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Mutual's History With Notable 1799 Norfolk Fire

Updated: May 9, 2023

Norfolk was a bit of a tinder box in its early days. Mutual Assurance Society wasn't around to save the town from near-total destruction in 1775, but we were there for many homeowners in 1799 when another devastating fire hit. Here's a quick look at how two devastating fires nearly destroyed the burgeoning city of Norfolk.

The British are Coming, The British are Coming!

colonial drawing of residents fighting fire with buckets of water

In December of 1775, the royal governor of Virginia, John Murray, 4th earl of Dunmore, moved his government headquarters to Norfolk from Williamsburg, declaring martial law in the face of mounting unrest by the citizens.

Norfolk was the primary port for the mid-Atlantic and important to both colonial and loyalist supporters. Following a quick defeat to the British at nearby Kempsville, the Virginia riflemen, led by Colonel William Woodford, defeated the British at Great Bridge and occupied the town in a matter of a few weeks. Dunmore was forced to escape to British ships moored in the Elizabeth River, but he did not retreat. On January 1, 1776, the British fleet bombarded Norfolk, and what fire didn’t destroy, the colonists later burned to keep what was left unusable by the British. Only St. Paul’s Church (which still has a cannonball in its south wall from the attack) was left standing.

A Big Bang Theory Works

In 1799, another great fire threatened to engulf all of Norfolk. Citizens used picks, shovels, and axes to tear down buildings in an effort to keep the fire from spreading, and bucket brigades, limited by a scarce water supply, even poured 1000 gallons of vinegar on the flames, but these efforts made only a small dent in slowing the spreading inferno. Desperate to save their homes, residents opted to blow-up several buildings in the path of the fire using twenty-five casks of gunpowder taken from a nearby armory. By removing fuel sources, the residents were able to contain the blaze until it died out.

Almost 75 homes and businesses were lost, but for some residents, The Mutual Assurance Society Against Fire on Buildings of the State of Virginia saved them from financial ruin. “Old Mutual,” as it was called, paid out $35,000 in claims; a substantial amount for that time.


Sources: | Mutual Assurance 200th Anniversary Publication



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