Oral History

Tom Lucas

Tom Lucas who was an Ex-Director of a George Ward, and Ex-Councillor of Barwell


Interviewers: Mr. D. J. Wood (DW)

Interviewed: Mr Albert Lucas (H) & Mrs Lucas (W)

Date of Interview: 23rd August 1984




Interviewers: Mr. D. J. Wood (DW)

Interviewed: Mr Tom Lucas (TL)

Date of Interview: 1984




TL. My initial experience is beginning in 1923. I went into the factory as the office boy in 1923. At that time, I think we were making about 8000 pair per week and we made mainly boys and girl's footwear. I think what was interesting about that, there were definite seasons for footwear at that time, and there were very great demand for boy and girls sturdy working boots and shoes. They were made, stitched and riveted, err, and nailed as we call it, and nuggeted, you know the sort of thing, tipped heels and tipped toes as anything to make them solid. Think I'd like to make a comment there while it's in one's mind, even at that time we had the anxiety in the summer months of the Japanese competition because they used to flood the country with plimsolls. Now I don't know quite whether you remember what I mean, everybody is trainer boot mad now a days you see. Well in those days, it was plimsolls, the Japs could send them in, and they would retail at about 1s-6d, today's equivalent 7½ pence, if you can make such an equivalent, you can't really, never the less that’s what they were. Now the cheapest boots you could turn out and shoes, and we were most competitive, would be about say to 2s-6d. We could sell our boots, some where from 2s-3d and 2s-6d per pair and they would be in the shops then at say 3s to 4s something of that sort. So during the summer months, and if it was dry and that, the people really went for plimsolls to save their boots. I only mention this because, you know, the trade has had to face competition all the while. Let me remind you again, nothing to do with a shoe trade, we had a general strike in 1926 and went on off the gold standard I think that was 1927, which again created a crisis I couldn't give any details but it's worth remembering this sort of thing.

The general strike was quite a serious thing for the industry as a whole, although strangely enough we were very much a growing firm. Our clickers lost about 3 weeks at the General Strike, because we got a lot to work in the factory, so you know, we drained it a bit if you see what I mean. I don't think we had hardly any unemployment at all after that, so although the general strike went on, went on for about six months didn't it?, quite a time. We ourselves didn't suffer very much. I'm talking now rather as a company rather than a shoe making. We were a developing company, and all the while, er, we were growing, making more and more, and in fact, as times became difficult with some of the manufacturers in Barwell. We bought pretty well all of them up, people like Garner’s who were in Barwell, George Geary’s Factory, Neys, all those factories we bought until in actual fact about this time the 1920s we were employing in the Barwell 1500 people. This is quite a good whack of people; bearing in mind, Barwell at that time, the population would be about 4000. So initially, you set out to make a good solid hardwearing boot or shoe at the cheapest price you could. Competion was very, very severe all-over, you know, there were plenty a shoe centres, and still are. Nothing like it was in those days and we were well known for boots and shoes as I say, err, they were made stitched, machine sewn. Whether you understand those operations, you probably do, double soled we call it, sometime triple soled, you know everything to make good hardwearing foot wear and nuggeted, this was for the special country boy what we called nuggeted, two round and three up two nuggets round the edge and three up the centre.

DW. Like army boots?

TL. Yes, that sort of thing, and a good strongish upper, chrome if possible. If not, what we called a semi chrome, a box, because that was so much cheaper than full chrome, so in the main then, that was a sort of boot we made. Now one of the points that was interesting, I could be slightly out here. I remember counting up the operations it meant really you see. You'd got a clicking room to cut, you'd got what we called a preparing room to skive and to fold, get the work ready for machining. Then you'd got a closing room that put the parts together, and err, after they'd been skived, folded, punched, they were machined together, which we call closing, and then they became a complete upper.

DW. A tipical closing room about 1929.

The closing room of Hodgkin & Powers Arthur Street, later was taken over by G.H.Palmer Ltd of Anstey.
The closing room of Hodgkin & Powers Arthur Street, later was taken over by G.H.Palmer Ltd of Anstey.

TL. The Palmer Group of companies were then taken over by George Ward Holdings after the second world war. Well then in the meantime you got a press room, a revolution press room, to cut soles, the leather soles and the insoles and you'd got a heeling room to make the heels which we called preparation for the bottled stuff. Then you got a lasting room, which lasted them, put the shoes on the uppers, and then a making room, they put the soles and heels together and then a finishing room and then a stockroom, or a shoe room who cleaned them up and made them look nice. I’m emphasising this because it meant you'd got clicking room, preparing room, closing room, preparation, lasting, making, finishing, stock, and if you call the press room a room, you had ten different rooms in a factory. Now the reason I'm emphasising this, it did mean that it is a very, very large labour content in a boot. This went on, that method with various improvements of a sewing and all that, and gradually made the boot look a bit more finished, cause some of the stuff used to look, today we would think it looked very very crude quite honestly if they saw it today. Well when you think where we got to now. I would feel one of the biggest changes in the industry was when vulcanising came in, which I suppose now must be about 30 years ago. 30 years bring us up to 1948, 25 perhaps. When vulcanising came in, immediately the stitching nailing and all that disappeared. You still ad your clicking closing and lasting, but then once it was lasted it was put on to a vulcanising machine. The sole was vulcanised on, and that was that. There was none of all these 150 odd jobs in a lasting room where you would have to nail, you're have to level them, stitched them, tack them on, those sort of jobs so it disappeared, and in the finishing room there were no jobs.

DW. Did that put many people in Barwell all out of work?

TL. Well what happened, the only jobs left in a finishing room was to take the flash off, after it had vulcanised it left a bit of a flash on you see, that was all, one man, that was all that was necessary. Now the finishing room, prior to that, our finishing room perhaps had a hundred men in it, and all on good jobs. In fact the finishing room was about the best-paid job in actual fact. This is one thing it, err, it did mean a tremendous upheaval and we ourselves, it did put people out of work because, err, we ourselves never dismissed a man. I emphasise we were growing, and we made it quite clear to finishers, if they were prepared to be retrained, and take on alternate work, there would never be no need for us to dismiss any because their own jobs were redundant. In the main this is what happened. A few people moved which always happens if you get an upset, which that was. They found jobs in other businesses, but in the main we virtually did not lose a man. We replaced them throughout the factory, found them alternate work and retrained them, We were able to-do this so far as we were concerned, and it did not make unemployment in Barwell because we were still a growing factory. When you remember from doing about 8000 pairs a week in Barwell alone in 1938 we are making 70,000 pairs a shoes every week, we were doing three and a half million pairs a year in Barwell alone, and we were beginning to expand as you probably know. We built factories in Mancetter, we had factories in Atherstone and then we went into, we bought it at Little Dukes in Desborough. When we bought Webbs in Northampton it meant, because of them and what they owned, we'ed got a factory down in Bridgend. We bought at a company named Lord and Sharman Ltd with a factory at Wigan, we built a factory in St Helen 's. Before we merged we had 23 factories. At that time when we merged with White's we're making 120,000 pairs a week but what I was always pleased about was from 1923 were made about 8000 pair roughly to 1938 in Barwell alone we'ed altered that from 8000 to 70,000 pairs a week in Barwell alone.

DW. What percentage was employed in the boot and shoe?

TL. Well in a way I’d be almost guessing but a think guessing fairly accurately you can reckon 75 per cent of Barwell people would be in the shoe trade. They came in, and you'll know this, you have caught up with this, they came in from Barlestone, Newbold, Bagworth the mining people came in. Go back to 1926 we remember those crisis times, mining was a bad industry, underpaid. Ours is never been a luxury industry for wages in that sense, but with us never having short time, I worked there 50 years and you can say no one really, we did not know what unemployment and short-time was. We had our little bits of it. There was a tremendous upsurge in, err, 1921-2-3 at war and it was a factory all young men, so much so, it speaks for itself didn't it really, when we opened our quarter-century club, 25 years. I think our first membership was about 350, joined it straight off. Well you know it really speaks for itself don't it when you have 350 people stay with you for 25 years and, err, that was um, began the quarter century club. I am going right off shoe making, but it interests me, that was about 16 years ago I think, 1964 or something like that. At that time we got, err, about 350 folks or thereabouts, that have been at Ward's the 25 years. There were plenty had been there 50 years like I was, because most of them began in the 1920s.

From a production point of view we were, sort of a very well-known, they were hard workers and the output really was quite tremendous. I remember a chap who could do 90 doz a day of console lasting. Now if anybody knows anything at all about console lasting, I used to for a bit of fun I'd work it out, on this particular shoe it wasn't as simple shoe but um and he was working eight-hour day at least, 45-hour week these are things you really want to remember, possibly he could have been working a 48 hour week, cus in the winter you could reckon we worked 54 hour week, cus we alus worked nine hours a day, 10 hours a day rather, it was a 9 hour day reckonised, 45 hour week, 5 hours overtime Monday to Friday and then we worked Saturday morning and we finish up doing a 54 hours week. So in a way when one talks about output, it’s a bit, you have to sort of remember that today they are talking about 40 hours quite often, and quite often less. As I say this chap could do 90 dozen a day, and you could reckon tacks in one shoe would be something like 14 tacks, 7 each side, I might be a few under but I don’t think I am. So 14 to one, 28 for two, I used to do this sort of arithmetic, that’s a pair, call it 25 for quick reckoning, a dozen meant then, meant 300 tacks. So if you take 90 dozens that’s 2,700 tacks. A dozen meant 300, 10 dozen meant 3000, that’s right, 27,000 tacks a day. That meant his hand had got hold a shoe while the little driver knocked a tack in 27,000 times.

I found it tremendously interesting that sort of thing, in actual fact I know its, know its nothing to do with shoe making, I might be wasting your time in that way. Similarly with things like trimming, when you think a trimmer, if it was on quality work she’d be putting possibly 20 stitches to the inch in. She’d have a knife down to trim a bit of leather off at the same time as it was machining and, err, that quarter would be, oh 10 inch long, sort of thing. So you were getting on one shoe 200 stitches, and when you think she would do 30 or 40 dozen a day, you get some idea of the real skill that was in this sort of work, you know.

DW. There used to be a gentleman who lived next door to me when I was a lad; he used to mend shoes, and what he couldn’t do with a knife, it was as sharp as a razor blade.

TL. Yes, on this clicking, and things like that, they really were, and you know, they would do round those patterns like that and, err, and generally got close finger nails (laughing) but they got so use to it. When you think, a hand clicker would cut um, a gross to 18 dozen a day, 216 pairs, he worked, he weren’t shacking [messing about] about cutting Caps-Vamps-Quarters-Back straps and thing like that you know.

DW. Can we go on to factory conditions, comparing how they were when you first started and how they are now.

TL. It’s most interesting really in factories you see, with factory conditions, in our own particular factory, as you know it as all shafting being powered motors, 20 horse powered motors driving a whole row of shafts which had got 20 or 30 machines on. Because you see your factory was laid out err, to take the finishing room and well, to take the lasting room, err, a girl or boy would put a puff in a shoe, in an upper, and it would pullover, he would put it in a pullover like that. He would then pass it on to his console man, who would console it, he would then, the console man would pass it on to the seat laster who had got seats in and err, by the way, at that time right from the very beginning the console had to get the toes in, the toe lasting machine which got the toes in come quite comparatively recently you know, 30 or 40 years ago, but quite recently, and so err, the seat laster got it, then it goes to the pounder up, and his job was to put the toes on a grater to get all the surplus material off, cus you will appreciate a circle you get lots of material standing up. He had to work like a navvy, it was really, really hard work, there’s no getting away from that, holding it on the grater while it err, it was real muscle, he had to use his strength to do it, and then you see the upper was pretty well ready then to have the sole tacked on.

Well the chap in there got to pick every shoe up, tack the sole on the machine, hold it to the machine and then it had got to be nailed all the way round, a loose nailer knocking the nails in, and you could get chaps that could do 80 dozen a day of them. That’s saying something you know when you think of it. Chaps in Barwell would love to talk to you about nailing. Then they had got to be levelled you see to solid them nails and to clinch them on the inside of the shoe, went on a levelling machine then the top sole had got to be tacked on then it was either stitched or screwed, they use to be brass screws you know. You would have a roll of wire and the screwing machine would screw a screw in and cut it off. That was actually the finest method of attachment there was, you couldn’t part those, no time, stitching sometimes would give way. You must have you must have had shoes that the stitching gave way, but brass screwing that was done for ever only wearing out that’s all that will do those. That’s another thing to bear well in mind there is no doubt about it vulcanising and injection moulding and the units that everybody got, you see cus they’re units you don’t have repair problems on them really. When your through them you throw them away, its as simple as that. You see this was a draw back in a way to leather soles, however good leather was, give it four or five weeks and you were beginning to go through it. If you were like a kiddie at school you know, it wouldn’t last four or five weeks, err, quite frankly, and this is why they put steel builds in them to help the wear, to protect the leather. This is what made what I think a marvellous step forward for footwear, when vulcanising and injection moulding came in, because as you will remember, when vulcanising first came in it was guaranteed for six month. You fancy a parent being able to buy a pair of shoes guaranteed six months. I know for a fact on leather soles an ordinary kiddie would have gone through a leather sole in four weeks easily, in fact you would have wanted them mending before then, your rough uns would.

Coming back to your conditions, as I say I have explained you can see a shaft, now this is a photograph. We were not appalled by these conditions, but don’t mis- understand me, you will be appalled by them, I think you will anyway. That is the finishing room.

DW. [Looking at a photograph of the finishing room] It’s a bit crowded isn’t it.

TL. First of all, we were trying our hardest, you see, do remember we were expanding, and we had got wonderful work people, wonderful. The factory was nearly always packed. We would work a day sheet system; the work that went in on Monday had got to come out on Tuesday. But you see it did not work quite like that, because all sorts of things happen. You perhaps wouldn’t have the leather for a little bit of it, perhaps wouldn’t have the particular thread, there is so many commodities in footwear, you could talk for a long long while on all the threads and all the rest of it, you see what I mean, the commodities are tremendous so your system had gone all hay wire. You get customers ringing you up and saying “Come on we want our boots, where are they, you promised them last Wednesday, where are they we have not got them yet”. I am simply trying to explain why you broke your system, and as a result you have got a factory absolutely chock a block with work and the chaps worked. They had to pull a couple of racks out sometimes to get to the rack they wanted this sort of thing. Although we grumbled no body felt that um, it was slavery as it were. But as I say if you talked to them now like this they’d say “I’m not going to work like that” They just wouldn’t you see, that’s really a factory in the 1920s. Well now, of course they have individual motors, err, its quite different I don’t know quite how to describe the difference. If you’ve got a track, a factory that’s tracked of course the work comes though, difficult to have a conveyer in the shoe industry. People like the British Shoe Corporation can manage this, because, I will tell you why, they can make for stock, as it were you see, where as us that had got to sell them we can’t, so we can’t have the same sort of room. I have been in several British Shoe Corporation Factories, I went in to one down Rayleigh near Southend and all they made was ladies shoes, and they only made one style of ladies shoe, and so that was easy, so they could put sizes together, 3s, 4s you see what I mean. Where as with us we were making for the wholesale trade, and we were making every mortal thing. Boys Boots and Girls Shoes you know everything, Ladies; Men’s staple welted, stitched, you see in the footwear industry there were at that time, not only did you have them stitched as I mentioned, you had them machine sewn, you had them staple welted which was a cheapest way of making shoes. We use to make men’s shoes with rubber soles, when rubber soles came in, and that’s fairly new you know, rubber soles coming into the industry, by that I mean in the 1920s, when Huskite came from Canada and that sort of rubber when you first had rubber soles, and err, we used to make that sort of thing, and again it affected trimming, finishing rather, because you'd no bottom polish to put on and err, you know you would make a shoe, a leather soled shoe, what we called black bottoms. They would have to be painted with ink and then polished until they shone. You could almost see your face in them. This is why your finishing room was so big, err, you see here, with, go along a little bit our lightings quite good err here electrically. Our conditions here you would say were a bit tough, cus you get right though the factory you can see it like that all through the factory you had got two or three hundred people there at least. You just wouldn’t have it today.

DW. The factory acts would not let you.

TL. No, No it wouldn’t, and yet I am pleased to say at err, you know those chaps they did work. It was real work and err they were genuine chaps, it were a pleasure to be with them I tell you, you know you would have your little rows, how could you help it,err, but they were genuine. It was a complicated industry, but all that's disappeared, over head shafting and all that sort of thing, completely gone err, you see, you'll notice these chaps have got collar and ties on.

DW. Yes, and I see some of them still have their caps on.

TL. Oh ar, some of them never took their caps off, that was another thing, and they all wear what we called eppens [aprons] as I remember so well, well a leather bib and the eppens would go down to their knees, a white apron, and a bib across the stomach sort of thing and chest, of course they got filthy, really filthy, they don't now course there's no finishing. Well you see they were playing about with ink, inking edges, and all that sort of thing.

DW. Was there any industrial diseases linked with the early boot and shoe trade?

TL. Not particularly, I don't think, unless you go really back, I think you would almost accept, possible consumption. I am going a good way back. It was that sort of industry that lent itself to that because the dust, no end, no end of dust flying about. But you couldn't remember, in my early days consumption was still err, a bit of a scar, in fact, one of my friends died of consumption you know. I’m going right back now.

You see everything was leather soles, originally. All sorts of quality of leather soles, you’re Goodyear welting for instance your mans shoe. Which is still made I am pleased to say in good numbers, that would be a good quality leather sole, boys boots would be a bit lower quality cause of the price. The point is everything would be leather soles, and so just to show the comparison and the vast change we built a factory purely to store leather in, that is the various sorts of leather. Sole leather, lifts for heels, bellies for middle soles and things like that you are getting all the difference quantities and err, quite a tremendous factory holding tremendous amounts of leather. Well when vulcanising came in, not wanted, and immediately as a result of that, not quite immediately. Things don't happen quite like that, but as vulcanising increased and err, as units increased; you see to compete with vulcanising, then leather soles disappeared and now, the quantities that made leather soles must be orr, must be, if it was 20% of all the footwear made. I bet its not as much as that certain I doubt that it’s more. This meant that lots of the tanners simply went bankrupt and this happened in the 19er, er 30 years ago thereabout. Some of the most famous names in the tanning world all when bankrupt, because leather was not needed. That was quite a, quite a thing to happen really, and it didn't, the vulcanising, didn't do any trade a lot of good, cus rubber was so easily to produce anyway, whereas leather, buying skins, and tanning it, and all that was required. Thats a much more formidable task to do and to understand, to get the qualities. Similarly thinking of now how industries and how people can be affected, there was a tremendous upsurge in synthetics, upper material, you see. I doubt if that is leather {pointing to some shoes} we call loosely plastic, but there is all sorts of very good synthetic upper materials, you may have heard of Corfam which was a material that came in, that really looked like leather. I've got some shoes there now, all synthetic, and again upper leather manufactures went bankrupt. It really, I would say, the vulcanising and synthetic materials, completely revolutionised the footwear industry.

DW. For the good, or for the better do you think, for the shoe, trade not the public?

TL. I think in a way, if you look at it a bit parochial. It was for the worse for the shoe trade, because again this is interesting to anybody studying this, it comes in to mind, as you prompted as it where this sense, but it is interesting because the footwear industry at the present time in England is going through a crisis, because of the fierce competition from all over the world.

Well, you see everything is so simple now, you get the big machine makers, like The British United Shoe Machinery Company, they make the specialised machinery that’s necessary, they sell it all over the world. You get, this is the first thing, I am being political now, you take England, this is one of the first things that we help the third world to do, make shoes, and we're importing shoes, we can't compete. We are importing shoes from places like Brazil. Now South America was our best market for buying leather, the Argentine, you see, meat, and so we bought lots of our leather from there. Well we bought and competlvely, again being political, perhaps too competively. This is what we are being told today in’t it if we had paid a better price for the stuff we bought we might have been doing them a bit more good, this is the sort of thing you get told, but, so now we find it quite difficult to buy leather from say South America. Because Brazil, and those countries are taking it themselves and making shoes and sending them to us, exporting them to us. Our imports of footwear, you may well be aware, I don’t know the latest figure, but even er, a year or so ago, the footwear we use in England about 240,000,000 pairs of all types. We were importing 50% of that 100 to 120,000,000 pairs of footwear, from behind the iron curtain, from Spain, from Brazil. I don't think we get many from Jamaica, from Italy, from France even, and err, so we have been going through a crisis, and in fact you will know, purely from newspapers, that the footwear industry and the textile industry have been begging the country to protect it a bit.

So in a way, I was making the point wasn't I, the change of materials made this all so easy, because the machinery was there, and the machines are quite good now. You've got the toe lasting machine for instance, all a chap ‘as to do, put the upper in press his foot on the pedal and the toes are in. You got cement side lasting now, this was a tremendous change in the industry, cement side lasting, all they do is put on a little bit of a cementing machine, run it down and anybody can do it. You and I given a couple of days we could be taught it and give us three month and we would be as good as anybody, if we had a bit of mechanical ability. So the industry ‘as been simplified to such an extends that it’s the easiest sort of thing to get green labour on, and its easy on developing countries. It’s the first thing they fly to, alright lets teach them how to make shoes, and so really, I began by saying these changes in a way, looking at it purely from our point of view as shoemakers, it was to the deteriment. Because while it was a craft industry and Goodyear welted still is, you won't import oodyear welting because it really is highly skilled all the jobs are highly skilled. You could not be given, you wouldn't make a forepart trimmer, it would take 6 month to make you a forepart trimmer sort of thing, and they really are highly skilled. The simplification was not a good thing for the industry, purely if you think of it selfishly. For the person who did the job it was a good thing wasn't it, because it made it a lot lighter, it was hard work and it is no longer hard work.

That may be interesting to you, it was certainly interesting to me as I think about it, if you give it thought, cos really the footwear industry, even locally, is not in real good heart. It ‘as been a bad thing for Barwell it ‘as, because a, its difficult as I see this, and at some point you might, I would be glad to talk to you again perhaps at some point when you are looking again at this. If you look at Barwell at the moment err, Wards was a tremendous influence in Barwell. No question about that, we were employing so many people and bringing a lot of money.

DW. In to the village.

TL. Yes well, now the merger didn't do Barwell any good at all, because you'll see quite a lot of factories were closed down, now I think now these are gradually being replaced, but the footwear industry as such in Barwell is nothing like the force it was, even 10 years ago, less then 10 years ago, now you've only several comparatively small factories. I don't know how well you know Barwell, but what have they been replaced with, not much at the moment, not much. At most there would be a lot more people now going out of Barwell to earn their living into Coventry and so on, Leicester and round about Hinckley there would be a lot more going out I would say.

DW. At one time more people used to come in to Barwell to work, used to walk into Barwell from Hinckley as it were?

TL. In the very early days in my time, they walked from Stoke and Higham to Barwell and cycled, and then you remember the old Comfort Buses. They would bus loads of people coming from Barlestone and Newbold and round there and Ibstock. We finally put a factory in Ibstock, a closing factory where we had a hundred girls you know. All that’s gone the factories gone bin sold, so in that sense when you think um, the financial part of it in Barwell, I'd hesitate to err to err cus I wouldn't know the latest wages bill but before we err our wages bill would be £20,000 or so, It must be dropped no end, well you see that money is not being spent in Barwell. Those people have had to find other work and have done. I don't think there is any unemployment in Barwell as such, but it means there are more people at the moment going out. There's not really, if you think about it. I have to be careful now because the people like Coopers the hosiery people in Dawson Lane and those sort of people are making an influence now and Colleges you see, so from that angle I hope to goodness you know that sort of thing grows, because err, when Wards merged, it was five or 6 years now, as far as we are concerned its gone down, so we badly want replacement for that, badly.

DW. There is no real alternative is there to the boot and shoe.

TL. Only the little bit of textiles that's going on, and the tiny bit of engineering, and I hope that something like that grows you see. I can think of one engineering factory at the moment got twenty or thirty chaps in it, you see, so it all helps, and Sperope Factory as we call it Primark, that is a service sort of factory at the minute, but it is different from boots and shoes, and there is a bit of hosiery now you see. The’re a good class of work people you know Barwell people are, well in a way they are a bit like Hinckley and Earl Shilton they are a good class work people.

DW. That's because they are used to hard work.

I wouldn't think there is any district in the whole of England that could match this little district round here frankly. Cause they have always enjoyed working, I reckon, you know they never grumbled if they have got a job. This has been my experience, if they have got a job, a descent job at a steady sort of wage week after week, all the year around, they are quite happy to enjoy that job. They like the pint of beer, they like the bit of club life, and err, they don't want much more. They want to be able to go out at August for their fortnights holiday, and if they can go down the Liberal Club, or the Workingmen Club, down the Tory Club, and if they can have a fortnights holiday and a decent sort of life, they are not unhappy, and if they can look after the kiddies and feed them they are quite content.


Transcript by: Jean & David Wood.


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