New Cross: the blaze we cannot forget

On the evening of Saturday 17 January 1981, Yvonne Ruddock was celebrating her 16th birthday among friends and family. Gerry Francis, a friend, was pumping out a menu of reggae music – Bob Marley and the Wailers, Big Youth, Dennis Brown.

Suddenly an explosion rent the party asunder. Blazing flames transformed dance into blood and hellfire. At the end of this holocaust there were nine dead. By 9 February four more had died.

That was exactly 30 years ago and my heart still sinks in despair at the New Cross fire. With all the forensic facilities at Scotland Yard’s disposal, in spite of eyewitnesses who saw a white man who pulled up at the house in an Austin Princess and slung a Molotov cocktail into the party, despite the milk bottle with a fitted wick found at the base of the window sill, the authorities have still been unable to tell us the cause(s) of the fire.

In the decade before the inferno black youngsters had been one of the most rebellious sections of British society. Demonstrations, pickets, fisticuffs spread through the capital. Campaigns against the “sus” laws drew in serious political figures. The battle royale against the police at the Notting Hill carnival in 1976 struck a chord among Caribbean teenagers. Under the slogan, Black Power, they had brought their grievances to the fore.

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