Why I still think the New Cross fire was a massacre

I have tried hard not to re-enter the New Cross fire issue, in which 13 black children were burnt to death at a birthday party in Deptford, south London, 18 years ago.

At the regular weekly assembly that followed the fire, activists voted to have a national demonstration and I was elected organiser. Twenty thousand demonstrators marched across London from New Cross to Hyde Park, accusing the police investigation into the fire of being fraudulent and charging that a petrol bomb was thrown into the house by some demented racist.

To this day, the cause of the fire has not been officially established. Some of the parents, mainly the Francis and Gooding families, continue to campaign for a new inquest. Mr Francis has said publicly that, of the five adults at the party, one of them is concealing information that would lead to a new inquest and a solution to the mystery.

A couple of journalists and maybe a parent or two tried to suggest that I undermined the police inquiry by deliberately raising the matter of a petrol bomb. I was, they seemed to be saying, a political opportunist or a troublemaker. Now that the issue has returned on the back of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, my detractors have returned, aided by slack journalistic reportage. My caution about a re-entry into the fray turns on my respect for the grief still in the hearts of those parents who lost their children.

But I can no longer hold my peace. One day last week, a letter was hand-delivered to my home. It began: "Dear Darcus, this is Gee Ruddock, will you please, please contact me re the New Cross fire."

It was Ruddock who held the party in the house at 498 New Cross Road to celebrate her daughter's 16th birthday party. She lost two children, Yvonne and Paul. She has kept quiet all these years, been hounded by the police, accused of all sorts of things. Like myself, she can no longer remain silent. In her case, it is being suggested - and cruelly so - that she is withholding information that could help solve the mystery.

The first time I ever set eyes on Gee Ruddock she was staying at a hostel in Lewisham. It was about 24 hours after the fire. Ruddock was lucid, obviously drowned in grief, but in full control of her faculties.

On two occasions, within an hour or two of the fire, two different police officers told her that it had been caused by a petrol bomb. The first officer was on the scene outside the house, the second at King's College Hospital. The evidence was live and direct. A group of young men at the bus-stop had seen a white man alight from an Austin Princess, hurl a fire-bomb into the party and speed away. Later an incendiary device was found outside the window. Add to that a bottle with a wick tucked into it.

Imagine, then, the anger that shot through the black community. "Massacre" was as apt a description as you could find. As the anger rose, the incendiary devices disappeared. The petrol-bomb theory was quickly replaced by the theory of the fight. Under the aegis of a chief superintendent who had prosecuted me in a trial 11 years earlier, the theory developed that a fight between young blacks had been the central cause of the fire.

It was the deceased Wesley Thompson, we were told, who fell out with another guest, who set fire to the settee and proceeded to the top floor where he was burnt to death. A sort of kamikaze type, I suppose.

Gee Ruddock recalls all of this in an amazingly detailed way. She is determined to set the record straight. After all, she was the only parent present at the party. She has given several statements to the police who trawled through her private life and gathered every titbit of gossip and malicious rumour. Gee Ruddock is a fighter. She says a bomb caused the fire.

I believed her then and I continue to do so.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers