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No 2 Hidden Histories Middle Town

Welcome to The Middle Town Trail

Journey into the heart of Minehead past the alms houses which literally arrived on a storm, discover how the great fire of Minehead came to pass in 1791 and the spectacle of the first aeroplane to land on Minehead sands.

The approach to creating these trails is likened to a skimming stone, stopping at several segments of the trails and dropping interesting facts, myths and tales through out.

The walks are designed to read aloud to family and friends and to embellish your experience of this place.

Start this trail outside Minehead Museum between the Beach Hotel and Minehead steam railway station.

Allow three quarters of an hour at an amble.

These digital trails have been made possible through the Seaside Strategy Fund managed by West Somerset Council, The Minehead development Trust and the Minehead Vision Group.

Instructions

 
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Chapter one

‘The Star of the West’

In 1879, shortly after the extension of the railway to Minehead and the opening of the grand Beach Hotel, a guide enthuses about the town, describing it as

‘The Star of the West and comparable to Torquay'

it goes on to professes that Minehead

'has few of the disagreeables of the general run of the sea side towns'

Although it does not specify what these may have been, it truly was an extremely popular Victorian destination.
Chapter two

The Station and Beatle Mania

Minehead railway station is perhaps the most sensible starting point for this trail, the fact that it is still treasured and run by the West Somerset Railway is a major asset to Minehead and it is through this conduit that many still arrive; reliving and capturing golden holiday memories. The original line was extended from Watchet in 1874 and over these early years it was responsible for bringing visitors and commerce to the town, which had previously come only arrived via the harbour or an arduous carriage ride.

In the pre war years camping cabins were installed along the line to support the many visitors and holiday makers, but this was cut short by the on set of war when all energies were re directed to the war effort.

Of all the celebrities who came to Minehead, it was perhaps the Beatles filming 'A Hard Day's Night' in March 1964 that pips many to the post. Two local school girls swept up in Beetle mania were, Marian Keery and Cynthia Wilkinson (13 and 14 at the time) both jumped over the fence and ran over the tracks to see the Fab Four in a stationary carriage before being man handled away by police officers. The Beatles were here for two days with what would appear to be very little security, on the second day the two young girls didn't even need to play truant as the entire school were given the day off and the chance to catch a glimpse of the fab four!
Chapter three

The Beeching Closures

The image depicts mules being exported to the front line during the First World War. One source claimed that Portuguese handlers broke and trained the animals on Exmoor having arrived from North America before their deployment in action.

When the Beatles passed this way the line was already marked for closure by Lord Beeching as were hundreds of other miles of branch lines throughout the country. In 1971 the inevitable came and closure happened, but in 1973 the local council bought the weed-strewn line and out of these ashes rose The West Somerset Railway Company. It took a few years to get the line operational again under its new charitable status and today Somerset now presides over the longest standard gauge heritage railway in Britain.

Opposite the station and now housing the Minehead Museum and information centre stands the Beach Hotel; which was constructed in conjunction with the building of the railway. It was once 'thee' place to be seen to dine or have 'high tea' but its more recent history has been more chequered. Today it stands re invigorated with a new lease of life with the YMCA.

Their brochure proudly states

'2013 the iconic Beach Hotel was purchased by YMCA Somerset Coast Group, who saw the old hotel as an opportunity to restore the heart of a community.'
From Minehead Museum and facing the railway station turn left and walk around the front of the Beach Hotel and the next chapter will reveal.
 
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Chapter four

Stage Coach to Lynton

The sight of the stage coach collecting passengers in Minehead, heading up The Avenue to The Plume of Feathers and then on towards Porlock and Lynmouth graced this location daily for the best part of a hundred years. At The Ship Inn, which sits at the foot of Porlock Hill, seven miles west of Minehead, a team of two horses were stabled to assist in aiding the stage coach up the famously steep incline.
Chapter five

Porlock Hill

But it would have been the return journey that would have been for those of a stronger nerve, for rather than use break shoes, which were weak an ineffectual compared to modern brakes, they used skids to slow the descent. The rear wheels of the stagecoach were literally locked in metal gutters, rendering them unable to turn, the horses would then literally drag the coach down the slope! These can be just seen in the image taken on the Porlock Hill descent.

The coaches were often very top heavy as this is were the luggage was carried; here at the Beach Hotel they would have stored a long thin ladder ready to hoist the cases and baggage on top of the coach.
Chapter six

1906 - Bungalow Tea rooms

The photograph shows the Bungalow Tea Rooms circa 1906 and as you can see very little has changed apart from the well established tree now removed.
Walk up the Avenue staying on the left hand side of the road.
 
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Chapter seven

Flooding of Avenue 1935

Minehead has been prone to flooding over much of its lifetime and higher up the high street there once ran an open stream. Culverts were dug in the 1960's in the street and the stream now flows underground but unfortunately flooding does still occasionally occur from time to time.
Chapter eight

Benny Hucks Flys to Minehead

In 1910 Minehead witnessed the amazing spectacle of an aeroplane landing on the beach, at this time planes themselves were very rare and quite unreliable. The first aviator came, sponsored by The Daily Mail on a round Britain competition, was Benny Hucks. A barn was set up on the beach and you could pay to see his single seater plane, although accounts of how many took this up are conflicting.
Chapter nine

Salmut on Minehead sands

Three years later the French aviator Henri Salmut arrived, the first person ever to fly over Exmoor, his plane had two seats so he could take paying passengers. When he arrived he made an approach to land on the beach but at the last second pulled up to fly around again and come in for another landing which was successful. This was more than could be said for a recent flight he took at Ilfracombe. Planning to land at sea, floats were attached to his landing gear but apparently the attempt was disastrous, fortunately neither Salmut nor his plane suffered too badly.

On landing on Minehead sands Salmut said he was ‘cold, very, very cold' and kept on flapping his arms to warm himself up, it was likely that he was suffering from exposure having economised on warm clothing, an effort to keep the weight to a bare minimum. After a week in Minehead he flew up the channel with the local scout master in the pillion position, the plane taxied well and took off fine with both men inside but just minutes into the flight and not even out of sight the plane stalled and plunged like a stone into the Bristol Channel.

Swiftly the lifeboat was launched with all men to the oars as the lifeboat was still some years from being motor powered. Thankfully the tide and wind did not conspire and both men were rescued successfully though it was said that neither men could swim!
Chapter ten

Chocks Away

Continue up the Avenue staying on the left hand side of the street.
 
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Chapter eleven

The Avenue around 1900

The picture you see here is of The Avenue around the 1900's, the buildings are themselves all relatively recently constructed and built on the profits from visitors. The holidaymakers were beginning to make Minehead a desirable destination, a place to take the airs, rejuvenate the body and perhaps even take a dip in the sea - with use of a bathing machine of course!
Chapter twelve

The old jalopy

Minehead has been the seat of car rallying for many years with the famous Porlock Hill being one of the major draws and challenges. These cars were notoriously difficult to drive as they had no syncromesh system making gear changes hard work. Drivers had to perform a double clutching routine every time they wanted to change gear, which involved depressing the clutch peddle to move out of one gear then taking your foot off the peddle to then depress it again and engage the new gear. Porlock Hill was the place to show off your double clutching skills and prowess to the gathered crowds.

Even today modern cars can be stretched to their limits on both incline and decline.
Continue up the Avenue staying on the left hand side.
 
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Chapter thirteen

God Save the King

These images would appear to be of Empire Day celebrations but little more is known about them. Interestingly Canada celebrated Empire day from 1898 but it was not until Queen Victoria's death in 1901 that the celebrations came to England. Bonfires, fireworks and fancy dress seemed to be the order of the event designed to -

'remind children that they formed part of the British Empire, and that they might think with others in lands across the sea, what it meant to be sons and daughters of such a glorious Empire' and that 'The strength of the Empire depended upon them, and they must never forget it.'
Chapter fourteen

Empire Day

The 7th Earl of Meath introduced this event 'to nurture a sense of collective identity and imperial responsibility among young empire citizens'. In schools, morning lessons were devoted to 'exercises calculated to remind us of their mighty heritage'

In the late 1950's the event fell out of favour and was replaced by the Commonwealth of Nations Day but the fervour of empire, which drove the former celebration, has never been matched.
Continue up the Avenue.
 
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Chapter fifteen

Hospital and Regal Theatre

The image above shows the ornate building of Minehead Hospital in the background, with the building site of the Regal Theatre to the fore. The venue was designed as both cinema and theatre space, seating up to 1600 with a ballroom on the lower floor.

Today the theatre holds a comfortable 410 as the upper stalls have been removed to enable the stage to be both deepened and widened to accommodate a greater range of performances. The Regal does indeed have a wide range of visiting shows, a film club and quality youth theatre. It is less well known for the apparition of the young tanner boy who has been glimpsed on the west stair well during the quiet darkness of rehearsals.
Chapter sixteen

Minehead Tannery

He is thought to have been a child who worked in the tannery which occupied this plot. It was thought that he possibly drowned in the tanning vats as just before his visitation a terrible smell sweeps through the building.

Traditionally tanners would use stale urine as part of the process and barrels would be available on street corners for people to top up! It is thought the phrase ‘taking the piss' stems from the movement of these barrels to the tanneries.

Only when the urine was stale would it be useful in the tanning and dying process, understandably it took some time and effort to clean this plot of land up before the theatre could be built.
Chapter seventeen

Hard Rock Minehead

Local quarries lie scattered all over Exmoor and the surrounding hills, much of which is Devonian stone, a red sandstone also know as hangman's sandstone. It is tricky to shape up into regular block forms so is more commonly used in 'ragwork' or 'rubble fashion' and much evident in Minehead.

Opposite the Regal is an ornate building that was until recently the town's Hospital and features the use of Ham stone. This was a more expensive stone and would have been imported from east Somerset. Its grain is far more predictable allowing stonemasons to create detailed and intricate work on such features as doorways, corners and mullions (window surrounds) with the cheaper local red ragwork in the structure.

Bricks and tiles were also constructed locally as these are heavy making them costly to move. Nearby Treborough had a slate quarry but this was no match for Welsh slate which could be ferried across the Bristol Channel without difficulty.
Continue up the Avenue to the Old Priory on your left just before WHSmiths.
 
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Chapter eighteen

Priory

The old building you see here escaped the great fire of Minehead in 1791 of which we will discover more about later on our journey. The Old Priory is early Tudor in origin and was a former manor house but has been used as a courthouse and also manor offices. Today it houses both business and residential but a hundred years ago it was a restaurant popular with visitors to the town (see image below). In fact it remained a restaurant into living memory and one Minehead resident remembers evening meetings inside which were disturbed by the sounds of the rats eating the biscuits!

Around the 16th Century the Court, or more correctly The Court Leet was set up here to deliver justice on both local matters as well as the Kings business. Local issues would include the reprimanding of individuals for letting their pigs wallow in the stream (spoiling it for others who needed draw from it) to settling disputes and tenants debts.

Walk around the side of the building to see the aspect of the next two photographs.
Chapter nineteen

Thithingmen

Twice a year unpaid constables were nominated from the community to carry out the justices required by these courts. The position was called a Thithingman and their duties often focused on the calibration of the size of a loaf of bread and a pint of ale. These assizes regulated the value of the penny, half penny and farthing

The Thithingmen would also oversee other trades and keep them in order, job titles included ‘The Keeper of the Shambles' which was the regulation of the butchers, ‘The Keeper of the Ways' who would look after the streets and bridges, and interestingly Minehead also had a ‘Keeper of the Weirs' to look after the waters.

In 1486 during reign of Henry VII thirty people in Minehead registered for a licence to sell ale of which twenty were women, it is recorded that six years later twelve tenants were fined one penny each for selling ale before it had been sampled by the Ale Tasters.
Chapter twenty

Henry Woods - smooth moving goods

What currently operates as WHSmiths was once home to Henry Wood's, who in an advertisement from 1904 profess to be a very competent removal company. They were also cabinet makers and upholsters, plus estate agents having a 'List of furnished and unfurnished houses on application', but it is the image of the bedroom suites which is really interesting as it shows an interior photograph with a room full of dark wooden wash stands and porcelain basins for sale, the modern, must have en suite facilities of yester year.

Henry Wood's aimed to 'supply all the local hoteliers with all their needs'

They also had a fleet of vehicles and even rolling stock (a railway carriage) emblazoned with their livery and moved anything from antiquities to live stock all around the world.
Carefully cross the road to the opposite side of the Avenue and the adjacent corner from the Old Priory.
 
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Chapter twenty-one

Streaky Bacon House

Just around the corner along Blenheim Avenue is where the Carlton Hotel once stood. Today it is a block of flats as the hotel was demolished in 2003, during its hey day it was known locally as the Streaky Bacon House as it was painted pink and white! After Minehead's famous Plume of Feathers Hotel was demolished in in 1965 this Hotel became ‘The Carlton Plume of Feathers' in an effort to preserve the name.

The original Plume of Feathers was in Wellington Square and it is in this direction we shall now walk.
Continue up the street which has now changed form the Avenue to the Parade. Take the next right turn off the parade to the Alms Houses.
 
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Chapter twenty-two

Poor House and Butter Cross

The Alms houses were given to the town in 1630 by master mariner Robert Quirke, whose ship ran into a storm a few days out from home in Minehead.
He and his crew prayed for deliverance, vowing that if they reached home safely, the ship and cargo would be sold and the money used to help the poor.
This row of Alms houses was built on the site of the old marketplace - the stump of the market cross can still be seen today. The income for their upkeep was obtained from the leasing of two cellars on the Quay, which in 1910 became St Peter's Mission Chapel.

The event of the storm is recalled on a brass plate fixed to the centre cottage.
Under the inscription is engraved a three-masted sailing ship and the original ship's bell is mounted on the roof of the end house.

Several memorials to the sea-faring Quirke family can be seen in St Michael's Church located on North Hill, including a set of finely lettered boards containing the Creed, Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer, presented by Robert Quirke in 1634.
Chapter twenty-three

It is recorded that in 1810 twenty three people were registered living in this particular row of Alms houses. In 1792 surgeon Phillip Ball inoculated seventeen occupants against the small pox but barley ten years later the records show account for eleven paupers coffins.

By 1861 seventy eight people were recorded as resident across just thirteen poor houses, they must have had to sleep standing up as these properties are tiny. This over crowding must have made many more problems besides.

In 1980 only three houses were occupied, each a ‘one up one down' with toilet but no bath, but they were restored and modernised in 1985 and are now private dwellings. The charity, which was set up to look after the poor had an income in 2009 of £17,000 a year of which only half was spent.

The image is of The Minehead Hobby Horse who traditionally dance and perform the ‘Booting' through the town on May day. More can be read about them on the Park Trail Number 5 as the three horses meet on Periton lane at first light which this trail passes through.
Retrace your steps back onto the Parade and continue up a short distance.
 
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Chapter twenty-four

Fish Market

The image shows the Old Fish Market built after the great fire of Minehead, the next street along is called Holloway Street today but was once known as Frogmore Street along which ran an open stream. Further up the same hill is a street called Hemp Walk, this is where Hemp would have been grown to make rope chord, an essential commodity during Minehead's vibrant maritime years.
Chapter twenty-five

The Quay Town trail visits this part of Minehead and highlights the town's former history as a major exporter of pickled herring. A bustling harbour required supporting industries including makers of rigging for ships, cranes, nets, hoists, along with sailcloth all providing employment the townsfolk.

The Fish Market was eventually demolished and a new market building constructed in its place, which is what stands before you today.
Continue up the Parade towards Wellington Square though our next chapter is at the junction ahead.
 
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Chapter twenty-six

Floyds Emporium

The major store still trading up until the 1960's on the corner here was called Floyds and had replaced the earlier draper, grocer and chemist J Bond . Interestingly the new store had a pneumatic payment system installed - you would place your money in a vessel which itself was placed in a tube which would shoot off upstairs to a central office. There the cashier would manage the payment, place receipt and change in the tube to be shuttled back to the customer. Apparently it was the chosen method for even the smallest transactions keeping cash off the trading floor.

Their advert in a local pamphlet from 1904 proudly declares wedding and funeral orders promptly undertaken.
Chapter twenty-seven

The Parade

Turn around and look back down the Parade which we have just walked up and compare the photograph to the present view. In the image the town clock is clearly visible which is still there today and once stood on top of the fish market building. Notice the balcony which ran around it affording a grand view but you would have felt very vulnerable as the hand rail seems very low.
Journey into Wellington Square where our tour completes.
 
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Chapter twenty-eight

Plume of Feathers

Opposite where Floyds once resided stood the nationally renowned Plume of Feathers hotel. Author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, stayed as a guest in 1722 and wrote praising the building and the hotel service. He returned to the area in 1724 and was impressed by the remarkable fossils he found at Watchet. Walk the beaches along this coastline today after a strong storm and you too may find a fossil or two.

It was a great loss to the town when The Plume of Feathers was demolished in 1965 and there seems to be no record where its famous, much photographed chair made entirely of red stag antlers went.
Chapter twenty-nine

Queen Anne on the move

Before we talk about the great fire of Minehead in 1791 we should mention the statue of Queen Anne, which is one of only two by the sculptor Bird; the other stands outside St Pauls Cathedral London. The MP Sir Jacob Bancks presented the statue in 1791 and Bancks Street is named after him. It was originally located in the parish church but since 1893 it has resided here facing Wellington Square.

The image show the statue being erected in it's new Wellington Square location.

The gifting of the statue illustrates the unique disproportionality of representation that Minehead once held at parliament with two MP's representing a population of less than 2000!
Chapter thirty

Proclamation

The photograph depicts the proclamation of the Ascension King George VI in 1936, the Bradbeers loud speaker system can be plainly seen on the top of the van.
Chapter thirty-one

Rationing

It is interesting to note that the town's population swelled during the Second World War in 1940. This was due to the influx of evacuees when 12000 Ration Book holders were registered in Minehead, its true population was closer to 5000 at this time.

The image is thought to be of the Home Guard with their bicyles.
Chapter thirty-two

The Great Fire of Minehead

You may wonder where the old town of Minehead really is; Quay town has its fair share of low stooping medieval properties, so too does Higher Town, but there is little evidence and few historical buildings in this part of the town today. This is due to a great fire, which ravaged through here destroying a huge proportion in a single night.

The year was 1791 and the majority of Minehead residents were tenants of the Luttrell family of Dunster. Here is a contemporary report documenting its beginnings.

‘Mr May a considerable miller who lived in Bampton Street (just a stones throw from here) yesterday noon had occasion for some pitch which was in a barrel near his back door, and with a hot iron or poker he meant to take some, but it unfortunately caught in flame and he rolled it in a small stream of water near at hand where it blazed much much more; near the spot stood a wood or wallet rick of immense size, to which it immediately communicated and from thence to adjoining houses ….'

By the end of the night seventy plus dwellings were consumed including warehouses, store rooms and out houses. The fire had spread along the stream and seeded the core of the town leaving nothing but ashes.
Chapter thirty-three

Mr Luttrell shows distress

Most of the sufferers were reputable shop keepers who supported large families, it was estimated that between four and five hundred residents who were in prosperous circumstances the day before were rendered destitute within twenty four hours.

In a local paper at the time ‘Mr Luttrell appeared much less distressed to see the valuable effects of his tenantry destroyed than to hear the cries of their wives and children. . . . (he) stayed till a late hour and did not leave till the remaining houses were in some safety.'

Though the fire was intense it claimed only one casualty a 'Mr D Price, a maniac, locked up and forgotten in the confusion'

Following the fire Mr Luttrell stated that Minehead would be 'raised to a state of elegance and repute'

His words and sentiment lifted the spirits of the residents for a brief time but not long after an article stated the plan as 'a chimera only of groundless fancy . . . totally void of foundation.' Only one cottage had been re built five years later and the current Mr Luttrell failed to provide even for his tenants basic needs.
Chapter thirty-four

The Lost Charity

A charitable fund was also set up to support the destitute but it would appear that even this did not reach the needy nor was it used for a re build. Five years later a Mr Parson Swete visited Minehead and wrote of the 'vast number of houses in blackened ruin and utter dilapidation.

It was not until thirty years on, in the 1820's did the rebuild begin in earnest and Minehead rise from the ashes.

In Minehead Museum they have a copy of a map depicting the houses destroyed in the town. Commissioned by the Luttrell family it specifies their key properties destroyed which were let to their tenants and those which were destroyed but privately owned. It is a fascinating document and well worth studying in the museum.

So this brings our Middle town walk to a close, if you wish to know more about the town's maritime heritage may I suggest you walk The Quay Town Trail, the Higher town trail climbs into the quieter higgledy piggledy houses and peels back the veneer of history which surrounds us all.

I shall leave you with one final image, please do walk along Friday Street to number 27 which was once Bradbeers car show room.
Chapter thirty-five

Research references

Research references

The images and sources for these trails have been wide and varied, there are many who have added just a little to the whole some of these were chance encounters in Minehead others I sought out. Those associated to Minehead Museum and the University of the Third Age should have a special thank you along with the Minehead Vision Team without whom this project would not have seen the light of day.

Somerset Heritage Trust was invaluable in guidance support and for first-rate reference throughout. Of their collections a special thanks should go to the family of Hilary Binding who granted permission for images drawn from her works to be published here. The Heritage Centre reference numbers from images are listed below.

Stephen Hooper and Daniel Cross whose trust and support has been solid throughout.

Julian Luke for guidance on postcard collection and also Chris Lenon-Wood and Cherry Temple.

Research relating to the a portion of material in the Quay Town Trail was collected by Alex Simson with Sea Shanty by Tom and Barbara Brown in connection with Halsway Manor.

Images of the Beatles by H Hole provided by A & C Elle of Dunster

Daphne McCutcheon should have a special mention as her website was a constant source of reference to whether my details were correct.

Thankyou to Naomi Cudemore of Exmoor Magazine and Jeff Cox with refence to the magnificent men in their fly machines. More information in the Halsgrove Community History ISBN: 9781906551094

Banner image crown copyright OS 1938 – 611351 – T912,423
Chapter thirty-six

Bibliography

Bibliography

Binding, Hilary Book of Minehead with Alcombe ISBN: 1303223595

Tongue, Ruth L. Chime child, or, Somerset singers ISBN: 30105001793653

Palmer, Kingsley Folklore of Somerset ISBN: 30105002541416

Underwood, Peter Ghosts of Somerset ISBN: 1307897231

Guide to Minehead and its neighbourhood ISBN: 30105006396098

Larter, C.E. Kille, H.W Minehead, Porlock and Dunster ISBN: 30105006396569

Binding, Hilary Old Minehead and around: Minehead-Dunster-Selworthy ISBN: 30105011623981

Clarke, L. A. The Minehead United Turnpike Trust ISBN: 0953353966

Patten, Robert William Exmoor custom and song ISBN: 0900131144

Sellick, Roger The West Somerset mineral railway ISBN: 0715349619

L.M. & B. Bond, A guide to Minehead and its neighbourhood 1879 ISBN: GRN0194598

Jeff Cox West Somerset in the News ISBN: 9781906551094

John Gilman Sue Lloyd, From Curragh to Ketch ISBN: 7980954904357

Web References include Minehead Wiki pages, West Somerset Gazette, The Exmoor Magazine, The Guardian.

Image references – Somerset Heritage Trust
Ref – A/AGC/38/5 (Hilary Binding Albums)
Ref – A/DRY/13/54
Ref – A/DRY/13/49
Ref – A/DRY/13/39
Ref – A/DRY/13/9

Editing by D Jelley

Attention should also be drawn to the funding badges below which has enabled these trails to be created and delivered with out advertisement.

All details were correct at publication – March 2015

All rights reserved by Storywalks - C Jelley
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