New Cross Massacre Campaign

Collection Ref No.:

GB 2904 NCM

Date range:

1980-1985

Description

The following material concerns the New Cross Massacre Campaign, and the work of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee. The Campaign formed during the aftermath of the alleged firebombing of the home of a West Indian family at 439 New Cross Road, South London on 18 Jan 1981. The fire resulted in the deaths of thirteen young black persons. Twenty seven others were seriously injured. An Inquest into the fire was held in Apr 1981, and again in 2004. No-one to date has been charged in relation to the fire, an open verdict being delivered on both occasions.

The collection comprises:
NCM/1: Campaign Action, divided into three series:
NCM/1/1: New Cross Massacre Action Committee [NCMAC] and associated committees.
NCM/1/2: The Black People's Day of Action.
NCM/1/3: Campaign Publicity.

NCM/2: The New Cross Investigation and Inquest, divided into four series:
NCM/2/1: The Fact Finding Commission.
NCM/2/2: Inquest into the New Cross Fire 1981.
NCM/2/3: Application to Attorney General for Judicial Review and Appeal.
NCM/2/4: International Commission of Inquiry, and Appeal Against the Inquest Verdict.

NCM/3: Support for the New Cross Campaign, divided into four series:
NCM/3/1: The New Cross Fire Fund.
NCM/3/2: Families of the New Cross Victims.
NCM/3/3: Support for the New Cross Campaign, General.
NCM/3/4: Placards, Photographs and Posters.

NCM/4: Media Interest, divided into three series:
NCM/4/1: Newspapers and publications.
NCM/4/2: Media Coverage.
NCM/4/3: Allegations of Distorted Media Coverage.

Admin history:

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee [NCMAC] was formed on 20 Jan 1981 within two days of the alleged firebombing of the home of a West Indian family at 439 New Cross Road, Lewisham, South London.  The house fire occurred in the early morning of 18 Jan 1981 during a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock (aged 16) and Angela Jackson (aged 18).  The fire resulted in the deaths of thirteen young black persons, aged 14 to 22.  Twenty seven others were seriously injured.

The following people lost their lives:

Humphrey Brown (4 Jul 1962-18 Jan 1981); Peter Campbell (23 Feb 1962-18 Jan 1981); Steve Collins (2 May 1963-18 Jan 1981); Patrick Cummings (24 Sep 1964-18 Jan 1981); Gerry Paul Francis (21 Aug 1963-18 Jan 1981); Andrew Gooding (18 Feb 1966-18 Jan 1981); Lloyd Hall (29 Nov 1960-19 Jan 1981); Lillian Rosalind Henry (23 Aug 1964-18 Jan 1981); Patricia Johnson (16 May 1965-18 Jan 1981); Glen Powell (19 Jan 1965-25 Jan 1981); Paul Ruddock (19 Nov 1958-9 Feb 1981); Yvonne Ruddock (17 Jan 1965-24 Jan 1981); Owen Wesley Thompson (11 Sep 1964-18 Jan 1981).

A fourteenth person, Anthony Berbeck, caught up in the fire, was believed to have committed suicide following the trauma of the event, in Jul 1983.  [An inquest was subsequently held 16 Aug 1983 in Southwark.]

The first intervention by the future New Cross Massacre Action Committee occurred when three members of the Black Parents Movement - Darcus Howe, John La Rose, and Roxy Harris, together with Alex Pascall - formed a delegation and visited Mrs Gee Ruddock, owner of 439 New Cross Road, at the house of black community leader Sybil Phoenix.  Mrs Ruddock, who had lost both of her children in the fire, agreed to be interviewed by the delegation.  This was broadcast on Alex Pascall's daily Black Londoners BBC Radio London programme, together with an interview between Darcus Howe, John La Rose and the police. 

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee, chaired by John La Rose, was mobilised to protest at the apparent bias and mishandling of the police investigation into the fire, to challenge the indifference shown by the government, and to highlight distorted media coverage.  Fuelled by a history of attacks on black people, including several incidents in the Lewisham, New Cross and Deptford areas - eg: the Sunderland Road bombing, and the burning down of the old Moonshot Youth Club building - suspicions soon arose about police methods of detection and inherent racism.

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee (or NCMAC) was established at a public meeting on 20 Jan 1981, and part of its work became known as the Black People's Assembly.  Documents also refer to this as The General Assembly.  The Assembly was open to all those people who supported the aims of the Campaign, and any recommendations made by the Assembly were then passed to the NCMAC, who made decisions as to how to proceed.

A series of public meetings were held across London to encourage support.  There were also regional committees set up across the country, in Leicester, Manchester and Rugby, as well as committees in North, West, and South East London.

An inquiry was launched, led by South London head of CID, Commander Graham Stockwell.  Relations between the police and the local community were already strained, with the Metropolitan Police accused of lacking urgency.  There was a rejection of moves by police to bring the black community behind the Community Relations Councils (CRCs) and the Commission for Racial Equality, as this was seen as undermining an independent struggle for justice.

The NCMAC also established a Fact Finding Commission on 20 Jan 1981 to compile its own evidence through interviews with survivors and with the bereaved.  It not only carried out an independent investigation as to what had happened, but also found out through such interviews about the methods that the police were using to obtain their information.  Allegations were made that some of those interviewed by police had been forced into signing false statements under pressure.  Claims were also made that rumours of a racist attack carried out by far right groups were too easily overlooked by the police.

There was anger at the failure of the Thatcher government and the Queen to express any sympathy about the incident, in contrast to government and royal sympathy shown towards victims of a recent fire at a discotheque in Ireland. It was not until a delegation from the NCMAC met with members of the House of Commons on 25 Feb 1981 that any reaction was forthcoming by Parliament. The delegation achieved an Early Day Motion for 2 Mar 1981 (see 'Black People's Day of Action' below) expressing sympathy and condemning racist attacks on the black population.

Distorted media coverage was also condemned.  An example of this was the confusion caused by an article in the Daily Mail on 25 Feb 1981 headed 'Killer Blaze Charge Soon', dismissed by Scotland Yard Press Office as completely untrue.  Newspapers were also hostile to the carefully planned Black People's Day of Action (see below), with headlines such as 'Rampage of a Mob' [Daily Express], and 'The Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London' [The Sun].

Black People's Day of Action:

On 2 Mar 1981 an estimated 15-20,000 black people and their supporters, under the banner of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, demonstrated through the streets of London in an organised march named 'The Black People's Day of Action'.  The march followed a pre-planned route from 439 New Cross Road through the City and Central London to Hyde Park, and lasted for about eight hours.

The demonstration was decided upon at a meeting on 27 Jan 1981, when the important decision was made to march on a Monday rather than at the weekend.  This would indicate the serious nature of the march and also maximise the impact on workers.  Tactical negotiations with the police secured a route which would attract the attention of journalists by taking the march down Fleet Street.  A week day also allowed Parliament to carry through the agreed Early Day Motion (see above).

A delegation of the representatives of the NCMAC and families, headed by John La Rose, made a planned departure from the march to deliver a declaration - 'The Declaration of New Cross' - to 10 Downing Street, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and the Houses of Parliament.  Despite a signed agreement with the Metropolitan Police as to the route the march would take, police in riot gear tried to block the march at Blackfriars Bridge.  The march stewards recognised this as a planned provocation by the police and avoided the marchers being drawn into a violent clash with the police.  Eventually, the truck leading the protestors managed to break through and the march continued as planned.

Inquest:

The NCMAC closely monitored the Inquest proceedings, which began at County Hall in London on 21 Apr 1981.  The families of the victims were represented by Michael Mansfield, Rock Tansey and Ian Macdonald.  Four theories were advanced from the police: 1) a firebomb attack from outside the building; 2) an opportunist arson attack from outside the building; 3) a deliberate fire from inside the building; 4) an accidental fire from inside the building.  However, it was soon clear that racial motives were being ruled out as theories 1 and 2 were abandoned, despite the revelation from forensics that a possible incendiary device had been found at the scene.  The speed and force of the fire had also caused a police officer at the scene to conclude that a petrol bomb had been thrown into the house, but this theory was dismissed.  The Coroner, Dr. Arthur Gordon Davies, refused to take any notes of evidence during the hearing, preferring to read from police statements.  The jury returned an open verdict.

Appeal:

Families with the support of the NCMAC appealed for the inquest verdict to be quashed and demanded a new inquest, considering the hearing to have been biased.  The fact that the Coroner refused to take notes during the hearing was considered to be illegal under Section 6 of the Coroner's Act 1887, and the Attorney General authorised the Appeal lodged by the relatives of the dead.  The integrity of the initial investigation was also called into question.  On 10 May 1982, the relatives won leave to Appeal, and an Appeal date was set for 5 Jul 1982.  However, the inquest jury refused to quash the open verdict. Despite attempts by the courts to avoid a second inquest, the NCMAC and relatives of the victims demanded that a new inquest should take place.

International Commission of Inquiry:

An International Commission of Inquiry was also planned by the NCMAC, although it never took place.  In an unfortunate decision, the Courts decided to hear the Appeal during the same period planned for the International Commission of Inquiry.  The latter had already been postponed from Jan 1982 due to the unavailability of some of the Commissioners chosen.  In Jun 1983, the NCMAC was at last planning to hold its own independent inquiry, but decided to postpone it again after detectives suggested that they might be on the verge of a breakthrough. This subsequently turned out to be misleading.

Fire Fund:

The NCMAC also established a Fire Fund to support the families involved, to raise money to help families to bury their dead, and to care for the injured.  The fund was chaired by Alex Pascall, member of NCMAC, and broadcaster of the daily Black Londoners BBC Radio London programme.  Access to broadcasting proved invaluable for interviewing relatives and members of the NCMAC, reporting on the New Cross Massacre Campaign, encouraging public support, and analysing social and political tensions.  A total of £27,000 was raised by the Fire Fund.

Annual vigils and memorial services continued to be held on the anniversary of the fire. The New Cross Memorial Trust was also set up in 1981 by the families of the victims.  Following a request from black community leader Sybil Phoenix, Lewisham council erected a memorial to the victims of the New Cross fire in 1997. 

Despite repeated requests, the opportunity for a second inquest did not come until 1997, when the police re-opened the investigation.  Calls for a new inquest were twice rejected, until the High Court finally agreed in 2002.  A second Inquest began in Feb 2004, 23 years after the New Cross fire occurred.  An open verdict was again returned.

Custodial History:

The material in this collection was largely gathered from the personal archives of those individuals who led the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, namely the Chairman John La Rose, Irma La Rose, Roxy Harris, Darcus Howe and Alex Pascall.  Material from the Manchester section of the Committee, formed from the Manchester Black Parents Organisation (MBPO), was gifted by Gus [Augustine] John. Material from other regions was sent down to the New Cross Massacre Action Committee during the Campaign.  Documents relating to Inquest proceedings were gifted by Ian Macdonald.