December 12, 2020

On Sunday, January 18, 1981, thirteen black youths attending a birthday party in Deptford, South London was killed in an alleged racially-motivated house fire. The New Cross Fire tragedy highlighted hostility between Black Britons, the police and the media.

The Party

In January 1981, Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister for nearly two years, John Lennon’s Imagine was at the top of the charts, and Britain was a long way from the visibly multicultural society it is today. The youngest son of George and Tina Francis had been asked to DJ for a friend’s birthday party. “Gerry loved music,” says George Francis. “He lived for his music – he couldn’t wait for that night.” His wife Tina remembers Gerry practising his DJ skills at their home in south east London. He was 17 and had ambitions to work in the music industry.

The party was to celebrate the 16th birthday of Yvonne Ruddock at her home in Deptford. It was a Saturday night – January 17.

More than a hundred of her friends had been invited, including Robert McKenzie, who was a friend of her brother. Like the hosts and most of the guests, Robert was a black teenager who was into soul music and the latest designer fashions. “It was a great night,” he remembers. “We were all friends, enjoying the music, enjoying the atmosphere. It was a happy occasion – like being part of one big family.”

But in the early hours of the morning the family celebration turned to tragedy. “I remember lots of smoke, people pushing to get out of the windows.” says McKenzie. “I managed to push my girlfriend and followed her.”

For the Francis family, the bad news was broken by a phone call on Sunday morning. “I picked up the phone,” says George, “and heard this voice saying Gerry is dead.”

On the night of the fire, nine Black youth died. By February 9, four more Black teenagers had succumbed to their fire injuries. Thirteen of the people in the house died – including the birthday girl, Yvonne Ruddock, and her brother. One of the survivors was so traumatised that he committed suicide two years later.

Before the New Cross Fire, Black homes and community centers were targeted and burnt down. Many Black Britons believed that the National Front (NF), a fascist group, was responsible for those incidents as well as the New Cross Fire tragedy.

How did the fire start?

Corroborated eyewitness accounts placed a ‘white man’ in an Austin Princess vehicle at the New Cross Fire scene. Witnesses stated that he threw a Molotov cocktail into the house party. Others believed, however, that the fire started from a dispute between revelers.

After several subsequent failed inquests by The Metropolitan Police, (the Met) Black Britons were convinced that the police had failed the Black community by not treating the thirteen Black youths’ deaths seriously. Frustrated by the police’s inquests, on January 20, Black Britons began organizing. ‘An assembly of the people’ consisting of five hundred Black Britons was formed to investigate the killings. A week after the fire, 2,000 mourners gathered at the Moonshot Youth Centre in South London to pay their respects and to ‘devote themselves to the struggle for justice.’

It was through the ‘assembly of the people’ that Black-Britons discovered that the police was ‘forcing statements’ out of Black youths without lawyers or parents being present.

The Police Response

At the start of the original investigation, police believed it was a racist attack – that a firebomb was thrown through a downstairs window. The first officers on the scene said as much to people who had escaped from the house. But after studying scientific evidence, they concluded the fire had started inside the house – either by accident or on purpose. Officers came up with the theory that a fight had broken out between a group of boys at the party – and that the boys involved held the key to their inquiry.

McKenzie was one of the boys called in for questioning. “They refused to listen to me when I told them that there wasn’t a fight,” he says.

“They had their version of events and I felt I had to go along with them. In the end I caved in and told them what I thought they wanted.”

Robert McKenzie remembers the police interrogating him like he was a criminal. His terrifying experience escaping from the party was made worse by his experience at the hands 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.”

Eight boys who had been at the party made statements to the police, testifying that a fight had taken place. The local community, who remained convinced that the fire had been a racist attack, were angered and hurt by the turn the investigation had taken – a hurt compounded by public indifference and media hostility.

Ros Howells – now a Baroness – and then a Deptford community-worker remembers the tone of newspaper articles concerning the case. “There was an assumption that something illegal had been going on at the party,” she says. “They didn’t believe it could just be a group of children enjoying themselves. It was at that point that the black community started to believe that the lives of their children were worthless – we felt the view was ‘What’s 13 dead? Let’s have a few more’.”

The Black People’s Day of Action

Subsequently, the New Cross Massacre Action Group was formed and led by activists, writers, and civil rights campaigners John La Rose and Darcus Howe. They declared March 2, the ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ to demonstrate against the Met’s mishandling of the teenagers’ deaths. On 1 March, the Daily Mail falsely reported that several of the fire survivors were arrested and would face severe charges in what Black Britons saw as an attempt to undermine the demonstration and the Black community’s inquest into the house fire.

On March 2, six weeks after the fire, an estimated 20,000 demonstrators including members of the Black Panther Party, Black Parents Movement, and Black Youth Movement, marched in one of the most massive demonstrations against racial injustice in British history.

For ten hours campaigners marched eight miles from Fordham Park, South London to Hyde Park, Central London with placards stating, ‘Thirteen Dead, Nothing Said’ and ‘No Police Cover-Up.’

Swamp 81 & Sus Laws

Weeks after the demonstration, ‘Swamp 81’, a plainclothes police operation, was launched in Brixton, South London, the heart of the Black Briton community. In early April, an estimated 943 peoples were stopped and searched by the police under ‘Sus laws’, an addendum to the 1824 Vagrancy Act, and 188 Black youths were arrested. Many Black Britons viewed those acts the state’s retaliation for the ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ demonstration. From April to the end of the summer of 1981, several significant uprisings occurred in various British cities, most famously in Brixton.

Later Lord Scarman described the relationship between the police and the black community as “a tale of failure”.

The Inquest

Four months after the fire, at the beginning of May 1981 – before the police had come to any conclusions – an inquest took place at County Hall in London. Helen Shaw, from the pressure group Inquest, is shocked by the speed of events. “Today,” she says, “if police were investigating a controversial, serious case like this it would take up to two years, or even longer, before an inquest would be called. To me it seems as though the authorities just wanted to hurry things up so the whole issue could be shut away and forgotten about.”

The man in charge of the inquest was the most experienced coroner in the country – Dr Arthur Gordon Davies. Now retired, he remembers the case vividly. “It was a very volatile, highly charged event,” he says. “My concern was to stop blood on the streets. We’d had one riot already – I wanted to do everything possible to prevent another one.”

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee, which has been set up by the black community to support the bereaved families, maintained a presence outside the building. The families were represented by leading human rights lawyers, including Michael Mansfield and Rock Tansey.

“These people were there using my court as a theatre to play out their own political beliefs.” says Dr Davies. “They wanted to have a go at the establishment – and to them I represented the establishment.”

In an inquest, a coroner has complete control over what evidence is put before the court and is the only person who can sum up to the jury. Dr Davies spent a third of his summing up discussing the theory that a fight had broken out at the party – even though every one of the statements supporting that idea was retracted in the court.

“I saw no evidence that the police had applied pressure onto these young men,” he says. “Other outside influences had put pressure on them to say things, but not the police.”

The jury returned an open verdict. Families bereaved by the fire were appalled. “It was a farce,” says George Francis. Helen Shaw of Inquest says: “Everything that could go wrong for families in the criminal justice system went wrong for these families.”

The New Cross Fire was a significant turning point in Britain in terms of Black Britons, the police and the media’s relationship and intergenerational alliance to expose racism, injustices and the plight of Black Britons. Today, the New Cross Fire remains unsolved. But, as Darcus Howe said on the 30th anniversary of the fire in 2011 it is ‘the blaze we cannot forget.’

Rock Tansey QC, who represented some of the families at the original inquest, believes that a public inquiry is needed so the events of the past can be properly examined. “Public inquiries are expensive,” he says, “but they are by far the best way to find out the facts of a case. I think the government owes it to these families – and all sections of the community – to do this.”

“I’ll never give up,” says Tina, the mother of Gerry Francis – now in her 70s. “I love my son far too much. I don’t think I can die before I find out what really happened to him.”

Photo: Protesters with Owen Thompson memorial poster, Black People’s Day of Action, Fordham Park, New Cross, March 2, 198, Photo © Vron Ware, Courtesy of Autograph ABP, London

Sources:, Virgillo Hunter;,

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