Rugby family and friends reclaim the story of the New Cross fire - the 16th birthday party which ended in tragedy

A new exhibition opens in Rugby in January, telling the story of tragedy remains a focal point of the fight for racial justice in Britain

The New Cross Fire 1981 opens at Rugby Art Gallery and at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum's Floor One Gallery in the new year.
The New Cross Fire 1981 opens at Rugby Art Gallery and at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum's Floor One Gallery in the new year.

A 16th birthday party which ended in tragedy and, four decades on, remains a focal point of the fight for racial justice in Britain has inspired a new exhibition in Rugby.

The New Cross Fire 1981 opens at Rugby Art Gallery and at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum's Floor One Gallery in the new year.

The exhibition reveals the experiences of family and friends of Yvonne Ruddock, the birthday girl who was one of 13 teenagers and young black people killed when a fire tore through her family home at 439 New Cross Road on January 18, 1981.

Just weeks earlier, Yvonne had celebrated Christmas in Rugby. Her family had moved to south London in the 1960s after living in Rugby for many years and returned to the town regularly for family holidays.

Friends and family from Rugby made the trip to London to celebrate Yvonne's birthday. Two never returned - 16-year-old Patrick Cummings and 18-year-old Humphrey Brown, while Yvonne's 22-year-old brother, Paul, also lost his life.

Black communities in London, frequently targeted by the National Front, assumed the fire was the result of a petrol bomb - which police initially suggested was a possible cause but later insisted no evidence was found to support the theory.

In the weeks which followed, the fire became the focus of black communities' increasing anger - the perception of a police investigation influenced by racism, a tabloid press pointing the finger of blame and a deafening silence from Government and the establishment.

"13 dead, nothing said," became a slogan for the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, which organised a Black People's Day of Action on the 2 March 1981.

20,000 people took to the streets in London on the day to join a peaceful march, but the simmering tensions between the police and black and Asian communities in the capital erupted a month later with the Brixton riots, sparking a summer of rioting in major cities across the country.

No one has been charged in connection with the New Cross fire. The first inquest into the 13 deaths took place in 1981 and returned an open verdict.

The coroner who conducted a second inquest in 2004 also returned an open verdict, but while accepting the fire was started deliberately - with evidence suggesting it was started inside the house when an armchair was set alight - he rejected it was a racist attack.

With the 42nd anniversary of the New Cross fire set to be marked next month, it remains a defining moment in the fight for racial justice in Britain.

Uprising, a three-part BBC documentary series which explores the blaze, its aftermath and lasting legacy, won a BAFTA earlier this year.

Sir Steve McQueen, who directed Oscar-winning movie 12 Years A Slave and co-directed Uprising with James Rogan, said of the New Cross fire: "That incident was a spark. There was a fire that had been raging long before that, and it all came to a head with the Brixton riots, because, for black people, enough was enough at that point."

McQueen added: "These are historical moments, not just for black British people, but for British people in general because these events have reverberated throughout the nation."

But while the New Cross fire has become a significant chapter in Britain's social history, for Yvonne's family and friends, it has left a legacy of loss - of family, of youth and childhood friends.

Lorna Tavares, Yvonne's cousin who attended her birthday party, said The New Cross Fire 1981 exhibition was the result of the injured family and friends from Rugby finally being able to talk to each other about the lasting emotional impacts of the fire, together with a desire to reclaim the story from its important place in social history.

Lorna said: "We went to an ordinary family birthday party, not the New Cross fire."

Lorna explained Robert Ruddock, the only surviving sibling of the fire, had long expressed concern his family and friends had never been given a voice in the years following the fire, with the Rugby families of the deceased and injured denied the opportunity to acknowledge the community's loss and grieve together.

The New Cross Fire 1981 finds survivors, family and friends reclaiming the narrative of the tragedy and bringing the story back to its start.

The exhibition includes photographs taken by Vron Ware on the Black People's Day of Action and David Hoffman photographs taken at the Brixton riots, together with newspaper articles published in the wake of the fire.

But The New Cross Fire 1981 also includes the human stories behind the headlines - Yvonne's roller skates which were recovered from the house after the fire, a table tennis bat reflecting Humphrey's love of the game, and a Harris School tie, where many of Yvonne's family and friends studied.

The exhibition also features a 'memory board' of thoughts and feelings, poetry, music and examples of the fashions worn by guests at the party.

The New Cross Fire 1981 runs at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum's Floor One Gallery from Wednesday January 4 to Saturday January 21

Family and friends of Yvonne will attend the exhibition on Saturday January 21 from 4pm to 7pm, with all welcome to attend.

For more information about exhibitions and events at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, visit www.ragm.co.uk