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The Three Fires of Christmas

History Update

Portsmouth historian Joyce Volk tells us that fear of theft, not fire, appears to have been the driving force behind the creation of Portsmouth’s early fire societies. Wealthy citizens like Wyseman Claggett and James Stoodley lost items in a 1761 fire, the same year the first fire society was founded here. As many as six groups were formed with up to 25 men in each. Numbers were kept small because members of each group were shown where their comrades kept their most valuable items. Members of the Federal Society, for example, knew a secret password that allowed them inside member houses to salvage valuable items when fire threatened. Others stood guard over items once removed from the house.

"It seems to me pretty clear that this was their motivating force, "Volk says. "Some people were decent., others were not. These were 25 men who trusted each other."

Volk has researched the formation of the Portsmouth fire societies and published her findings in two history periodicals available at the Portsmouth Public Library. The creation of private fire clubs began well before the three famous fires that struck the city in the early 1800s. Homes were required to have numbered leather fire buckets that could be used by volunteers to carry water. Two of those 18th century buckets, Volk says, were sold a few years ago at auction for $45,000 each. Two of the early societies, the Federal and Mechanics group, still exist, Volk says, as social clubs. --- JDR

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Thursday, December 14, 2017 
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