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BBC’s Uprising: the true story behind the New Cross Fire in 1981 

The fire killed 13 black teenagers and young people

Emmy Griffiths

Steve McQueen’s new real-life docuseries Uprising is set to premiere on BBC on Thursday night, and follows three events from 1981 including the New Cross Fire in January, which killed 13 black teenagers, Black People’s Day of Action in March, and the Brixton riots in April. What is the full story behind the New Cross Fire? Get more info here…

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What was the New Cross Fire? 

Taking place in January 1981, the New Cross Fire occurred during a house party in southeast London in the early hours, which killed 13 black people between the ages of 14 and 22. Their names were Humphrey Brown, 18, Peter Campbell, 18, Steve Collins, 17, Patrick Cummings, 16, Gerry Francis, 17, Andrew Gooding, 14, Lloyd Richard Hall, 20, Patricia Denise Johnston, 15, Rosalind Henry, 16, Glenton Powell, 15, Paul Ruddock, 22, Yvonne Ruddock, 16 and Owen Thompson, 16.

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WATCH: See the trailer for Uprising here 

The birthday party was being thrown for Yvonne and Angela Jackson (who survived the fire) at a time of racial tension in the local area. Police initially suspected that the fire could have been started by a local as there had been excessive noise complaints, and a car was seen driving away from the fire. It was ultimately confirmed that the fire had started by an armchair in the living room, with a coroner suggesting that it could have been started deliberately by a guest. 

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The response to the fire led to the Black People’s Day of Action

The open verdict ruling at an inquest into the fire, held in 1981, contributed to distrust in the police, and the New Cross Massacre Action Committee organised a Black People's Day of Action due to the response to the tragedy. Over 20,000 people joined the march, with many holding signs that read '13 Dead, Nothing Said’. A second inquest was held in 2004, which again concluded with an open verdict, meaning that while the circumstances surrounding the fire were suspicious, there wasn’t significant evidence for a solid conclusion. No one has even been charged in connection to the horrendous incident. 

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No one has ever been charged in connection to the deaths

Speaking about the second inquest, George Francis, whose son Gerry, 17, died in the fire, told The Guardian: "I'm not confident it will get the answers to what happened on that fateful night, but I hope it will. We are hoping for a verdict at the end of unlawful killing. We know the fire was not accidental.”

Gerald Butler QC sat as a coroner for the second inquest, and said: “The bald facts do not... demonstrate the grief and despair of the families, nor do they show the remarkable persistence and dedication on behalf of many in order to achieve this inquest."

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Speaking about the series, including the fire, Steve told the BBC: “It is an honour to make these films with testimonials from the survivors, investigators, activists and representatives of the machinery of state. We can only learn if we look at things through the eyes of everyone concerned; the New Cross Fire passed into history as a tragic footnote, but that event and its aftermath can now be seen as momentous events in our nation’s history.”

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Over 20,000 people attended Black People’s Day of Action

Fellow director and executive producer James Rogan added: “The New Cross Fire that claimed the lives of so many young people and affected many more remains one of the biggest losses of life in a house fire in modern British history. What happened and how Britain responded to it is a story that has been waiting to be told in depth for 40 years. In the series, survivors and the key participants will give their account of the fire, the aftermath, the impact it had on the historic events of 1981 and the profound legacy it has left behind.”

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