country building Australia
Australia, blogging

Children of Victorian England

In the 1800’s in Victorian England, scores of children under the age of 20, roamed the streets in a Dickensian world, eeking out an existence made famous in the 1968 movie, Oliver.

In the day, Britain feared a French revolution might erupt within the lower classes and so wished to contain this potential political menace by executing or shipping any trouble-makers off to North America, or Australia. In those times, to commit a crime of any sort was seen as a character flaw which could not be altered through rehabilitation.

Fagin was based on real life character called Ikey Solomon

Why did Victorian Children Live on the Streets

Street children were often the progeny of delinquent parents, or who had parents who’d abandoned them or were sitting in a Debtor’s prison. A child could take its chances living on the streets, working in a dangerous textile factory or remain in squalid conditions in a poorhouse, if they were lucky.

Child Workers and Conditions in Textile Factories

In 1851, more than 500,000 of Britain’s children sometimes as young as six, were working in the textile mills.

Being small, children were used to crawl inside textile machinery to clear blockages in the spinning frames. It was extremely dangerous and many were killed or injured, as the machinery was slow to stop if a worker got caught.

The machines were very loud and they thundered relentlessly all day long. Workers could be fined. beaten or sacked for falling behind. In cotton mills, dust from the yarn covered the workers and got in their throats. To make the cotton strong, factory owners kept their mills warm and damp. This meant that the workers suffered from lung and chest infections.

primaryfacts.com

With these options, it was no surprise that many children took their chances living on the streets.

Penalties for Child Criminals in England

In Victorian England, a child caught stealing would be sent to reform school or sentenced to hard labour. Once they had amassed a record of over 200 crimes, the child would hang from the gallows. If the magistrate was kind, a death sentence may be commuted from hanging to transportation, for life, to a convict colony, in Australia.

Sometimes, these children were the lucky ones, and other times, not.

Steve Harris’ book called,”The Lost Boys of Mr Dickens,” recounts the real-life story of two young boys, in the 19th century, sent by the British Government, as impoverished and unwanted juveniles to exile to Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, in the world’s first prison built exclusively for children.

tasmania prison
The ruins of Port Arthur’s Prison in Tasmania

Prejudice, moral panic, harsh justice and expedience saw unwanted boys condemned to severe isolation, solitary confinement, hard labour in chains and thrashings in a juvenile version of notorious Port Arthur, a ground-breaking chapter in the history of juvenile crime and punishment. Some quietly endured in the hope of salvation through rudimentary trade and Biblical instruction, but others became relentlessly defiant and mutinous in a brotherhood of resistance and bullying, inexorably slipping from hope to hell.

Booktopia.com

A Convict in the Family

Paterson Museum

Ironically, having a convict ancestor in one’s family history is now seen as an asset to a Genealogist. Not only is there widespread documents and history related to convicts, but many times, there are details of their physical description and life story, sometimes even their words, letters or deeds they performed.

country building Australia
Paterson, Australia where my convict ancestor lived

John Martin, although not a child convict, was convicted of stealing a sheep’s carcass, at 24 years of age. His sentence of life imprisonment aboard the convict hulks moored in British harbours was commuted to transportation, for life, to Australia. Therein starts our Australian family adventure as John was my 3 x Great Grandfather.

John Thomas Martin was indeed one of the lucky ones to escape the gallows or a potential life in the textile factories. John went on to become a convict overseer, gain his ticket of leave and later marry into one of the first free settler families in Australia, having a large brood of 11 children, one of which was Eve Martin, his daughter, my 2nd Great Grandmother.

I wonder why Eve wore her heart brooch upside down?

Forestwood Cottage Martins Creek
Martin family cottage, ”Forest wood.“

Their farm near Paterson in country New South Wales was called ‘Forest Wood,” and the small town of Martin’s Creek now bears the family’s name. From the inscription his free settler wife, Jemima had inscribed into his tombstone, one might think she was determined that history would know of his true character, more than his criminal past.

John Martin’s Grave

“He was an affectionate husband and a kind father.”

Something to Ponder About

82 thoughts on “Children of Victorian England”

  1. Fascinating stuff. I’ve often felt that transportation must have provided an opportunity to people living desperate lives – many seem to have made a real success of it, as your own family history shows.

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  2. I believe photographs taken in the 1880s and 90s of children living on the streets and working in mills helped inspire the anarchist movement as the 19th century came to a close. People suddenly realized how immoral it was to have children essentially working as indentured servants. They began questioning why such a wide wealth gap existed in the first place and then sought to dismantle the political and economic hierarchy by force.

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    1. Thank goodness there was a moment of enlightenment for English society. It seems barbaric now to treat children as slaves, but it was the journey society was on. Truly awful in those cotton mills, hey?

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        1. That is okay Anne, everyone has different interests and not everyone is interested in how they came to be who they are. My kids sound like you – they used to comment about the length of time I spent “looking up dead people!” Lol.

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  3. England, especially during the Victorian era really excelled in cruelty to children and lets not forget that Australia up till the 1970 routinely took children away from single mothers. We should not wonder why DV and bullying is still so rife. You give back to what was given to you. Given love you give back love, but the opposite, cruelty and severe punishment works the same . A few escape and become good citizens but many don’t.
    John Martin became a good man.

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    1. Thank you, Gerard. I think his wife, Jemima became his saving grace and after that he had a chance at anotherkind of life. How are things down your way, now? I haven’t seen your latest blog updates.

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  4. Thank you for sharing that fascinating look into history and your own history. I’m at the moment reading Victor Hugo’s “Les miserables” where he advocated for reform of the penal system. He has a few chapters where he all but idolises street children in Paris (counting them at not more than 200 which to me sounds too few) before he remembers that to describe them in such glowing words runs contrary to his general argument. – I am also glad that you use the word “hulk”. In the English translation of “Les Miserables” it stands for the French “bagne” (which in the German version is rendered as “bagno” – no help there!) and I couldn’t find it in any dictionaries (I had not looked for “prison hulk”). Found it now!

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    1. The conditions in those prison hulks must have been stultefyingly oppressive. Can you imagine all those bodies shackled in confined quarters with bodily secretions? Godawful conditions. I do hope the translations are helpful.

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      1. Yes, they are 🙂 It’s a complete tumble of languages at the moment. Of course, I know the musical (I remember my husband bringing the record as a gift when he had worked overseas and it was just out) and a few film adaptations (in English – I haven’t found a version of it with Jean Gabin in French). I baulked at listening to it in French (an unabridged version is just under 60 hours!) so I got a German translation but I am reading parts of it in French concurrently. And yes, the conditions must have been goddamnawful (excuse my French).

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    1. Thank you S.Viking. (I love your name btw). It is the stories behind the dates and names that make family history interesting. Some of my Danish family had even more interesting stories that I might post at a later date.
      Were the results of your DNA test a surprise or as you expected?

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      1. I’d love to hear more family stories!

        I did not get any real surprises, I knew that my family on both parents sides originates from the area I now live in. I did learn that there is a high percentage of RH negative blood in my family tree, that was interesting. I also found some cousins I’ve never heard of 🙂

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    1. It is definitely a fun thing to examine your DNA, Lisa and sometimes bring up more questions than it provides answers. Still, I think it is interesting for us to see that we are all interconnected in some distant way if we go back far enough. I am also a little frustrated by the high number of DNA matches but as records do not go back as far as DNA, it is hard to see how you might be related. But then, does it matter? You know you share a small part of your makeup with a person in another country, and isn’t that enough? If you met them, and knew the connection, would it make any difference, other than putting the last puzzle piece together?

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      1. Yes it is certainly about the puzzle.. But I would so love to link the dots especially as Irish records don’t go far back so the line ends with my great grandmother and I have a lebanese line that ends with my great grand father.. I have loads of DNA links with lebanese and would so love to learn a bit more.. 😉 That I have some viking norwegian in me from 3000 years ago.. That is less interesting for me.. My Dad’s parents died when he was 4/5 within 2 weeks of each other and so it is genealogy research that put me in contact with cousins we never knew.. Some living round the corner from us.. I do like that..;-)

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        1. How amazing to find cousins living around the corner from you, although it is said that you can pass people in the street who are related to you if we go far enough back.
          If I had Lebanese in my family, I would also want to know more, too. That is fascinating. I have some Inuit and Croatian DNA too but cannot find the connection – probably never will. My search for family history has led me to some amazing places, so I encourage you to keep on searching, as new records appear online all the time. Have you ever visited Lebanon?

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          1. Never been to Lebanon but it is on my list.. All I know, he was from Zahle and they were maronites christians. The problem apparently is in the spelling of surnames. They changed it to suit the western world and to search you would need it in arabic.. 😉

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          2. Many Europeans/Scandis anglicized their names or picked new ones when they moved to the new countries. Either as a way to assimilate or to suit the authorities. Sounds like you would need an Arabic historian/researcher to go further back to Lebanese religious records. Was it only the English name on the immigration data?

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  5. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing. Now going back to children, those were hard times. yet, I’ve lived many years in places where the only choice for a child to eat is to work. Still happens here. In many rural areas. The trick, so to speak, is to adapt school to farming schedule. I.e. since cane cutting (for instance) tends to be done in the morning, school must be open in the afternoon. For those who work in the field. And the same buildings will open in the morning for other children who don’t work in the field. Building one school will serve the needs of double the number of kids.

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    1. Thanks ever so much for sharing a different perspective on this Equinoxio. I am so pleased to hear that the education system has adapted so that the kids do not miss out. Thinking about the privileged kids loitering in schools bored out of their brain, I wonder if the kids over there, enjoy school more or do the majority of them prefer working in the fields to books?

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        1. That is so sad to hear. What a miserable life, always looking over one’s shoulder or being beholden to the vagaries of a drug overlord. I can see that education would be vital in combating that choice, and those who find schoolwork difficult would be easy prey.

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          1. Yes it is. Sad. In many rural areas of Mexico and central America that my daughter has studied, A significant portion of the men have emigrated or have been killed/enrolled by the Narcs. And 80-90% of the profits of the drug trade are made in the US and Europe. NOT at the initial producer level.

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          2. That is the real irony. The producers never seen the profits. I also think if there are that many men disappearing from these areas, the areas must be heavily populated by women?

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          3. It is a worldwide reality. Now, coming back to the “western world” a woman in France could not have a bank account of her own without her husband’s permission until early 70’s. Not that far ago.

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          4. No. Married women could not work in state government and and it was only in the 70s that my high school stopped insisting the girls wear gloves, even on a hot day. In the 80s, I was still considered a non-entity by the bank, as far as a joint bank account with my husband was concerned. All correspondence and matters regarding the money was directed to him and him alone. I could not make any decisions regarding the money, even though I was depositing money from my salary into that account every single week. My name could not be put first on the joint bank account holding details, as I was a woman. That was in1986 in Australia.

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          5. Neither can I. I remember when the law was passed in France mid 70’s. The Minister of Health, Simone Weil, who was a great woman, fought so hard. Was practically insulted in parliament my (male) Congressmen. The usual sh.t about wanting to control other’s lives. And it’s coming back. Grrr.

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  6. Did you ever hear of “Old Sydney Town”, it was a historical set up kind of like a theme park(for want of another analogy) school excursions were common. There was little huts, leather worker, farrier metal worker, the bread maker, the candlestick maker. A replica of an old ship that displayed how the convicts were transported they even had a convict whipping play not very child friendly but gave us a glimpse of life back then. It shut down years ago. We still have timber town not as graphic more quaint. such horrific times in reality.
    It was lovely to read how someone can go through horrific times & turn out to be so lovely a tribute to humanity. My Uncle wrote a book about our ancestors it reads like a novel, (Colours of a promised land, George Arnett) there are bridges & buildings still standing in Tasmania that were built by our family as well as a huge wonderful influence in the Belligen area not far from where we live now.

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    1. I haven’t heard of Old Sydney town but have heard of Timber Town. I can imagine the wonderful displays there which would have instilled in the schoolchildren a sense of the beginning of British history in Australia.
      I agree with you, Linda – it is heartening to see a sort of Great Expectations play out so well, no doubt in large part due to his wife, Jemima – the real heroine of this story who petitioned the Governer for his release and had control over her husband for some time – as he was an ex convict. That would have made for some interesting family dynamics of the time when women were generally subordinate. And you have a wonderful legacy in Tasmania – George Arnett I must google. Was he an architect/surveyor or engineer? And I know Bellingen well. That fairy photo I mentioned in the “Unusual,” post was taken in Valery – on a trip to Bellingen many years ago.
      You must be very proud of your family history – I am off to google your ancestor.

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      1. Behind every good man there is a even greater women, is that the saying.
        My Uncle George Arnett was an architect, in Coffs harbour won awards for his work but the book he wrote of our family is based on my Uncle George & Aunt Mary Bailey back in the mid 19th century. Bellingen is stunning country.

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        1. That is so interesting and wonderful to have as a keepsake.
          I haven’t been down to Bellingen way for years – probably since the eighties!!
          I imagine it had changed a lot since then. I hear there is a large music festival there?

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          1. Its very yuppie(rich hippies) now still has a bit of that country charm but not quite how it used to be. Does have great markets & it did have a music festival never got there though hopefully one day. Have a fantastic week i’ll be heading that way over the next couple of weeks. I’ll see if I can get a pic of the main st & surrounding country side for blogging.

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  7. History is so fraught with inhumane behavior towards the least of us. I am happy to hear that your family had a good ending to a sad start. I have done a great deal of research on our families and my daughter has carried it on. My mother tried to find her family, much of which was left behind in East Germany. They would not acknowledge her when she reached out. My children have a wide linage from many lands but it does take so much time. I have kept much paperwork for her to access when the time is right. I’m glad you persevered in this. Your children will appreciate it later. Hugs.

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    1. Those times were indeed tough, Marlene and I’m glad that I’m not living through them. I do think that fortune smiled on our family when John Martin was shipped out here, even though he must have suffered through terrible conditions on the Voyage, in the hulks.prior to leaving and during his time as a convict in a chain gang here. He certainly rose above that and ended up almost being part of the squattocracy. I’m sure he was never as fully accepted as hos wife, being an ex-convict and it’s interesting to read that his free settler wife chose to marry him instead of the soldier she was first engaged to. Marrying the soldier would have given her social currency to move up the ranks of their classes of the time, but she chose the hard way so perhaps it was a love match.
      It’s lovely to read that your children will have historic connections to follow up with if they are interested. The East Germans may soften in time.

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  8. Very interesting. People always talk about the British Empire and how prosperous Britain become but ignore it was only certain people that become rich and prospered. The poverty of many working class people right up until WW2 and sometimes beyond was appalling with my own grandmother spending some time in a workhouse.

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    1. I always viewed Britain as being very much more class orientated than Australia – where it is much easier to move between classes and social hierarchy.
      I think that has kept Britain back from porgressing- ie. holding on to its colonial past and sense of entitlement or glory, a little too long. It’s wealth comes from the exploitation of people and colonies not so much from the country itself.

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      1. Its past wealth definitely although empire building was normal for almost all civilisations from the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Vikings Mongols ,French, Spanish up until the first half of the last century. I still think most working class Britons had little say and saw very little if anything of the wealth of empire.

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        1. Indeed. I wholeheartedly agree. What benefits did the average Briton receive? I suppose tree politicians if the day thought they were solving a social issue in transporting convicts and that was enough. I wonder if it even entered their conscience to contribute to society in a altruistic way? I think it was all about building a home, marriage and finding suitable suitors for one’s daughters. Or is that too much like Pride and Prejudice?
          Then again, in colonial Australia, the ancestors of mine married / in a defacto relationship with an ex convict who was a “ticket of leave,” man. He received his ticket of freedom upon his arrival in Australia – (he was a political prisoner so was given a pardon as he was literate and could contribute much more to the fledgling society by being freed). He and several others – high ranking soldiers and free settlers established a benevolent society to help the poor or homeless. This was in the early 1800’s as he had arrived in 1797, I think and had an expansive and successful and now extremely valuable farm on the Hawksbury River. ( this wealth did NOT filter down to me though). Anyhow, he very well here and clearly was trying to improve the new society. If he had this mentality, perhaps others of the time did too?

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          1. I think some did. One of my ancestors was a founding figure of the Methodist church and I think they were far more sympathetic to poor people and believed in social reform. In fact I think the anti slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was Methodist. However it would have been quite rare at the time and so many rich people befitted from the empire ,slavery and having a cheap labour force at home who were desperate.

            Its just an irritation that so many people speak as if all British people benefited from the empire when even at its height under Victoria poverty in working class Britain was widespread and conditions of workers in mills and factories appalling as Charles Dickens brought to wider attention.

            Its like white Americans talking about fighting for freedom from Britain as if they were morally superior and conveniently forgetting they then brought over 6 million slaves from Africa and went west killing and putting native Americans in reservations.

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          2. When you put it like that – I do agree it was hypocritical of Britain and also of Colonial America. Then this sort of mentality might even be continued in other forms in modern times, such as modern American Imperialism – a subtle way to combat the spread of Communism in underdeveloped nations.

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          3. History has always been written by the victors, but the blood of their victims seeps into the ground and eventually fertilizes the crops that feed the newly-minted empires. That, in turn, metabolizes into the truth of what happened – albeit many centuries or millennia later. At that point, it can no longer be ignored.

            Here in the U.S. we’re now seeing statues and other emblems of the American Civil War come down by government decree. Supporters of that conflict have maintained its genesis was the battle for states’ rights, while truth-tellers insist it was a battle over slavery. They’re both correct, in some ways. It was a battle over the right of some states to keep an entire race of people enslaved. Civil War reenactors (who don’t seem to realize how ridiculous they look in their antebellum garb) have been fighting the conflict for over 150 years and STILL haven’t won! I certainly feel removal of these statues is appropriate. Those who fought for the Confederacy wanted to rip the nation in half over that slavery issue and therefore, should not be venerated as military heroes. They’re traitors.

            The debate has now shifted to renaming many U.S. military bases. In my native Texas, for example, one military base is named after John Bell Hood, a Confederate general who wasn’t even born and raised in the state and lost the individual conflicts he led.

            Some 30 years ago my father discovered that Spain’s Queen Isabella (who funded Christopher Columbus’ voyage) was an ancestor of his mother. According to documentation my father found, Isabella learned of the atrocities Spain’s military officials were committing against the indigenous peoples of the “New World” and ordered them to stop. That’s one reason why Latin America has a stronger connection to its native peoples than the United States and even Canada.

            It should be worth noting that, while Italians celebrate Columbus as a national hero, he probably wasn’t even a native son. Contemporary research has declared he was actually the son of Polish King Władysław III; often dubbed the twelve-toed king because allegedly had 6 toes on each foot. Columbus couldn’t get Italian leaders to finance his ventures, so he turned to Spain. In the 15th century C.E., Italy was actually a conglomeration of city-states.

            We can never correct or fix what happened in the past. Nothing can ever atone for the loss of millions of people and the destruction of the societies they had built. But we can acknowledge the truth that is buried. It’s not rewriting history; it’s writing the actual history that remained entombed in that bloodied soil for so long.

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          4. A succinct metaphor regarding the victim’s blood and the implications for society. The truth comes out eventually. The tearing down or wanting to tear down statues here, started back in January on ‘Australia’ day, which the indigenous people call ‘invasion day.’ The statues are part of history, however misplaced the intentions of past generations in putting them there.
            Do they have to stay standing in a prominent place? No. Many public buildings and parks here are ridiculously named after politicians or sporting heroes past or monied benefactors, (we have a short white history) and I really wouldn’t care two hoots if they changed the building’s names or kept them. I place little importance on the name or the statues, although I can see it might be symbolic of something terrible to others. The name of your base does seem silly and could be much more relevant. If a statue is offensive, do you think a museum might be an appropriate place to re- locate it/them?

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          5. I didn’t know that about Columbus only that he was from Genoa. That is interesting. Our highest mountain is named after a Polish guy – Mt Kosciuosko. Maybe we should change geographic names too?

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  9. I admire how you weaved in background and history to introduce your own family history in this post. A few months ago I happened to visit my own ancestral home and look through fading old photograph albums of family members I have never and will never know. I remember thinking someone should document these digitally and write down their names and stories before they’re lost. Seeing your post, it occurs to me: maybe that someone should be me. 🙂

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    1. Thank you for such a sweet comment. Absolutely, you should write down, those family stories. Even if you are told them and think they will be remembered, the years pass and these stories are forgotten. Writing them down preserves them and if they are on the net, other relatives can find them too.

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  10. Our world has certainly improved, even though there is still room for a whole lot more. Looking back over history has a way of helping us to realise we really don’t have a lot to complain about.

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    1. When we feel like complaining, we only have to look at those times and feel grateful. There will always be more work to do in equality, as that is human nature, it is not perfect and so complex.
      This is also how valuable history is in a child’s education.

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