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New Cross Massacre

‘We must not forget, no we cannot forget, 13 dead and nothing said, we will not forget.’

Song by Benjamin Zephaniah, ‘13 Dead’ (1982).

Group protest at the New Cross massacre
Image © George Padmore Institute

Early in the morning on Sunday 18 January 1981, a fire broke out at a joint sixteenth-and eighteenth-birthday party at 439 New Cross Road in Lewisham, London. Thirteen young people, mostly teenagers, died and 27 more were injured, but Margaret Thatcher’s government was largely silent. The New Cross Massacre, as the fire became known, helped shape modern black British identity.

The fire marked the beginning of a struggle that continued long after the survivors of the fire were discharged from hospitals across London. Many suspected that the racist National Front, which had carried out other attacks locally, had started the fire. However, the police dropped their murder inquiry and several newspapers published stories blaming the partygoers. To date, no one has been charged for the fire.

Within two days of the fire, families and members of black political organisations together established the New Cross Massacre Action Committee (NCMAC). The NCMAC raised money, organised protests, and supported the families during the investigations. The Black People’s Day of Action (2 March 1981) was the largest demonstration the NCMAC organised, when up to 20,000 people marched across London.

Temporary memorial to the New Cross Massacre

Temporary memorial at 439 New Cross Road. The survivors experienced a range of injuries; one 17-year-old had burns on both arms and a fractured pelvis from jumping out of a second-floor window. In July 1983, Anthony Berbeck - who had been suffering emotional and psychological trauma - became the fourteenth victim.

Image © George Padmore Institute

Image © George Padmore Institute

The ‘Declaration of New Cross’, adopted by the NCMAC on the Black People’s Day of Action criticised the government’s silence over the fire, in contrast to the messages of condolence following a fire at a nightclub in Dublin three weeks later.

Image © George Padmore Institute

Declaration of New Cross

Black people's day of action mapMap showing the route taken by marchers during the Black People’s Day of Action. Protesters suspected that the police were trying to stop the march at Blackfriars Bridge; they broke through police lines to continue the march.