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Rugby remembers the New Cross fire

FAMILY, friends and survivors of the New Cross fire gathered at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum on Saturday to remember the victims and issue a rallying call for racial justice.

New Cross Fire 1981
James Rogan, Lorna Tavares, Cllr Carolyn Watson-Merret, Robert Ruddock, Cllr Brenda Dacres and Mark Pawsey MP attended Saturday's event at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum. Published Thursday, 26th January 2023

The emotional event marked the end of the New Cross Fire 1981 exhibition and brought together family and friends who have lived with the memories of a tragedy which, 42 years on, remains a defining moment in British history.

Yvonne Ruddock's 16th birthday party took place on 18 January 1981 at her family home in New Cross Road.

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.

Yvonne was one of 13 black teenagers and young people killed when a fire tore through the house in the early hours. Patrick Cummings, 16, and 18-year-old Humphrey Brown had travelled from Rugby to attend the birthday party but never returned, while Yvonne's 22-year-old brother, Paul, also lost his life.

Black communities in the capital, regularly targeted by the National Front, assumed the fire had been started by a petrol bomb and the tragedy quickly brought to a head long-simmering tensions over the perceived racism of the Metropolitan Police, tabloid press and the establishment.

A largely peaceful Black People's Day of Action saw 20,000 people take to the streets of London for a protest march on 2 March 1981, but a month later riots broke out in Brixton, sparking a summer of clashes between police and black and Asian communities in major cities across the country.

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

Gerald Butler QC, a retired judge appointed deputy coroner in order to hold a second inquest in 2004, referred to a 14th victim of the New Cross fire.

Anthony Berbeck escaped the fire by jumping out of a second-floor window but struggled with his mental health following the tragedy.

Judge Butler said the 20-year-old took his own own life in July 1983 "following the trauma brought on by the fire."

The second inquest also recorded an open verdict.

Four decades on, the New Cross fire remains a significant chapter in the fight for racial justice in Britain, with the BBC documentary Uprising winning a BAFTA in 2022 for best factual series.

But the New Cross Fire 1981 exhibition at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum's Floor One Gallery found family and friends reclaiming the story from the chapters of social history and revealing the emotions of living with the tragedy for 42 years.

While documenting the devastating events of 1981, the exhibition also told the human stories behind the headlines - Yvonne's love of roller skating, Humphrey's talent for table tennis and the impact of the tragedy in Rugby, symbolised by a Harris School tie, where many of Yvonne's family and friends studied.

Lorna Tavares, Yvonne's cousin and the driving force behind the exhibition, and Robert Ruddock, the only surviving sibling of the fire, both spoke at Saturday's event, which included a final chance to view the exhibition and the opportunity to share a moment of reflection and remembrance.

Lorna said: "I was truly moved by the response of the community who carried the trauma of their lost loved ones, and the survivors, including my sister Susan, cousin Robert and friends Peter, Desmond and Hector.

"We all buried this trauma for 42 years. We no longer feel we are on our own and, in a safe space, we were allowed to express ourselves.

"Some of the community have also expressed they can now start to heal after hearing our story."

Guests on Saturday included the Mayor of Rugby, Cllr Carolyn Watson-Merret, Mark Pawsey, MP for Rugby, Cllr Brenda Dacres, Deputy Mayor of Lewisham, and James Rogan, who co-directed Uprising with Sir Steve McQueen.

Cllr Watson-Merret said: "It was a privilege to attend the closing event for the New Cross Fire 1981 exhibition, which saw a community come together to reflect on the lives lost and share treasured memories of those who were so cruelly taken away.

"For so many survivors, family and friends, the emotional impact of the events of 42 years ago remains raw to this day, but all show dignity and a determination to keep the memories of loved ones alive and make sure our community grows stronger, together, moving forward."

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