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January 29, 2020

Norfolk Goes Up in Flames – Twice

Norfolk was a bit of a tinder box in its early days. We weren’t around to save the town from near total destruction in 1775, but we were there for many homeowners 4 years later when another devastating fire hit.

The British are Coming, The British are Coming!

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

Norfolk was the primary port for the mid-Atlantic and was 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, Norfolk was bombarded by the British fleet and what fire didn’t destroy, the Virginians 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) was left standing.

Just Blow Up That Fire

In 1799, another great fire threatened to engulf Norfolk. Picks, shovels, and axes were used by citizens to tear down buildings to keep the fire from spreading. Bucket brigades from the limited water supply and even 1000 gallons of vinegar put only a small dent in the spreading inferno. What seems to have made the biggest difference was the use of twenty-five casks of gunpowder to blow up several homes in the path of the fire. By removing a fuel source, 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 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