an investigation of the investigation into the 1981 New Cross Fire

Produced by MA students at the Centre for Research Architecture and facilitated by Stafford Scott & Kamara Scott, Guest Professors, Forensic Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London, 2022-23


digital archive of research materials
diagrams and links


How did the structure of the house and surrounding infrastructure contribute to the fire?


This section will dissect how housing allocation was racialised, as were other social environments such as venues. We will also examine Lewisham Council's negligence in maintaining its properties' safety, particularly at 439 New Cross Road, where the New Cross Fire occurred.

This investigation takes place across two scales. First, it looks at the urban scale and how the Black community were systematically excluded from public spaces of gathering and entertainment. It then shifts to the scale of the house, through the mechanics of the fire and the way it spread through 439 New Cross Road.

The 1980s and 1990s saw several discriminatory letting policies, one of which was the 'sons and daughters' rental policy that favored the relatives of existing tenants in new leases and effectively prevented changes to the ethnic make-up of estates. Like the terrace house allocated to the Ruddock family, many 1919 properties were given to Black and ethnic minorities as temporary housing, with little to no prospects of different housing allocations later.1

In 1976, these houses were intended for clearance and demolition, but the housing supply fell and was not demolished. The particular mid-terrace house at 439 New Cross Road is typically renovated every 20 years by the council.2 The council considers it difficult to renovate as it is connected to other houses, and renovations would impact neighbouring houses. Disturbance thus becomes a reason to delay renovation.

The windows at 439 New Cross Road consist of annealed glass framed with timber wood. In 1980, UPVC window frames were introduced to replace timber wood frames; however, at 439 New Cross Road, the window frames were not changed to UPVC until 1999.3 Timber wood must undergo periodic maintenance. In case of fire, timber ignites and is rapidly destroyed by fire. In the case of annealed glass, it is fragile and breaks easily with mild force. Tempered glass is more costly yet thicker and can tolerate force and heat better. In 1977, the Consumer Product Safety Commission Standard required changing window glass from annealed to tempered.4 Therefore it is possible to conclude that the council neglected to take certain fire safety measures within this particular household and also that the council more generally allocated poor-standard houses to Black families.

Further, the decision to have the party at home, rather than at a venue, is a consequence of the racial discrimination Black people face in public space. Rather than organising a party where safety measures of that capacity are considered, the Ruddock family, like many Black families, resorted to organising the party at home. In 1981, there had been many recent racist attacks in the area by the National Front and the police. The racist attacks on the Black community included the firebombings of the Moonshot Centre and the Albany, both recreational sites for Black people in the surrounding neighbourhoods of New Cross and Deptford.5 This indicates that many recreational sites designed for large gatherings of people, which might have better emergency exit routes or fire extinguishing infrastructure, became unsafe, as they were targets for racialised attacks.

1 Jeff Henderson, “Race and Housing: Previous Research ,” in Race, Class and State Housing : Inequality and the Allocation of Public Housing in Britain , ed. Valerie Karn (Studies in Urban Regional Policy ), pp. 3-15
2 I.d.
3 Fenster, “The History Of UPVC Windows,” Fenster Glazing , January 9, 2021,
4 Safti, “Shattering the Myth of Wired Glass,” Glass on Web , March 29, 2007,
5 Attenborough Center, “Why Babylon Stills Resonates Today,” Attenborough Center , accessed November 21, 2022.

Swipe to scroll through the timeline.
This timeline illustrates the preceding events of the New Cross Massacre to understand how the racial environment of 1981 was built. The timeline shows how the relationship between state ideology (captured in legislation and speeches) and racist actions of far-right groups (such as the National Front) shaped the spatial conditions of 1981 which contributed to the New Cross Massacre.

By presenting the timeframe of 1963-1981, we illustrate the workings of the state and police in cultivating a climate which made the New Cross Massacre possible. We begin in 1963, with the Bristol Bus Boycott, which was a crucial act of resistance that sparked the Race Relations Act of 1965: the first legislation in the UK to address racial discrimination.1 The Act had a limited definition of racial discrimination and failed to identify racism as liable to criminal sanctions, resulting in weak legislation that continued the rife, oppressive environment of racism. The failure of the state to act on racial violence is countered by the legacy of resistance groups that have taken, and continue to take the protection and safety of their communities into their own hands, for example through the Black People’s Day of Action, a march through central London.2 Other examples which are foundational to the resistance mobilised in response to the New Cross Massacre are the Black Liberation Front formed in July 1970 and The Black Parent’s Movement formed in April 1975 which were established in order to hold the police accountable and support those affected when provisions of the state and legal structure were negligent.3

Through our research, it becomes clear that the Massacre was not an isolated and irregular tragedy, but part of a pattern of racial violence that characterises the political and social landscape of Britain across the 1970 and 1980s. This pattern of arson attacks on Black community spaces preceding the New Cross Massacre, such as the Black Panthers Unity Bookshop in 1974, the Moonshot Club in 1977, and the Albany Centre in 1978, demonstrates recurring destructive acts of racial violence.4 Targeting Black community spaces created an environment where communal celebrations were forced into the private sphere, occurring in homes. Just six months after the Massacre, Doreen Khan and her three children were murdered in their home in Walthamstow from a petrol bomb attack.5 By plotting the frequency and geographies of these arson attacks, the Massacre is shown in the context of a racist environment, revealing the plausibility of the fire as a racist attack.

1 Saima Nasar, “Remembering Edward Colston: histories of slavery, memory, and black globality,” Women's History Review 29 (2020): 1218-1225.
2 Aaron Andrews, “Truth, Justice, and Expertise in 1980s Britain: the Cultural Politics of the New Cross Massacre,” History Workshop Journal 91, no. 1 (Spring 2021): 193.
3 “Transcript: In conversation with Linton Kwesi Johnson,” UCL, accessed 15 Nov 2022, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/racism-racialisation/transcript-conversation-linton-kwesi-johnson;
“Black Parents Movement”, George Padmore Institute, accessed 15 Nov 2022, https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/collections/black-parents-movement-1969-1993#:~:text=The%20Black%20Parents%20Movement%20.
4 Andrews, 188; “WE WON’T BE TERRORISED OUT OF EXISTENCE: BLACK BOOKSTORES IN ENGLAND RESIST FASCIST ATTACKS,” The Black Scholar 9, no. 10 (1978): 45–47; Kehinde Andrews, “Forty years on from the New Cross fire, what has changed for black Britons?,” The Guardian, 17 Jan 2021,
5 Dave Wise and Stuart Wise, Like A Summer With A Thousand Julys, (Bread and Circuses, 2015).

The maps below locate several racially motivated attacks that targeted the Black community in South London (particularly in the New Cross and Brixton areas) starting in 1959 and leading up to the New Cross Fire in 1981.

The map also locates several public spaces of Black youth gathering (including youth clubs, community centres, shebeens and other music or dancing venues). In addition to the housing shortages and high unemployment directly affecting the Black community at that time, recreational facilities and social spaces were restricted for Black youth. The only few public places where they felt safe to gather and congregate (including Black eateries, music and dancing venues and even places of worship) were often raided by the police or victim of racially-motivated attacks, therefore contributing to the community’s sense of alienation and the shift from public spaces to domestic spaces of gathering.

The specific public spaces of gathering which were directly targeted (Moonshot Club/Albany/Black Panthers Unity Bookshop) and the proximity of the other fires/petrol bomb attacks to other spaces of gathering, highlight the racist nature of these attacks and can explain why in the context of 1981, places of gathering for the Black community became constrained to the domestic sphere.

The decision to have the party at home, rather than at a venue, was a consequence of the racial discrimination the Black community faced in public spaces. Rather than organising a party where fire safety measures for large crowds would have been taken into account, the Ruddock family (like many other Black families during that period) resorted to organising the party at home.

In 1981, places of social gathering for the Black community had become constrained to the domestic sphere due to the ongoing prevalence of racially-motivated attacks in public spaces.

The second part of the investigation looks at the house at 439 New Cross Road, and the way in which its physical and material arrangement contributed to the acceleration of the fire. It features a timeline of the night of the fire based on accounts compiled from three key archives - the George Padmore Institute, the National Archives and the Black Cultural Archives.

The following is a reconstruction of how the fire is estimated to have spread throughout the building, based on the mechanics of fire spread in a 2-storey timber-framed George terrace house and taking into account the materials that would have been used as well as the building legislation of the period. It maps out the vertical progression of the fire, from the moment the fire originated in the front room to the “flashover” point which we estimate occurred by 5 minutes and 45 seconds after the start.