The New Cross Massacre Action Committee [NCMAC] was formed on 20 January 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 fire occurred in the early morning of 18 January 1981 during a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock (aged 16) and Angela Jackson (aged 18). The fire resulted in the deaths of 13 young black persons, aged 14 to 22. Twenty-seven others were seriously injured. In July 1983, Anthony Berbeck, who had been caught up in the fire, was believed to have committed suicide due to the trauma of the event, making him the fourteenth person to die as a consequence of the tragedy.

The NCMAC, chaired by John La Rose, was mobilised to protest at the apparent bias and mishandling of the police investigation into the fire, challenge the indifference shown by the government and highlight distorted media coverage. An inquiry was led by Commander Graham Stockwell, South London head of CID. Relations which were already strained between the police and the local community were further tested by the Metropolitan Police's lack of urgency.

The NCMAC established a Fact Finding Commission to compile its own evidence through interviews with survivors and the bereaved. Allegations were made that some of those interviewed by police had been forced into signing false statements. Claims were also made that rumours of a racist attack carried out by far-right groups had been too easily overlooked by the police.

Black and white text-based flyer, carrying the New Cross Massacre Campaign logo, with the slogan Come What May we are Here to Stay.
Flyer for the Black People's Day of Action march on 2 March 1981
Photo taken at night, with John La Rose (centre) and the families of victims walking together, with their arms linked. Shown illuminated by light, against the dark sky.
John La Rose and families of the victims of the New Cross Fire on the Black People's Day of Action

On 2 March 1981, an estimated 15-20,000 black people and their supporters, under the banner of the NCMAC, demonstrated through the streets of London in an organised march named 'The Black People's Day of Action'. This 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. By marching on a Monday, this maximised the impact on workers and tactical negotiations with the police secured a route down Fleet Street, thus attracting the attention of journalists. During the march, a delegation of representatives of the NCMAC and families, headed by John La Rose, delivered '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 detailing the route the march would take, police in riot gear attempted to block the march at Blackfriars Bridge. The stewards recognised this as a planned provocation and prevented the marchers from 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. Newspapers were hostile to the carefully planned Black People's Day of Action and ran inflammatory headlines such as 'Rampage of a Mob' [Daily Express] and 'Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London' [The Sun].

Darcus Howe speaking in Deptford Town Hall on the first anniversary of the New Cross Fire (18 January 1982)
Text-based flyer on yellow paper.
Flyer for a picket during the week of the Inquest at County Hall, London (from 21 April 1981)

Inquest proceedings began at County Hall in London on 21 April 1981, closely monitored by the NCMAC. Despite forensic evidence revealing that a possible incendiary device had been found at the scene, the theory of a racist attack was largely ignored. The jury returned an open verdict. The Coroner's refusal to take notes during the hearing was considered illegal under the Coroner's Act 1887 and an Appeal was authorised by the Attorney General. This took place on 5 July 1982. However, the jury refused to quash the open verdict.

The NCMAC established a Fire Fund, chaired by Alex Pascall, to raise money to support the families involved to bury their dead and to care for the injured. Annual vigils and memorial services continued to be held on the anniversary of the fire. The New Cross Memorial Trust was 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 fire in 1997.

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. The second inquest began in February 2004, 23 years after the New Cross fire occurred. An open verdict was again returned.


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