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New Cross Fire

13 people were killed and 29 injured in a fire that engulfed a house in New Cross, south London. The cause was never established conclusively and no one was ever charged, though the drawn out investigation was interpreted by many as police and societal indifference towards the black community.

Angela Jackson (18) and Yvonne Ruddock (16) were celebrating their birthdays at Yvonne's home on the night of 18 January 1981. At the peak of the party, there was an estimated 150 to 200 black youngsters and adult chaperones. In the early hours of the morning after most of the party had left, a fire broke out in the front room of the three-storey house. The fire injured 20 and killed nine, including Yvonne.

Commander Graham Stockwell, head of south London CID, headed the investigation, and early on discounted a racist motive to the fire. Witnesses said they saw a man go up to the house and throw something through the window, which many interpreted as a petrol bomb. The police's first conclusion was that the fire had been started when someone from the party poured paint thinner on the floor and ignited it, but other theories included a 'sexual jealousy' row where the curtains were set alight. Even though the police discounted that the fire was racially motivated, it was reported that racist letters had been sent to the families of the victims.

Many people felt that the perceived police indifference towards the fire, and the lack of press attention had a racial element. The Financial Times reported, 'Whether such an attitude is reasonable, the fact is that the black community (or a sizeable segment of it) believes passionately that, had their face been white, the courts' approach would have at least been more sympathetic. It is sad that such attitudes persist. But their very persistence demands that a host nation owes to its immigrant minorities consideration beyond the ordinary.'

The coroner, Dr Arthur Davies, came under scrutiny when at the inquest he was said to have summed up evidence to the jury without the help of notes, had included material never given in sworn evidence, and - according to counsel for the families - omitted many crucial points. Lord Lane, Lord Chief Justice, exonerated Dr Davies saying that 'irregularities' were insignificant and had no impact on the course of the inquiry'.

Audio Interview

Usha Prashar © Benedict HilliardUsha Prashar was Director of the Runnymede Trust from 1976 to 1984, a Fellow with the Policy Studies Institute, and a director of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. She was formerly executive chairman of the Parole Board of England and Walesand was First Civil Service Commissioner. Lady Prashar was chairman of the National Literacy Trust from 2001 to 2005. Lady Prashar was a non-executive director of Channel Four Television and a non-executive director of ITV plc. She became a governor of De Montfort University in 1996, and became its Chancellor in 2001. She was appointed a Trustee of the BBC World Service Trust in 2002, and is President of the Royal Commonwealth Society. She was appointed CBE in 1994, and was made a Life Peer in 1999 as Baroness Prashar, of Runnymede.
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