Dalston will always hold a special place in Charlie Collins’ heart. It is the area he made his home when he moved to the UK from Jamaica in the 1950s. And it is the last place he saw his son alive before he lost his life in the New Cross fire.
Walking around the town centre today in his bright red hat and colourful tie, a broad smile spreads across Charlie’s face as he surveys the block of 34 new flats that will be named after him – Collins Tower.
It will include a library and public archive, and is part of development on Dalston Lane, which will create more than 500 new homes, including affordable housing – as well as shops and restaurants – all centred around the new London Overground Station and a landscaped public square.
The construction has had its share of critics, but Charlie is delighted with the way it is all coming together.
And he is particularly pleased with plans for the public square, which will include a memorial to his son Steve, and the 12 other young people who lost their lives at a house party in New Cross, south-east London, in 1981.
When Charlie arrived in the UK, he started a reggae club in Dalston which attracted big names, including Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder. Influenced by his dad’s role as a bandmaster in Jamaica, Charlie began producing his own records and the 73-year-old grandfather is still recording today as ‘Sir Collins’.
Dalston was a different place in the 1960s – as was the rest of the country – and racial problems were heightened by the presence of the National Front’s headquarters in Shoreditch.
“We had to prepare ourselves at all times for trouble,” said Charlie. “We had to walk in groups or, if not, prepare to get assaulted by the authorities. We were always the offenders, but we had never done anything.”
Determined to take a stand and try to improve relations between the black community and police, Charlie became an honorary member of the police consultative committee. He also ran music outreach sessions for the local community, in addition to his club nights.
And it was at his club that he heard the terrible news that made him fear his 17-year-old son had lost his life.
Following in his dad’s footsteps, Steve was DJ-ing at the New Cross party on 18 January, 1981. Charlie said: “I heard about the fire on the radio. I immediately got into the van I’d bought for Steve’s sound system and drove to New Cross. But I couldn’t get any information, so I had to drive back to the police station in Dalston. I knew some of the police officers through my voluntary work, and they tried to find out what had happened for me.
They said there had been no sighting of my son, but that I had to expect the worst.”
Five days later, Charlie received Steve’s jewellery – and confirmation that he had died in the fire. There were fears of an arson attack, and for years the police were accused of a cover-up by ruling out a racial motive. But today, Charlie says he has heard nothing to make him think it was anything other than a terrible tragedy.
To mark the first anniversary of the fire, he planted 13 trees at the scene in New Cross. Charlie also planted another 13 trees at his music club in Dalston – one for each of the young people who lost their lives.
He said: “I chose a memorial of trees so the children will always grow. To me, they were just fallen heroes.”
Thirteen new trees and a time capsule will be planted in the square at Dalston as part of the new development. Charlie has worked closely with the Council, London Development Agency, Barrattp Homes, and Mayor of London to ensure his original trees, which made way for the development, would be replaced. He hopes this will ensure the young people are never forgotten.
Page updated: 15 Jun 2010