying her 16th birthday party at her family home on New Cross Road in south-east London. As the party ran on into the early hours, a fire broke out. Yvonne and 12 other guests, all aged between 14 and 22 years old, were killed, and another attendee died two years later. All 14 victims were black.

BBC Radio 4’s Lights Out marks the upcoming 40th anniversary of the fire with this crucial episode (27 October, 9pm), blending interviews with survivors, archive clips and original poems from Mark “Mr T” Thompson. I urge you to listen to it on BBC Sounds. The show explores the extreme racism the West Indian diaspora was subjected to by the state (we hear police officers say all black people look alike, and Margaret Thatcher claim Brits felt “rather swamped” by a “different culture”) and white locals who complained of “black noise”, leading many to think the fire was a racist arson attack.

A painful irony is drawn between the buzz of the evening – teenagers ­begging their parents to let them attend, boys ­wheeling a speaker down the street – and the horror that followed. Wayne Hayes ­recalls first smelling smoke as Wailing Souls’ “Kingdom Rise Kingdom Fall” played. The lights went out, the stairs caved in. Yvonne’s mother saw children, including her daughter, lying on the pavement. “I knew they were dead.”

The response is stomach-churning. No public condolences were offered by officials, and the police failed to investigate it seriously. In March 1981, 20,000 people marched through central London as part of the “Black People’s Day of Action”. A participant recalls Fleet Street journalists making monkey noises from windows at protesters: the next day, the media called it a violent riot. When the 1981 Brixton uprising broke out a month later, people chanted: “This is for New Cross.”

The fire is currently being reinvestigated. There are bitter parallels between then and now, from the Grenfell Tower fire to ongoing police brutality. “Tell them this wasn’t ignited by racism, and they’ll tell you you might be right,” Thompson says in his final poem. “But few can believe the country’s reaction would have been the same, if those kids who died were white.” 

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Lights Out: From the Ashes of New Cross 

BBC Radio 4

[see also: Revisiting the life of Princess Diana​]

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