Category Archives: History

A bit of historical background and historic events

Holborn Viaduct: The history of London’s first flyover with a royal seal of approval

Holborn Viaduct © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

Holborn Viaduct links Holborn to the City of London

One of the upper entrances to the step buildings

Linking the City of London and Holborn is a rather ornate road bridge. While other bridges in the capital attract a lot more attention due to their location and viewpoints, the Holborn Viaduct isn’t such a familiar sight to many Londoners. The bridge dates back to the Victorian era when London’s road and sewage system were given a massive overhaul. Built between 1867-69, it spans the valley of the River Fleet, which now exists underground and flows out into the River Thames by Blackfriars Bridge, a short distance south. It connects the steep hill of Holborn (the actual road) and Newgate Street, crossing Farringdon Street below, which follows the trail of the Fleet. It was designed by architect and engineer William Haywood (1821–1894) to improve access to nearby Smithfield Market and the City in general. Haywood had worked closely with Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1818-1891) on improving London’s sewer works in the 1860s, including the creation of pumping stations, like Crossness. Before construction began, city authorities agreed to demolish a series of old streets and buildings by the Fleet Valley, with the owners being financially compensated for the loss of their homes. The plans also meant destruction of St Andrew Holborn’s north churchyard, leading to an estimated 11,000-12,000 remains being reinterred elsewhere.

Holborn Viaduct is 1,400ft long, 80ft wide and made of cast iron. It covers three spans and is supported on granite piers. When it was completed, it became the first flyover in central London. Along the bridge are bronze statues, winged lions and replica Victorian-style globe lamps. The female statues represent Agriculture, Commerce, the Fine Arts and Science. Henry Bursill (1833-1871) sculpted Commerce and Agriculture on the south side, while Science and Fine Art on the north side are by the sculpture firm Farmer & Brindley.

Holborn Viaduct © Illustrated London News. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The royal procession under the Holborn Viaduct in 1869 from the Illustrated London News

Holborn Viaduct © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

The Holborn Viaduct was designed to span the valley of the River Fleet, which is now covered over by Farringdon Road

Holborn Viaduct © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

The Viaduct was opened by Queen Victoria in 1869

Two step buildings were erected either end of the viaduct, with steps on both north and south sides allowing pedestrians to move between the upper and lower street levels. The upper storeys now contain offices and have ornate details, including more Bursill sculptures and wrought iron balconies. Each of the four buildings feature a statue of famous Medieval Londoners on the façade: merchant Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579); engineer Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631); and London mayors Sir William Walworth (d.1385) and Henry Fitz Ailwin (1135-1212). Gresham founded the Royal Exchange in the City, while Sir Hugh headed the construction of the New River to bring clean water into London. Meanwhile, Alwin was the first ever Mayor of London and Sir William is particularly notorious for killing Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt. Read the rest of this entry

William Shakespeare’s London: Guide to The Bard’s former homes and haunts

Find out where William Shakespeare used to spend his time during his two decades in London.

Shakespeare Jimmy C mural © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

William Shakespeare mural by Jimmy C on Bankside

Although he was born, died and spent a lot of his life in Stratford-upon-Avon, actor, playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616) found fame – and fortune – on the London stage. Over 400 years after The Bard’s death, his life and works continue to fascinate and entertain people around the world. Although many of Shakespeare’s former homes and haunts in Warwickshire are in good condition, it’s rather more difficult to find his London hotspots. Fires, plagues, war and redevelopment over the centuries have changed the fabric of the City of London and Bankside and left little of Shakespearean sights. However, fans of the great literary legend can make a pilgrimage to some Shakespearean landmarks, with some buildings still in existence or plaques marking his presence.

What was William Shakespeare’s life like in London?

Born in 1564, Shakespeare moved to the capital in his twenties. It’s been difficult to pinpoint exactly when he headed for the big city, as historians have referred to 1585 and 1592 as Shakespeare’s “lost years” due to lack of records. However, it’s certain that he was a married man and a father-of-three by the time he sought fame and fortune in the capital. He was definitely working in London by 1592 when he was mentioned by a rival dramatist Robert Greene.

Shakespeare lived in London for around two decades, but split his time between the city and Stratford-upon-Avon, where his wife Anne (1556-1623) remained bringing up their children. Soon after arriving in London, he began his career as an actor and playwright, with records showing his plays were being performed by 1592. He started acting with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later becoming the King’s Men, and became part owner of several theatres, including The Globe. He turned his attention from plays to poetry when theatres were closed during the plague outbreak of 1593. He remained in London for another 20 years or so, eventually retiring to Stratford in 1613, three years before he died.

Guide to William Shakespeare’s London landmarks

  • The Crosse Keys

Today, the Crosse Keys is a Wetherspoons pub in a former Victorian bank. However, the pub takes its name from the former Crosse Keys Inn, which stood near the site in the late 16th century. Shakespeare’s troupe, the Chamberlain’s Men, performed for audiences of up to 500 people in the cobbled courtyard of the Inn on a regular basis in the early 1590s. The original Crosse Keys was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, with its replacement burning down in 1734.

– The Crosse Keys, 9 Gracechurch Street, City of London, EC3V 0DR. Nearest station: Bank.

  • St Helen’s Parish

By 1596, Shakespeare was living in the parish of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, while his family back in Stratford had moved into the recently bought New Place. The exact address is not known, but it is believed he was living near Leadenhall Street and St Mary Avenue. The Bard is listed as failing to pay 5 shillings on £5 worth of taxable goods in November 1597. Living locally, it was likely he worshipped at St Helen’s Bishopgate church and is commemorated inside with a stained glass window of his image.

– St Helen’s Bishopsgate, Great St Helen’s, EC3A 6AT. Nearest station: Liverpool Street.

New Inn Broadway © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

Romeo and Juliet mural on the site of The Theatre

  • The Theatre

After the Plague led to plays being banned from the City of London, theatre troupes like Shakespeare and co started to move to just outside the jurisdiction of the City. The Theatre was built in 1576 on the site of the former Holywell Priory by actor and theatre impresario James Burbage – a colleague of Shakespeare at the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. By 1594, the group started performing The Bard’s plays exclusively and it soon became the leading acting company in London. Romeo & Juliet was believed to have been performed at The Theatre for the first time, with the tragedy estimated to have been written around 1591-95. However, The Theatre was dismantled in 1598, with some of its materials being used to build The Globe, after the company fell out with the land’s owner Giles Allen. Archaeologists discovered remains of the theatre in 2008. A building to house offices and a permanent exhibition about The Theatre is currently being constructed on site. Today, a mural of Romeo & Juliet commemorates Shakespeare’s spell in Shoreditch.

– New Inn Broadway, Shoreditch, EC2A 3PZ. Nearest stations: Shoreditch High Street or Old Street.

Read the rest of this entry

The fascinating history of Blackfriars: Norman castles, a priory, theatres and Shakespeare’s home

Why Blackfriars is called Blackfriars and the pre-railway history of the area.

Remains believed to be of the Blackfriars Priory in Ireland Yard

A blue plaque commemorates the lost priory

Blackfriars is an area by the southern fringes of the City of London, familiar to many City workers. Now dominated by office blocks, the district used to be a hub for religion and entertainment. Until the early 13th century, the area was home to Norman fortresses Mountfiquet Castle and the original Baynard’s Castle. Mountfiquet was likely named after the Baron of Mountfichet (of the Stansted Mountfichets in Essex), while Baynard’s was built by Ralph Baynard (a sheriff of Essex). Both castles were demolished by King John (1166-1216) in 1213 after their then-residents Robert Montfichet and Robert Fitzwalter took part in the barons’ revolt against the monarchy the previous year.

The name Blackfriars dates back to the 13th century when Dominican Friars established a priory on the site. The Friars first came to the capital in 1221 and established their first London monastery on the outskirts of the City near Lincoln’s Inn at Holborn. However, in 1276 they obtained permission from King Edward I (1239-1307) to move to the area we now know as Blackfriars. The King approved the levelling of the remains of Mountfiquet and Baynard Castle and the demolishing and rebuilding of the Roman City walls to incorporate their priory in 1282. The plot covered around 8 acres and incorporated the main church, a tower and five chapels (the Virgin chapel, a Lady chapel, St John the Baptist chapel, a pardon chapel and the Chapel of St Ann). The name Blackfriars started being used around 1317 to describe the Friars, who were recognised by their black cappas. The City also included Grey Friars (Franciscan), Austin Friars, Crutched Friars, Austin Friars, White Friars (Carmelites), and the Holy Trinity and St Helens Priory priories. In 1322, the Blackfriars was the scene of tragedy when a large number of impoverished Londoners were crushed to death in a rush to beg for food and money at the gates. Read the rest of this entry

Royal Hospital Chelsea: Visiting the historic home of the Chelsea Pensioners with Open House London

Royal Hospital Chelsea chapel exterior © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

The exterior of the chapel of Royal Hospital Chelsea

As the host venue of the Chelsea Flower Show, the Royal Hospital Chelsea sees over 157,000 visitors pass through its gates every May. However, these horticulture lovers only get to see the outside of this historic venue. Known as the home of the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’, parts of the Royal Hospital are open to visitors, including during Open House London.

Wren’s Chapel with ceiling painting by Sebastiano Ricci

The Royal Hospital Chelsea is a retirement and nursing home for around 300 veterans of the British Army. Until the 17th century, there was no state provision to look after retired or injured soldiers. However, King Charles II (1630-1685) recognised these veterans needed care and founded the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 1682. He chose to establish it on a 66-acre site in Chelsea, which housed a theological college named ‘Chelsey College’, founded 73 years older by his grandfather James I of England (1566-1625). Charles II and his royal administrator Sir Stephen Fox (1627-1716) commissioned architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) to design and oversee the building’s construction.

Wren designed the Great Hall and Chapel. The 42ft high chapel was completed in 1687 and was consecrated in August 1691. The chapel’s interior features a painting of the Resurrection of Christ by Italian painter Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734) and his nephew Marco Ricci (1676–1730), which was added in 1710-15 during Queen Anne’s (1665-1714) reign. Just to the south-west of the Chapel was the Great Hall, which was originally intended as a dining hall. It featured 16 long tables with a large mural of King Charles II on horseback being crowned by Victory. Meanwhile, outside in the central court, the King was honoured again with a 7ft 6in statue in copper alloy by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). Read the rest of this entry

Explore 125 years of Tower Bridge with special after-hours talks this autumn

Learn about the history, people and architecture of a London landmark at special late-night openings of Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge being constructed ©City of London, London Metropolitan Archives

Tower Bridge being constructed in 1893
© City of London, London Metropolitan Archives

Tower Bridge is one of London’s most iconic sights. Instantly recognisable the world over, the bascule and suspension bridge is one of the most photographed landmarks in the capital. To mark the bridge’s 125th anniversary, there will be a series after-hour talks for Londonphiles.

Kicking off in September and running until December 2019, each session will invite experts to share their knowledge and skills in a specially-curated event which explores the history of Tower Bridge. Each experience will last an hour and take place in the new Learning Space, high up in the South Tower. Film, food and art are among the themes explored over the talks.

Listings

  • Thursday 5 September : Illuminated River Project

The Illuminated River Project is a London wide public art commission that will transform the capital at night, lighting up 15 bridges across the River Thames. Once complete, the project will be the longest public art project in the world. Join Director Sarah Gaventa and Project Architect Chris Waite at the Bridge to explore the ambitious decade-long public art project and how Tower Bridge will shine in its role.

  • Thursday 12 September : Sir Horace Jones and the Architecture of Tower Bridge

Dr Jennifer Freeman, architectural historian and writer, and a specialist in ‘at risk’ conservation buildings will guide guests through the extraordinary life of Tower Bridge architect Sir Horace Jones. A specialist on the man behind a number of London’s most iconic buildings, including Smithfield Market and Billingsgate Market, Jennifer will not only explore Jones’ legacy and his innovations as a designer and planner, but the architectural marvel Tower Bridge remains as to this day.

  • Thursday 17 October : Tower Bridge Eats – Cooking and Dining with the Denizens of Tower Bridge in 1894

Don your kitchen whites and test your taste buds to explore the past century through an exclusive tasting talk with food historian Dr Annie Gray. Foodies will be taken on a whistle-stop tour of 125 years of gastronomic history at Tower Bridge.

  • Thursday 7 November : An Illustrated Construction of Tower Bridge

From the fanciful to the downright farcical, explore some of the alternative river crossing designs presented to the City of London’s special committee in 1876. Tom Furber, Engagement and Learning Officer with the London Metropolitan Archive offers a fascinating insight into some of the weird and whacky designs submitted for the design competition, as well as the ground-breaking construction of Tower Bridge.

  • Thursday 5 December : Tower Bridge & the Thames on Film

This illustrated talk by British Film Institute curator Simon McCallum will give a flavour of the BFI National Archive’s unparalleled collection of film and TV about London, with a particular focus on life along the Thames. Drawing on a rich array of newsreel footage, documentaries and home movies, this archive tour will include glimpses of the majestic Bridge itself across the past century. These films are part of the Britain on Film initiative, with thousands of newly digitised titles from the BFI and partner archives around the UK now free to explore on BFI Player. Simon’s talk will be complemented by a screening of the classic 1959 film The Boy on The Bridge, made possible by the estate of Director Kevin McClory.

(Please note this event will finish later due to the film screening).

  • Talks will take place in the Tower Bridge Learning Space. At Tower Bridge, Tower Bridge Road, SE1 2UP. Nearest stations: Tower Hill, Tower Gateway or London Bridge. All events: arrive at 7pm for a 7.30pm start. Tickets: £20pp (includes a welcome drink and a return ticket to visit Tower Bridge within 12 months). For more information and booking, visit the Tower Bridge website.

For a guide to what else is on in London this October, click here.

For more London history and architecture posts, click here.

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Open House London 2019: Tips and highlights of the annual architecture festival

How to make the most of one of London’s most fascinating and photogenic festivals.

View of the City from the Leadenhall Building

Open House London is a must-do for any lovers of architecture, history… or just London really! Whatever your taste in design, you can be guaranteed to find a building that appeals. To those uninitiated, Open House London is a two-day long festival of architecture, when hundreds of buildings open their doors to the public for free. It could be a chance to step inside a government building, a City of London skyscraper, an art deco masterpiece or a brutalist icon – places that would normally be off-limits to visitors.

This year’s Open House London is the 27th and takes place from 21 – 22 September 2019. Over 800 buildings are taking part in the event, with most of these accessible to those who just turn up. However, there are some special buildings – such as 10 Downing Street. the new US Embassy and the BT Tower – which are balloted entry only, so you need to apply before the beginning of September to be in with a chance. There are some other buildings which have limited numbers so offer time slot bookings in advance.

Top 10 tips on making the most of Open House London

  1. Make a list of places you want to visit and also a few back-up options if the queues are too long by searching Open House’s official website. Alternatively, you could buy a hard copy of the guide here or download the free app available on Apple Store or Google Play.
  2. Check out TFL’s website to make sure there are no engineering works affecting your transportation to the sites.
  3. Wear comfortable shoes and check the weather forecast to inspire suitable clothing. You will be walking and standing a lot.
  4. Get up early: Most of the buildings taking part open around 10am or 11am, but some open even earlier. If you get there before they open, you could beat the queues.
  5. Make sure your phone and/or camera are fully charged and bring a portable charger if you have one so you can search online maps and share photos on social media.
  6. Bring ID – some buildings may require ID to enter.
  7. Make sure you don’t carry too much in your bag, as many buildings are subjected to security searches.
  8. Go the toilet whenever you find one. Some of the more unusual buildings may not have any available facilities or you could end up desperate while waiting in a very long queue.
  9. Follow Open House London on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
  10. Share your discoveries on social media with the hashtag #openhouselondon. It’s worth searching this hashtag on Twitter to find out where the long queues are.

Top picks to visit at Open House London 2019

Camden Highline. A tour of the proposed Camden Highline park connecting Camden Town to King’s Cross. Open Saturday and Sunday 9.30am-3.30pm (pre-book only). Camden Gardens, Camden Street, NW1 9PT. Nearest station: Camden Town or Camden Road.

Drapers’ Hall. Livery Hall first built in 1530s, twice rebuilt. Featuring 19th century façade and Victorian interiors. Open Sunday 10am-4pm. Throgmorton Street, City of London, EC2N 2DQ. Nearest station: Bank or Liverpool Street.

Freemasons’ Hall. Art Deco meets classical, built in 1927-33. Open Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm. 60 Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, WC2B 5AZ. Nearest station: Holborn or Covent Garden. Read the rest of this entry

Serpentine Pavilion 2019: Slope down to Junya Ishigami’s rock-y structure

Anniversary of Seven Dials’ Sundial Pillar marked in new artwork

Rene Gonzalez Seven Dials art © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

At the Entrance of Seven Obscure Passages by Rene Gonzalez in Seven Dials

A new piece of art is on show in Seven Dials to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the district’s famous sundial pillar. ‘At the Entrance of Seven Obscure Passages’ by Rene Gonzalez is the latest installation for the Seven Dials’ The Artist’s Artist Project and was unveiled in May 2019.

The Artist’s Artist project features the showcased artist nominating another for a new installation. Iona Rowland nominated Gonzalez and two other artists following the display of her Agatha Christie piece earlier this year. A panel of Shaftesbury representatives and Seven Dials stakeholders then select the winning artwork. Following display, the piece will be donated to charity.

Gonzalez’s art not only pays tribute to the sundial, but also the rich history of the area. Politician and project manager Thomas Neale (1641-1699) – who designed the Seven Dials estate – is featured in the image, alongside Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who unveiled the reconstruction of the sundial monument for The Seven Dials Trust in 1989.

  • ‘At the Entrance of Seven Obscure Passages’ is on show until September 2019 at the junction of Shorts Gardens and Neal Street, WC2. Nearest station: Covent Garden or Leicester Square. For more information, visit the Seven Dials website.

For a guide to what’s on in London in July, click here.

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A look at London’s post boxes from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II

Victorian post box © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

A Victorian post box in Kensington

The red post box is an iconic piece of British heritage, having been a familiar piece of the streets for nearly 180 years. Despite the public’s fondness of the post box, it isn’t in such demand as it used to be due to the rapidly changing world. The rise of electronic communication and the introduction of rival delivery companies to Royal Mail means the post box isn’t used so widespread as in previous years. A Royal Mail post box is said stand half a mile from over 98% of the UK population. There are around 155,500 post boxes across the UK, with a substantial portion of these situated in London.

Edward VII era post box in Kensington

Of the thousands of post boxes in the capital, some of them are listed. In 2002, the Royal Mail entered into agreements with Historic England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively to retain and conserve all existing post boxes.

When it comes to post boxes, there are two main factors  which distinguish them from each other – their design and the royal cypher. The roadside post box has existed since the reign of Queen Victoria, with every subsequent monarch’s cypher being immortalised on the front. By looking at the cypher, you can date the age of your nearest post box, although admittedly the ballpark for boxes erected during the reigns of Victoria and our current monarch Elizabeth II are rather large! Of course, the shortest reign in recent memory is that of King Edward VIII. The eldest son of King George V only reigned for 326 days, before he abdicated the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Despite his short time as head of state, there are 171 boxes with his cypher, some of which are in London.

Ciphers of British monarchs

VR – Queen Victoria : 1837-1901
ER VII – King Edward VII : 1901-1910
GR – King George V : 1910-1936
ER VIII – King Edward VIII : Jan-Dec 1936
GR VI – King George VI : 1936-1952
EIIR – Queen Elizabeth II : 1952-present.

Walking around London today, a red post box is a frequent piece of street furniture. While the majority are round or oval, there are also hexagonal, wall boxes and other unusual sizes. Most free-standing post boxes feature a cap, which protects rainwater from entering the box and wetting the mail.

Prior to postal reform in 1840, mail was an expensive form of communication. The Uniform Penny Post was introduced, meaning the sender pre-paid the postal costs, rather than the recipient. The same year, the Penny Black adhesive stamp was released. It wasn’t until 12 years later, the first roadside Post Office pillar box was erected in St Helier, Jersey as a trial. In 1853, the first roadside pillar box was established in the mainland United Kingdom in Carlisle. In 1856, Richard Redgrave (1804-1888) from the Department of Science and Art came up with an ornate pillar box design to be used in London and other cities. Today, you can see one of Redgrave’s designs – which were bronze – at the Victoria & Albert Museum. From 1857, some post boxes were built into existing walls. Read the rest of this entry

Visit the Medieval ruins of Whitefriars in the basement of a London office block

The history of the City’s Carmelite monastery.

Remains of the Whitefriars monastery in the City of London

Most Londoners are aware of Blackfriars, as it lends its name to a bridge and busy train and tube station. The name stems from the Dominican Friars – who wore black mantles – who had a priory in the area. Although the Blackfriars priory was closed during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, the name remained. However, the names of some of the City of London’s other monasteries and priories weren’t so durable throughout history.

In Medieval London, a number of monastic organisations owned a lot of property in and around the city. After King Henry VIII (1491-1547) ordered the dissolution of the monasteries, a large number in London were closed. Among those shutting their doors were Grey Friars in Newgate Street and Whitefriars at Fleet Street. Grey Friars managed to survive in name after the King gave its 14th century church to the City Corporation and it was renamed Christ Church Greyfriars. After it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) designed its replacement, which hosted worshippers until it was bombed during the Blitz and now its ruins survive as a public garden. (Read Metro Girl’s blog post on Greyfriars to find out more).

The 14th century crypt is believed to be part of the priory mansion

White Friars was a Carmelite religious house which sat between Fleet Street and the River Thames, spreading west to Temple and its eastern boundary at Whitefriars Street. The order was originally founded on Mount Carmel in what is now Israel in 1150. After fleeing the Saracens in 1239, the White Friars travelled to England and established a church on Fleet Street in 1253. Their name White Friars comes from, you guessed it, the colour of their mantles. In 1350, it was replaced by a larger church, rebuilt by Hugh Courtenay, Earl of Devon (1303-1377). The White Friars were popular with nobility and Londoners, with many leaving money to the monastery in their wills. The friars’ extensive grounds included cloisters, a cemetery and garden, along with the church.

After nearly three centuries in the capital, the White Friars monastery was closed by Henry VIII in 1538. The king gave the White Friars chapter house to his physician, Doctor William Butts (1486-1545) as a residence. The king’s son and successor King Edward VI (1537-1553) ordered the church’s demolition and allowed noblemen’s houses to built on the site. One of the few surviving buildings, the refectory of the convent, became the Whitefriars Theatre. Established in 1608, the Jacobean theatre only lasted for around a decade and was thought to have been abandoned by the art scene by the 1620s. The diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) often frequented the establishment and noted his visits in his famous diary. At the time, the surrounding area was pretty notorious, with refugees, prostitutes and debtors known to hide there from the authorities. This bad reputation lasted well into the 19th century, with Charles Dickens writing about the area in the 1830s.

Now, all that remains of the friary is a 14th century cellar or crypt, believed to be part of the priory mansion. It was discovered in 1895, later being restored in the 1920s when the News of the World were developing their Fleet Street offices. After the NotW moved east to Wapping in the 1980s, a new building was constructed on site. During building in 1991, the ruins were lifted up on a crane and replaced in a slightly different location. Today, the basement of 65 Fleet Street features a large window so the ruins can be viewed from Magpie Alley.

  • Ruins of Whitefriars, Magpie Alley (off Bouverie Street), City of London, EC4Y 8DP. Nearest station: City Thameslink, Temple or Blackfriars.

For more London history posts, click here.

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