My parents Herbert Sharp and Maud Wilson were married in St Laurence Church Upminster on 1 July 1903. My father, known as Bertie, who was then aged 32 and living in Acton, was a stockjobber on the London Stock Exchange. My mother Florence Maud (but known only as Maud), was aged 26, the eldest daughter of John and Emily Wilson of New Place, Upminster, who both originated in the Highlands of Scotland. They are buried in the Upminster parish churchyard to the right of the entrance, in a grave entirely covered with Scotch granite stone. I always thought of grandmother Wilson as being a very old lady but she was only 76 when she died in 1924. Their youngest son Roy and his wife Bobbie are buried in the same grave.
My parents’ first home was Burnside, Hornchurch Road, a four bed-roomed semi-detached house which still survives almost opposite to Upminster Bridge railway station. At that time there were no other buildings towards Upminster until the Bridge House Inn and the River Ingrebourne, which marked the boundary with Upminster.
I was born on New Year’s Eve 1908 at Burnside, the third of their offspring to be born there, the others being my older brother John, born in April 1904, and a sister Margaret, who died as a baby. I was named Muriel Maud Sharp and I was baptised in Hornchurch’s St Andrew’s Church on 3 February 1909. I have no memories of my first home in Hornchurch as, when I was less than two years old and before my younger sister Eileen Janet was born in June 1910, we moved to a new detached house in Hall Lane which my father called Malvern after his old school. This was located just past the junction with Waldegrave Gardens, next to Miss Brown’s school, known as Upminster High School. My very first memory is of being pushed in the pram with Eileen by a nursemaid over Upminster Bridge when a wheel came off the pram. I was lifted out and had to walk home, presumably to Malvern, holding onto the pram. I was not happy!
I spent much of my first 14 years in Upminster and often visited after that—right up to the Second World War when I was sent abroad. I remember so well all the traders in Station Road. Jupp the butcher’s, next door to the boys’ school, Frizzell the baker, Searsons the shoe shop, Wright the newsagent and the Crumpled Horn Dairy. One shopping trip I can vividly recall was a visit with my mother to Mr Gooderham’s grocers and drapers store on the corner of Howard Road. Somehow I became separated from her and screamed and screamed in distress but all the time we were both still in Mr Gooderham’s shop, which was by no means large.
In my day the two Miss Battsons served in the diary on the corner of St Lawrence Road. I remember the Bon Marché so well — it had low shelves with small toys that my sister and I stood and gazed at. I can also recall the two shops round the corner from Aggiss the coach builders — later Aggiss’ Chestnuts Garage. These faced the churchyard, each with a step up to them. One was an excellent haberdasher (Miss Collis) but I can’t remember who owned the other one.
I remember the grocers on Upminster Hill opposite Hill House School, which was the only shop there. I have a memory of articles for sale outside and I know I went into it once or twice with either grandmother or her housekeeper Eliza (of whom see later). I also recall visiting Upminster Mill, probably with Eliza, I think to buy flour. We saw Mr Abraham the miller, who wore a cap, and whose clothes were covered in the fine dust of the flour. The Cosy Corner was very popular locally but it was not the “done thing” for young ladies such as us to go there. How longingly we children would admire those customers sitting on the seats outside eating and drinking, so obviously enjoying that which we were so snobbily denied!
During the First World War my father was a special constable whose job was to place either a green or red lamp in a small hole in a hut built the Hall Lane side of the railway bridge to indicate “Air raid” or “All clear”. I saw the Zeppelin which was brought down by Lt Leefe Robinson at Cuffley in September 1916. My mother woke me up from sleep to see it blazing in the night sky and I am sure that she recognised the significance of this as an historical event.
My parents had many good friends in the area. Dr Bletsoe whose surgery was on the corner of Branfill Road, of course, was one (although our family doctor was Sam Wright from Romford). Others include the George Eves of Hoppey Hall, on the right hand side of Corbets Tey Road, who had a son born the same week as I was, the Plattens of Harwood Hall and their daughter Mrs Norton, Mr Thompson of Cranham, a business associate of my father’s, and Mr W G Key, a Director of W P Griggs & Co., who had developed the Upminster Garden Suburb, who lived near us in Hall Lane. The Hollicks were other great family friends in my mother’s circle, as were the Attenboroughs, who lived in a house on the left-hand side of the Hornchurch Road, near Miss Rilley’s Hill House School. Another name I remember were the Brookfields, who I believe must have been Dr Storrs Brookfield who lived at Hill Place. The Joslins – Walter Joslin of Hunts Farm in Corbets Tey Road and his brother Henry of Gaynes Manor – were friends of my grandparents.
I went to Miss Smith’s kindergarten school in Ashburnham Gardens. I remember that I had a friend there named Kathy Bonsall who lived in house on Hall Lane between Waldegrave Gardens and the bridge, which had (I think) a sloping garden at the front. My greatest treat was for grandfather to fetch me from school with his horse and carriage with Scarff, the coachman, on the box and take me back to New Place. Grandfather had two carriages, a Victoria and a Landau and two horses, Duchess and Jack. Later, when I was about eleven and I went to stay with two elderly aunts at Highgate (my grandmother’s spinster sisters), I attended a day school there called Morven School. After that I was a boarder at Southwood Hall, Muswell Hill/Archway, North London, until, when I was 16, I attended Nursery Training School at Wellgarth Road, London NW11.
After some years at Malvern, Hall Lane my parents later moved to 11 Deyncourt Gardens nearby in Upminster. One day, when mother was not well, father took my sister and I to the field at the end of Deyncourt Gardens and told us to run across the fields to New Place and tell Eliza the housekeeper that mother was poorly. But a few years later it was father who was unwell. He was taken ill at work and admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital, London where he died of cancer of the liver a week later on 24 October 1920, aged 49. I remember that Eileen and I had to wear black mourning dresses made by grandmother. They were long and ugly and we absolutely hated them. We were embarrassed at school — we felt “different”! At the end of the eight-week mourning period grandmother told us that we needn’t wear them any more. We were so excited that we threw them out of the bathroom window into the garden below. Needless to say, Eliza sent us to pick them up. We also had to wear black ribbon on our panama school hats instead of the usual school colour: these ribbons also went out of the window as well.
Poor mother was devastated by father’s death: three children, very little money and no bread-winner. With no widow’s pension, child benefit or NHS in those days it is understandable that she suffered a bout of deep depression. I think that at that time there must have been a family conference and it was decided that our home at 11 Deyncourt Gardens must be given up and that our grandparents would pay for mine and Eileen’s education, while Uncle Percy, my father’s brother, would become John’s guardian. Mother, when better, would try to find a job — unheard of for a married woman in those days. My brother John at that time was a boarder at Alleyn Court School, Westcliff-on-Sea where he wore a pink cap embroidered in white with “A.C.” Later, he went on to Merchant Taylor’s School and qualified to join the Merchant Navy as Wireless Officer. I think that John suffered from this bereavement much more than we girls did. He was 15 when father died and it was a terrible upheaval for him to go away to live with Uncle Percy in Hampstead, London.
Mother was soon better and she managed to get a job as housekeeper in a nurses’ home attached to a hospital. She did well and was happy there as she said herself “I am always busy”. Later, she was appointed as Sewing Matron at the Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore. She was a very good needlewoman and with two girls under her supervision made all the nurses’ uniforms. When mother joined the staff at the hospital she rented a flat in Stanmore where Eileen stayed in school holidays and I was able to visit. When I was at Southwood Hall Eileen went to the Welsh Girls’ School at Ashford, Middlesex as mother wanted her to be near where she worked. How mother managed to get Eileen in there I don’t know as we have no Welsh blood! Eileen did well and then went to Pitman’s Secretarial College and became a secretary book-keeper later marrying Charles Phillips-Smith and had two children, my niece and nephew Elisabeth and Edward. They are now my only relatives and they are both very dear to me, as I know I am to them. They are both so good to me and visit me often. I go to stay periodically with Elisabeth, who has a delightful bungalow at King’s Sutton, near Banbury where Edward too has a bungalow. He is a chaplain of a prep school and Elisabeth is a nurse.
During World War Two mother looked after eight boys, evacuees from London, in a country house in Potten End, Hertfordshire, afterwards retiring to a little cottage in the same village. I was with her when she died on her 96th birthday on 6 December 1973 in Queensway House, a nursing home in Hemel Hempstead.
My grandfather John Wilson was born in 1846, the son of Robert Wilson, a Glasgow merchant, and he was educated at Dollar Academy, Clackmannanshire. He trained for five years as a mechanical engineer in the locomotive shops and Engine Works of the Great Western Railway at Worcester and, after serving his articles as a mechanical engineer, he came to London and was articled as a civil engineer to Mr Edward Wilson, consulting and contracting engineer for Great Western, Great Eastern and other railways. He became a Member of both the Institutions of Mechanical and Civil Engineers (M.I.C.E and M.I.M.E). Among the many extensive works he was engaged on were the Great Eastern’s Metropolitan extension and the Liverpool Street Station, as well as railway extensions in Norfolk and further afield. On Mr Edward Wilson’s death in 1877 grandfather became a partner in the firm of Messrs Edward Wilson and Company, and during this time the extensive quay and warehouses at Parkeston in Essex were completed. He remained with the company as partner until 1883 when he was appointed Engineer-in-Chief to the Great Eastern Railway. In 1907 it was said that he held the record as the longest serving Railway-Engineer-in-Chief.
Grandfather married Emily, daughter of Mr Swarbrick, General Manager of Great Eastern Railway and they had eight children, of whom seven, four boys and three girls, survived. The boys were: Edward, who became Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Railway but later sadly committed suicide; Jack and Herbert, who were both killed in World War I, Herbert at Gallipoli; and Robert (“Roy”). The girls were: Maud, my mother; Margaret (Aunt Maggie); and Eleanor (Aunt Nell).
My grandfather was a great fly fisher who spent many days pursuing his hobby on the banks of the River Wye. I have a copy of paper of his entitled “Fishing, angling and anecdotes” which was read before the members of the Retired Railway Officers’ Society on 10 January 1922. In this he describes the various locales, habits, lifestyles and features of Brown Trout, Sea Trout, Salmon and Grayling, which he says were the fish he had been in the habit of angling for. It appears that he was fondest of the latter, which he described as “a most delicate and delicious dish” that he much preferred to Salmon or Trout when cooked to his own “receipt”.
Grandfather had a bungalow at Battlesbridge in Essex whose garden, as a railway man, led by a gate to the railway platform. Eileen and I often stayed there with him with Eliza and we picked bunches of flowers and went to the platform to give them to the engine drivers.
How well I remember my grandparents’ grand home of New Place! The house was approached from Cranham Road (later renamed St Mary’s Lane) by two huge iron gates that were always open, one to go in and one to go out. The front garden was semi-circular with grass in the middle of a wide drive and an enormous cedar of Lebanon tree in the centre. I was told that this tree, one of the landmarks which typically denoted Esdaile’s former Upminster properties, was the second largest such tree in England. The very wide front door, which had a noisy bell-pull, was approached by five white stone steps to a porch, over which was a bow window. The top half of the front door was coloured glass, which looked like the coloured circles of the bottom of wine glasses; one couldn’t see through it.
I can still remember the interior of New Place as if I had visited it just yesterday. The front door led to a very big hall, which had on the wall a large glass case, containing an enormous fish (dead!), possibly one that grandfather had caught. Also in the hall were two stag’s heads with antlers, and a fox’s mask. Off the hall was a large cloakroom which we children were not allowed to use — it was grandfather’s domain. He kept a spare pair of false teeth in a glass of water on the side of the washbasin and every day, so as to use the right pair of dentures, he enquired of Eliza “What was he eating for lunch?”! Next in the hall were the very elegant front stairs with thick patterned carpet, brass stair rods and wrought iron banisters. Again, as children, we were not allowed to use these front stairs. Half way up, where the stairs turned, was a grandfather clock. Grandmother had a little black dog called a Toy Pomeranian, named Jim Crow. I can, even now, visualize grandmother coming down these lovely stairs with the little dog at her heels.
Next, was the green baize door that led through a passage to the kitchen. There was a very long dresser, on which were plates, vegetable dishes and soup tureens, a very big kitchen range, a table in the middle for preparing meals on and, under the window, another table where Eliza and the staff had their meals. Eileen and I always had tea in the kitchen: we loved this as we were allowed to eat as much bread and golden syrup (no butter) as we wanted. There was always a huge laundry hamper in the corner of the kitchen: the household laundry was sent to an outside laundry and was collected and delivered each week. Through the kitchen was a door leading to stone steps down to the larder and, out of that, steps down to the cellar, which was very cold. Opposite the kitchen door was the “still room”, with cupboards from floor to ceiling, where all the preserves such as jam and marmalade were kept. Grandfather had something to do with a new railway line to Tiptree in Essex and at Christmas he was always sent a complimentary case of Tiptree jam. Further down the passage was the back door, with steps down to the stable yard. Just before the back door were the linoleum-covered back stairs which led to the billiard room and second floor.
The next door off the hall after the green baize passage door was the dining room, with dining table and chairs, two sideboards and a small table where grandfather always sat to have his 6.00 p.m. “high tea”. Why he never sat at the dining table for that meal I don’t know, as he always sat there for his midday meal. On the other side of the hall was the ante room that led to the drawing room and then the library. The drawing room, which I remember as almost completely filled with all its fussy Victorian and Edwardian furniture, was originally the ballroom of the house built by Sir James Esdaile. It had an Adam fireplace and in each corner of the ceiling was a cornice of Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes. The drawing room furniture that I remember was a Broadwood grand piano, a Louis XIV chaise de longue, a spinning wheel, and two upright armchairs that grandmother told me had been made specially for her by Mr Gillow of Waring & Gillow of London. She had met him on a ship’s cruise where he had supplied the comfortable armchairs, so she ordered them. Also in the drawing room was a bow-fronted cabinet of very dark wood with a mirror. This belonged to my Aunt Maggie who used it as a music cabinet. She gave it to me when she went to live in Vancouver in Canada. I have that also in my home today and I use it daily for files and books.
My grandparents always sat in the library, which was lined with book-filled bookcases. The drawing room was only used at high days and holidays, such as Christmas and parties. Grandmother liked us to play card games and board games with her and, in those days before television, she taught me to play bridge, whist, chess, draughts and other games. Grandmother did the most exquisite cotton crochet work. She made beautiful tablecloths, tray cloths and other pieces, which I have now passed to my niece Elisabeth, who uses them. A sideboard cloth edged with wide crochet lace, made for my mother’s wedding and marked with marking ink with her name and dated 1903, is now on the credence table in the parish church in Potten End where I worship.
Halfway up the back stairs was a passage that led to the billiard room and workshop. At the beginning of the passage was a lavatory which housed a toilet pan, set in a long mahogany surround, and the handle to flush was a pull up affair, also set in the mahogany. Next were two steps down to the billiard room, which had big low lights over the billiard table, a rack for the billiard cues, and a device for scoring. Eileen and I were allowed to play with the cues and balls but we weren’t much good. Out of the billiard room was grandfather’s workshop. His great hobby was carpentry. During the First War he made splints and other accessories for the war wounded and the local hospitals relied on him to keep them supplied.
At the top of the back stairs was a sewing room, then Eliza’s room and the room where we slept, which was always called Uncle Roy’s room. Next door to our room was a locked communicating room which was grandfather’s room; there was another communicating door to grandmother’s room, unlocked and always open. Grandfather liked to have a bowl of fresh stewed fruit (no tins in those days) put by his bed at night — I remember being woken up at night hearing the clink of the spoon against the bowl when grandfather was eating.
The upstairs landing was beautifully carpeted with a big bow window with window seats that was over the front porch. Off this landing was the morning room, which doubled up as a nursery. On the mantelpiece was a black marble pendulum clock with wind-up key and I now have that very clock here in my home. At least 90 years old, and maybe more, it keeps perfect time and gives me much pleasure. Also off the landing was a big spare bedroom, another door into grandmother’s room and a bathroom. The staff bedrooms were up another flight of stairs: I only once went up there, I think that there were four rooms, maybe a sitting room too.
Attached to the house at the side of the kitchen was a conservatory and a fishing room where fishing rods and tackle were kept. Two fishing rods were put aside for we children to use. Eileen and I spent hours fishing in the moat for roach and carp. We rolled bread into tiny balls for bait. Grandfather had taught us how to take the hook from the fish’s mouth and to throw the fish back into the water. The conservatory was bow shaped and had several slatted shelves running the length of it but I don’t think it was used much. We had to go through it to the fishing room but I can’t remember flowers or plants in there.
As befitted a house of this kind my grandparents employed a number of staff. Mr Scarff the coachman lived in a cottage behind the stables. Once a week grandmother went shopping to Romford and I would go with her in the carriage. I remember that before one such trip, while waiting for grandmother to come out of the house, I engaged in conversation with the coachman. “Scarff”, I enquired, “how do the horses know where to stop when we get to Romford?” “Why, don’t you know miss?”, Scarff replied with twinkle in his eye, “Haven’t you noticed that after your grandmother has got into the carriage and I have put the rug over her knee, I whisper to the horse ‘Next stop Sainsbury’s and then Boots’.” For several years I believed what the coachman had said and it was quite a blow to me when I found out the truth!
The gardener at New Place was Mr Claxson, who had nine or ten children, one of whom, Bessie, used to suffer from fits. My grandfather always wore a buttonhole: Mr Claxson cut a bloom from the garden and placed it beside grandfather’s place at the breakfast table in a metal, probably silver, water-filled container which grandfather was able to place in the button hole of his jacket.
My grandparents employed a cook and three maids, Annie, Daisy and Eliza. I remember when I was very young I watched Daisy ironing grandmother’s handkerchiefs, all of which had her initial “E” in the corner. I could never understand how Daisy always managed to fold the hankies so as to get the initial on the outside of the folded hankie! Now I wonder why I wondered!
The latter maid, Eliza Anne Cook, was little older than my mother. Born nearby at Cranham, she had gone to work for grandmother as a 13-year-old live-in maid and stayed on for many years until grandma’s death. She was a wonderful housekeeper to my grandparents, and she would wear a great big white apron and a high white cap, which we called a crown. She was a lovely person, if a little eccentric. One of her eccentricities concerned spectacles: if someone wearing a pair of glasses came into the house it was her practice to remove them and to give them a polish before returning them to the often surprised visitor. Another foible concerned umbrellas: she would always unfurl any umbrella she came across and roll it back up tightly in much neater fashion than she had found it. We were always very happy at New Place because Eliza loved us so much. When we wanted to do anything special, we always asked Eliza to approach grandmother, who we were a little bit afraid of, although I don’t know why.
After we moved away I stayed in touch with Eliza and in later years when we returned to visit Upminster I would go to see her in the house named Meadway that she shared in Ingrebourne Gardens. She died in 1942 when I was away in Canada and she is buried in Cranham churchyard. I became a “nanny” looking after many babies and children; Eliza was a great example to me and I tried so hard to be like her. I think I succeeded.
I have vivid memories of the almost ritual-like life at New Place. On Fridays, dead on 5.00 p.m., the front door bell would ring and Eliza would usher in first the coachman and then the gardener and garden boy to collect their wages from grandmother. Why my grandmother paid them and not my grandfather I don’t know. Also on Fridays, at a certain time in the morning, Eliza would come to the library and escort grandmother to the kitchen. There cook put everything ready for grandmother to make a batch of pastry — pastry board and rolling-pin, flour, fat etc. I was allowed to watch and, when the pastry was made, I was given a small ball of dough which I shaped into mouse, with sultanas for its eyes. This was cooked with the other pastry and it always tasted good! I never remember grandmother going to the kitchen at any other time or for her to do any other cooking. Usually cook came to the library every morning for “orders”. I don’t know whether grandmother cooked on Friday because she didn’t like cook’s pastry or whether she wanted to have a hand in the domesticity of her own home.
At the far end of the hall was a door leading to the garden, down several metal steps with handrails either side. Looking from the garden door at the back of the house there was a very formal garden with shaped flowerbeds, the plants being changed at seasons of the year. There were two bushes of pampas grass and a big monkey-puzzle tree, beyond which was the moat with iron rails about waist high, and a larger island in the middle, where ducks and moor-hens nested. Looking out from the drawing-room windows was a very big lawn with shrubs on the left hand side – two huge rhododendron bushes at the top and a cedar tree which had a swing on one of its branches. These divided the lawn from the kitchen garden On the right hand side was a path, edging a herbaceous border and a long brick wall, on which were espalier fruit trees. I can remember green-gages, peaches, plums, pears and figs. When the fruit was ripe we were allowed to pick up and eat any that had fallen — it’s surprising how much “fell”!
We were not usually allowed in the kitchen garden at New Place except on summer evenings where we were permitted to go there when on our walk under Eliza’s supervision. I remember that there were a number of fruit trees. One tree that I especially remember, as it was at the entrance to the garden, was a quarendon apple tree, small bright pink apples that tasted delicious. I’ve never been able to find that apple — I wish I could — to find out if it tasted as good now. There were also two vineries, one with black grapes and the other white, and on these walks I would often be allowed to pick a bunch. The kitchen garden paths were lined with very low box hedges and inside this hedge in springtime there were masses of daffodils, a lovely sight. At the far end of the kitchen garden was a woodshed. I loved to watch the gardener and boy sawing wood logs on a trestle with a double-handed saw. I was allowed to go there as there was another path to it, which did not run through the kitchen garden which we were usually forbidden to enter. (On reading through these notes I notice how often I have said “we were allowed (or not allowed)”. I suppose this is discipline: anything out of the ordinary we were expected to ask permission for.)
From the lawn of New Place the shrubbery — it was called “The Walk” — ran for hundreds of yards through the New Place Estate grounds right behind the Bell Inn up to the gate opposite St Laurence’s church. As children we loved this and we were allowed to go unaccompanied to watch the Mr Eldred, blacksmith at work at his forge alongside the Bell Inn. On Sundays we were accompanied on our walks along the shrubbery on our way to church where I would sit in the back pew with Eliza. On these summer evening walks with Eliza we would also go to the paddock to feed the horses and we would sometimes hear the sound of the bells ringing from St Andrew’s church, Hornchurch a couple of miles away across the valley. When I hear the chime of bells it still brings back memories of those magical Upminster childhood days over 80 years ago.
In August 1998 my nephew Edward asked me if I would like to visit Upminster to have a “look around”, if so he would be pleased to take me there. I jumped at the offer. On the 22nd he and Elisabeth came to fetch me. I had gathered a small bunch of flowers to place on my grandparents’ grave and took a bag of bread-crusts to feed the ducks, if some were still there.
We entered Upminster along Hall Lane and I recognised the Hall at once, but not all the houses there — when I lived in Upminster Hall Lane was still a country lane. We found Deyncourt Gardens and Edward took a photo of No. 11, our former home. What a maze of houses led into it! I remember Deyncourt Gardens as being a short road with fields at the bottom.
We eventually found our way to St Mary’s Lane but drove past two or three times before we found the entrance to Clockhouse Gardens. I was thrilled to see the dear old clock that I knew so well which in my day had chimed every hour. I was delighted to find the moat still there. I stood and fed the ducks in exactly the same place as I had done as a child.
I can’t think why such a fuss was made to preserve Clockhouse, which used to be the stable block to New Place, when the main house itself was sold and demolished a few years after grandfather died in November 1922. I was sad to see New Place gone but delighted to see a young Monkey Puzzle tree which had been planted in the same place as the old big one. From that I could get my bearings. The old railings round the moat were still there but almost sunk into the ground. We walked round the moat — the old big cedar tree with branches over the water had gone but we were treading the same old path. We walked round the back of the moat but what had been fields was now houses. Two more cedar trees had gone. The kitchen garden and lawn were now bowling greens and it is nice to know that the gardens haven’t been entirely destroyed but put to another use.
We went down St Mary’s Lane to the cross roads — I recognised the cross roads but not as such a busy place and I had never seen shops and traffic lights there before this. In my time there were two little cottages with orchards on the right hand side of the road occupied by Miss Warren and Mrs Bone. Eileen and I loved to talk to them when they came to the gates to greet us as we walked towards the village.
I visited my grandparents’ grave and we all went to the church, which was larger than when I was there, I think another chapel has been built. It felt good to be back there again. Edward took photos, both inside and out.
I hardly recognised Upminster — so many shops etc. and the station now at the top of the road. In my time the station was down the road at the side and Eileen and I used to walk down there to meet our brother John from boarding school at holiday time. I know that all little villages such as Upminster was must grow in time but was amazed that it had grown into a London suburb. But for me the nucleus of Upminster was still there — the Clockhouse Gardens and the clock of which I now have a photograph, together with others, on a poster over my desk.
A lovely happy day, a real nostalgic one. Perhaps we’ll do it again one day?
Potten End, Hertfordshire. April 2000
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