The 14 young victims of the 1981 New Cross Fire are to be remembered this week, with a series of events marking the 30-year-anniversary of the tragedy.
A memorial service took place yesterday at St Andrew’s United Reformed Church in Brockley, and tomorrow a commemorative plaque will be unveiled at the site of the fire followed by the announcement of this year’s New Cross Bursary winners at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Speakers at the memorial service included George Francis, Chair of the New Cross Fire Parents Committee, Lewisham Mayor Sir Steve Bullock, and Joan Ruddock MP for Lewisham Deptford. Many of the young victims attended the youth club at St Andrew’s, and in 2002 a special stained glass window was installed in their memory by Lewisham Council.
The fire broke out during a birthday party in the early hours of the morning, at 439 New Cross Road on January 18, 1981. While some young people managed to jump out the windows, several died in the house and others were rushed to the specialist burns unit at East Grinstead Hospital. In total, 13 young people were killed, with another victim taking his own life 18 months later.
Occurring at a time of racial tension in Lewisham, with demonstrations by the National Front and violent confrontations between local anti-fascists and police, many believed the fire to have been a racist attack on the black party guests. But a coroner’s inquiry found no criminal cause for the fire, and this, compounded with indifference from the authorities and general population, led to a mobilisation of black political activity in the area.
In 1999, local resident Sybil Phoenix OBE lobbied Joan Ruddock, MP for Lewisham Deptford, leading to the case being re-opened with new evidence in 2004. The families were devastated when the coroner returned the same verdict, and the case remains unsolved.
Sir Steve set up a lasting tribute to the victims in 2006, with the launch of an annual bursary to be awarded to two Lewisham-educated students with academic ability, who might be deterred from attending university for financial reasons. Each student receives a bursary of £11,500, run and paid for by the council, to support them through their studies at Goldsmiths.
This year’s recipients, Mark Ali and Ahmed Patrick-Lalljee, are to be officially announced at the New Cross Bursary Awards on Tuesday at 3pm, Goldsmiths. Sir Steve and Mr Francis will both speak again at the awards ceremony, along with Pat Loughrey, Warden of Goldsmiths.
Prior to the awards ceremony, the commemorative plaque is to be unveiled at 2pm by the Nubian Jak Community Trust, at the site of the fire at 439 New Cross Road. Families of the victims will speak at the event, which is to be attended by local councillors, dignitaries and members of the public.
Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham, said: “The tragedy of the New Cross Fire must never be forgotten and at this time, we are remembering the loss of those young people and all the potential they would have offered our community.
“The bursary scheme, the plaque at the site of the fire and the memorial service are all significant ways that will ensure we continue to remember.”
For further information about the memorial plaque unveiling, please contact: Nubian Jak Community Trust on 0800 093 0400 or firstname.lastname@example.org
For further information about the awards ceremony, please contact: Lorrayne Johnson, Lewisham Council, 020 8314 9854