In the early hours of Sunday 18 January 1981 a fire broke out on 439 New Cross Road, killing 13 young black Londoners.
This exhibition presents a body of photographs taken by Vron Ware documenting the Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March 1981. The images bear witness to an historic moment of community organising and resistance in post-war Britain.
In the early hours of Sunday 18 January 1981, a fire at 439 New Cross Road resulted in the deaths of 13 young black Londoners as they were celebrating the 16th birthday of Yvonne Ruddock, one of the victims. One survivor died nearly two years later, bringing the total loss of life to 14.
In the face of public indifference towards and negative media coverage about the loss of 13 young black lives, as well as perceived inaction on behalf of the police to apprehend suspects, hundreds of people met on 25 January 1981 at the Moonshot Club and marched in protest. The New Cross Massacre Action Committee was set up and plans were made for the Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March 1981.
Concern about racist violence had been running high in the area due to the active presence of the white supremacist National Front. Several racially-motivated arson attacks had already taken place in the Lewisham area. In that climate, it seemed likely that the tragedy had been caused by a firebomb – a theory advanced by the police in the early stages of their investigation.
In the face of a hostile media, indifferent to this tragic loss of young black lives, community activists called a meeting at the Moonshot Club on 25 January. Hundreds of people met to discuss the failure of Britain’s government to acknowledge the tragedy, as well as to protest against the inadequacy and bias of the police investigation. The New Cross Massacre Action Committee was set up and plans were made for a Day of Action on 2 March 1981. The decision was taken to demonstrate on a working day to maximise the impact on London.
Vron Ware’s photographs – never shown publicly before – document this historic occasion in vivid detail. While the images capture the defiant solidarity of the women and men taking part, they are supplemented by shocking evidence of the way it was subsequently reported by the Fleet Street press.
These photographs now form part of Autograph ABP’s permanent digital and print archive, curated for the collection by Renée Mussai in close collaboration with Vron Ware since 2012. They are shown here courtesy of Autograph ABP. We would also like to thank the George Padmore Institute Archives for the loan of the historical documents and the Heritage Lottery Fund who support the development of Autograph ABP’S Archive.
While best known for her work as an academic and writer, Vron Ware has also produced an important and little known body of documentary photography. During the late 1970s and early 1980s she was actively involved in feminist, anti-racist and anti-fascist movements, documenting campaigns as a freelance photographer and working as editor for Searchlight magazine from 1981-1983.
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