New Cross residents ‘feel part of it even now’ 40 years since a devastating fire killed 13 Black teenagers.
The New Cross Fire in the early hours of Sunday, January 18, 1981 sent shock waves through the UK and shone a light on the poor state of race relations in the country.
The victims died at a time when tensions with far right groups in the area were high and a fire bomb thrown through a downstairs window was initially thought by police to have been the cause.
READ MORE: Party music which rocked London and tickled the Queen that Brits can thank Windrush generation for
Officers eventually concluded that it broke out at 5.40am by an armchair in the front room of the terraced house at 439 New Cross Road where Yvonne Ruddock, 16, one of the victims of the fire, had been having a joint birthday party with Angela Jackson, who survived.
Twenty-seven people were also injured and one survivor took his own life two years later.
A blue plaque remembers the victims at 439 New Cross Road
Protests and campaigns rippled through London and beyond following the tragedy but there has still been no justice for the victims, with no one ever charged for causing the fire.
New Cross residents today say even though they didn’t know those who died, it feels like the fire happened to all of them.
“The whole borough is very diverse so it was like ‘this is your neighbour’ even though we didn’t know them,” said Sophie, who’s lived in New Cross all her life.
She told My London: “When you see it coming on the TV tonight, you feel part of that, it was such a big deal for the community.
“It’s not an option whether I’m watching it tonight: I will be. That is part of our community, it’s something that happened to us.”
Sophie was only a child at the time of the fire but remembers ‘tensions were high’ in the borough of Lewisham in the 1980s.
By contrast Navjot Sangwan only moved to the area in November but living in New Cross makes him feel ‘a part of history’.
“I wanted to live in a multicultural area,” Navjot told My London.
“People are very aware of racial hatred so I thought this would be a good place to live. People showed me the house [where the fire happened] and told me this is what New Cross is famous for.
“I feel like I’m part of history. It’s very educational in that way.”
On Britain’s progression in race relations since the fire, Navjot says things have improved but there is still a very long way to go.
Navjot Sangwan’s home is only a minute from where the fire happened
He said: “I was racially abused a few days back. Someone called me a p*ki and said they’d stab me.
“People are shocked because it’s such a multicultural area, people thought it was just a one off incident.”
MyLondon’s brilliant new newsletter The 12 is packed with news, views, features and opinion from across the city.
Every day we’ll send you a free email at around 12pm with 12 stories to keep you entertained, informed and uplifted. It’s the perfect lunchtime read.
The MyLondon team tells London stories for Londoners. Our 45 journalists cover all the news you need – from City Hall to your local streets.
Never miss a moment by signing up to The 12 newsletter here.
40 years on from the fire, much of the area has changed due to regeneration and gentrification with many new locals not even aware of the terrible event which sparked uproar across the nation.
But Eddie Capone, 74, whose friend Wayne Haynes was forced to jump from the burning house on that fateful day in 1981, hasn’t forgotten what happened.
He’s now in the process of raising money to build a cultural centre in New Cross to remember the victims.
New Cross resident, Eddie Capone is raising money for victims of the New Cross Fire
(Image: Eddie Capone)
He told My London: “By having a cultural centre, we can keep all of the victim’s memories alive. We can’t bring them back, but we can create a value out of it for today’s generation.
“It’s creating value out of this terrible disaster.”
The first episode of BBC documentary Uprising airs tonight (July 20, 9pm) on BBC One, with the three-part series charting the story of the New Cross fire and the protests and social movements that followed.
Documentary maker Steve McQueen believes the New Cross fire should feature in the school curriculum.
He told the Guardian: “These are historical moments, not just for black British people, but for British people in general, because these events have been reverberating throughout the nation.”