The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton


5    Chick Lane & The Black Boy Alley Gang


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.



The notoriety of Chick Lane, Holborn was proverbial. Ned Ward in The London Spy in 1698–9 observed that on the northwest side of the Bartholomew Fair area ‘music-houses stood as thick one by another as bawdy-houses in Chick Lane’. If someone’s clothes were stolen, the first thing they would do was go to the shops that sold old clothes in Chick Lane, where they were sure to find them. John Price, the official Executioner at Tyburn who was himself hanged in 1718 for violently raping and killing a woman, sold the clothes of the persons he executed to the brokers in Monmouth Street and Chick Lane, and used the money to get drunk: ‘on every execution-day he had as great a levee as some persons of quality; being attended on by broom-men for old hats, periwig makers for old wigs, brokers for old coats, suits and cloak, and cobblers for old shoes.’

            Chick Lane is frequently mentioned in the Old Bailey trial records. In the early 1730s, in several unrelated trials witnesses deposed that the criminals were found drinking together at Mr Rhodes’s, at the Goat in Black Boy Alley, off Chick Lane. The gang of armed robbers comprising John Robins, Valentine Robins, Henry Barret, Joseph Charley, Richard Dangerfield and William Norman regularly met at the Goat to plan their night’s work. When they were apprehended, they all offered to turn evidence against their partners; Norman was allowed to give King’s evidence, on which basis the other five were hanged in July 1732. Near the Goat was a house kept by the fiddler Richard Pointer for the entertainment of pickpockets. If people advertised for stolen goods he would direct them to a nearby pawnbroker’s, where they were sure to find them. Various goods were stolen from the Sexton of Christ Church in his Vestry in Butcher Hall Lane while he was at the Lord Mayor’s Show on 29 October 1731. ‘Next day I went in quest of my goods among the old clothes shops in Chick-Lane, and left a description of what I had lost.’ Soon after, Patrick Nowland was apprehended offering the Sexton’s calamanco gown for sale to Mr Savage at the Golden Key, in Chick Lane. Nowland lodged in Abel’s Buildings in Rosemary Lane – Rag Fair – and was at the centre of a gang of housebreakers specializing in clothes, which they disposed of at Rag Fair and various pawnbrokers’ shops; he was hanged, as, eventually, were several of his accomplices, including his son. Stolen hats and wigs were usually disposed of at Anthony Lancake’s shop in Chick Lane, though he was clever enough to avoid being successfully prosecuted for knowingly receiving them as stolen goods. In December 1733 Lancake was indicted for receiving stolen hats, which were found in his shop. Susan Jones had sold him a hat, and offered to fetch three more from the George alehouse, also in Chick Lane: ‘I went and put them one in another, and brought them on my head; he blam’d me for bringing them in such a gaping open manner.’ Another man said he frequently saw her in Lancake’s shop selling hats to him, and he knew she kept ill company. The owner of the hats identified them as stolen. But Lancake denied even knowing her, and his neighbours – who also kept shops in Chick Lane – swore he was an honest man, and he was acquitted.

            Chick Lane was full of ‘Hell Fire Clubs’. Hugh Morris, hanged at the age of 17 with two other Irish lads in November 1730, confessed to eight robberies and told the Ordinary of Newgate that ‘his total ruin was owing to some places about Chick-Lane, where numbers of the vilest miscreants, street robbers, thieves, pick-pockets, house-breakers, shop-lifters, and other monsters of wickedness, meet in great companies, and there they drink and carouse in a most intemperate manner; then (having got musicians of their own kidney), they fall a dancing, and crying out like so many pigs and geese, and often, as drink comes in, wit goes out, they fall a fighting, beating, and tearing one another.’

            Domestic violence was common in the area. Richard Lamb, who lived in Nicholas Alley off Chick Lane, beat his wife Christian to death in September 1732. The neighbours testified that he regularly beat her, but they were too afraid to interfere, even though the beatings sometimes took place in the street in front of their house. Mr Lee, an apothecary/surgeon who lived not far from them, said ‘I have many times had her as a patient, with violent bruises and cuts, when she has been beaten by her husband, and I have often told her, he would certainly kill her sometime or other.’

            There was a hill off Chick Lane where twenty or thirty – sometimes even as many as fifty – men and women would sit together, smoking their pipes and drinking. By the 1740s many of the men had been apprehended by the law, and the people who congregated there were mostly loose women, who generally made pests of themselves to any gentlemen passing that way, and who dared anyone to arrest them. The character of Chick Lane did not improve over the course of the century. One night in September 1758 the pistol-carrying gang of robbers Robert Bridges, Andrew Socket, William Gibbs, John Brinklow and John Curd went out together from Chick Lane to rob people in the streets; they knocked a man down with a stick in Ludgate Street and took his hat, shoes and buckles, which their companion Ann Fin sold to the Jewish pawnbroker Gabriel Lazarus and they divided the money between them. Many of the buildings along the lane were either alehouses or shops where people bought and sold second-hand goods, with a high concentration of pawn shops in the neighbourhood. The small-time thieves Thomas Coltis, John Smith and Joseph Blaze all met one another at an alehouse in Chick Lane, and formed an association specializing in stealing from grocers and chandlers shops, then disposing of their goods, mainly tea and sugar, at the chandlers kept by Francis Feathers at the end of Black Boy Alley; they were prosecuted for numerous thefts (and Feathers for being the receiver) in 1759. Another trial in 1759 reveals that the prostitutes of the neighbourhood would stand outside the Chequers alehouse in Chick Lane, in groups of two or three, and grab drunken men by their coats and offer them sex, then bring them to a ruinous old house opposite the Chequers, upstairs to a room where the panel of the door had been broken in, where they had sex and then robbed them. One of these women, Anne Bennet, who scraped together a living by buying and selling old clothes, was easily apprehended by the constable because he knew that she went to the Chequers every evening at 9 o’clock for her daily dinner of bread and cheese. The reputation of the area remained the same throughout the century. The London Chronicle regularly reported the activities of ‘the Black-Boy-Alley ladies’. For example, in June 1764 two of the Black Boy Alley ladies picked a gentleman’s pocket of his gold watch in Chick Lane, and when they were arrested and taken to Wood Street Compter, as they were being conveyed thither, their bully managed to pick the constable’s pocket of his handkerchief.

Map showing the position of Chick Lane

Chick Lane area (see top centre of map)


The Black Boy Alley Gang


We can form a greater appreciation for the area if we concentrate on just one alley that runs off Chick Lane: Black Boy Alley, the centre of operations of the Black Boy Alley Gang, which constitutes a miniature portrait of the criminal subculture of eighteenth-century London. One day in autumn 1744 the Headborough Alexandar Forfar together with a constable and four assistants went to Joseph Field’s house in Black Boy Alley to arrest two disorderly persons. But when they got there they were afraid to break open the door because the occupants ‘held candles out of the window and showed cutlasses to us in order to terrify us, and threw brickbats and glass bottles at us’. A mob began to rise. A boy called Lippy (because he had a hare-lip) shoved Forfar down and was caught and given to the constable, but the mob grew so large that the constable was forced to let him go, and most of the officials had to retreat. Forfar and an assistant who remained were chased to Cow Cross and White Lion in Clerkenwell, where Forfar was wounded in the head with a cutlass and then beaten by the gang of men, women and children ‘with bludgeons, pokers, tongs, and other things’. There were nineteen wounds to his head, and one of his fingers was almost cut off. The ones who particularly assaulted him were Ann Duck – who shouted ‘Hamstring the dog!’ – and Thomas Wells. Wells lived in Black Boy Alley but kept a gaming house at Black Mary’s Hole. One person recalled that he passed his door every day ‘with a gang of gamblers and pickpockets, and such as they call street robbers’.

            At the trial in October, Thomas Wells, Ann Duck, Theophilus Watson, and the boys Joshua Barnes and Thomas Kirby (both aged 12 or 13) – with Ann Collier not yet taken (she had been tried but acquitted at a previous Session for being a lock and fence and keeper of a house of ill fame) – were charged with assaulting and robbing Forfar (because they took his powder horn). Ann Duck had previously been tried in both the January and the June Sessions for similar robberies and had been acquitted. They were all acquitted once again, because the robbery (a felony) could not be proved. The Jury nevertheless advised the Judge that ‘it was a pity such dangerous persons should slip out of the hands of justice, and desired they might be prosecuted in another manner’. A constable at Mulberry Garden, Clerkenwell, also told the court he hoped they would not discharge Wells, because on the Monday after the incident mentioned above, he and twelve others of the gang came to the constable’s house with drawn cutlasses and pistols cocked, and Wells said ‘Damn their eyes and blood, we will have him out of his house, for we will have his head, and this night his brains shall be broiled in Black Boy Alley.’ The prisoners were therefore detained while a Bill of Indictment could be raised against them for assault and wounding (a misdemeanour). At the subsequent trial the two men and two boys were found guilty and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment in Newgate and to pay a fine of one shilling each.

            Ann Duck was excluded from this new trial, because she was capitally convicted on another separate indictment, as were two of her women friends. Ann Gwyn and Ann Barefoot (with two other women not caught) had pulled a man into a private house in Black Boy Alley as he was going along with a load of glass bottles, and assaulted him and stole his money. A next-door neighbour who witnessed the crime said ‘I am sure I have seen forty robberies committed in that place; it is a very bye place [i.e. out of the way], I don’t doubt but there have been 500 robberies committed there, and I believe some murders too if they were known.’ All the neighbours knew about this empty house, which was used by a carpenter for storing his timber. The women regularly used to pick up men, take them there, then rob them and beat them ‘and turn them about their business’. At the same Session Ann Duck and Ann Barefoot (with a third woman not caught) were charged with assaulting and robbing a cutler in Thatched Alley, an L-shaped alley running off both Chick Lane and Black Boy Alley. They had attacked him in the street, hitting him with a stone or brickbat, nearly blinding him in one eye. The man made his way back to his own lodgings in Cross Keys Court off Chick Lane, where his landlady used a needle and thread to sew up his torn eyelid. The next day he went to Freeman’s alehouse in Chick Lane to get help identifying the women, but the owners ‘told me they durst not tell me their names for fear of having damage done them’. His landlady told the Court that ‘Mrs. Freeman, who keeps an ale-house in the neighbourhood, knows [these women], but she will not come without she is fetched [i.e. unless she is compelled to appear], because she thinks as she lives in the neighbourhood it will be a prejudice to her.’ This is the kind of fear that lay behind the apparent solidarity of local communities where criminals preponderate. The three women were sentenced to death. The Daily Gazetteer reported very briefly and misleadingly that Duck was to be executed for robbing a man of fourpence, which has prompted at least one modern historian to cite her execution as an example of ‘the barbarism inflicted on violators of private property’. The fact is that she was capitally convicted because of the violence she used in this robbery, and for a long history of violent robberies.

            At yet another Session, Bess Nash appeared as evidence against her friends Ann Duck and Elizabeth Dawney for killing a man whom Bess Nash had picked up in Cow Cross Lane. She, Ann Duck and Elizabeth Dawney took him to an empty house in White Lion Court off Turnmill Street, where they fell upon him and threw him upon his back. Bess Dawney put her knee against his throat, Ann Duck sat on his stomach, and Bess Nash sat on his legs and took three guineas and twelve shillings from his pocket. When they got up Bess Dawney gave him a kick in the head. Ann Duck cried Damn the Blood of a Bitch, he is not dead. Bess Dawney answered, Damn him but he is, as dead as a door nail. God forbid, said Bess Nash, wherefore did you kill the man? To which Ann Duck answered, without any concern, God damn you, what else did you bring him for, but first to rob, and then murder him? They then left the body and retired to the house of Ann Collier and ordered a pint of gin and went upstairs to ‘snack the cole’, that is share out their booty. Yet another woman alleged to be part of ‘the Black Boy Alley crew’ was Judith Tilly, who in July 1745, together with four other women not captured, knocked down the jeweller Ford Bolley in Aaron’s Alley in Whitechapel, and after stealing his money deliberately cut him across the nose with an edged tool or knife. She was sentenced to death.

            James Guthrie, the Ordinary of Newgate, believed that ‘three such vile women as Duck, Barefoot, and Gwyn, were hardly ever seen together within the walls of Newgate’ during the many years he was its Chaplain. Ann Gwyn, now 27 years old, had been born to poor parents in the parish of St Luke’s, Middlesex, now both dead. She was employed as a servant, then as a washerwoman, before she fell into bad company, and became a common streetwalker for some years, ‘and seldom left a man whom she had pick’d up, without robbing him of something’.

            Ann Barefoot, now about 25, was born in Cambridge, then lived with an aunt in Bishopsgate Street, then with a brewer’s servant and had two children (now dead). Some years ago she was apprehended for walking the streets, and was committed to hard labour in Bishopsgate Workhouse for a month. There she made friends with a fellow streetwalker, who was discharged at the same time she was, and invited her to lodge with her in Chick Lane. She became a noted thief as well as streetwalker, and became acquainted with a wide circle of thieves, whores and pickpockets. She took a house in Thatched Court in Chick Lane, where she set up her own boozing ken, which she kept for about a year. But custom wasn’t very good so she gave it up, and took up lodgings at Mr Gray’s, in Black Boy Alley. There she met Ann Duck, Ann Gwyn and Thomas Wells (currently in prison for wounding Alexander Forfar, as discussed earlier), and passed as his wife, assuming his name.

            Ann Duck, about 25, was born in Little White’s Alley, Chancery Lane. Her father was a black man, who had been well known for teaching gentlemen in the Inns of Court ‘the use of the small sword, of which he was a very good master’. Her mother, a white woman, could not control her daughter. Ann ‘first became a servant at a bawdy house; then walk’d the streets on her own account; next commenc’d pickpocket’; and at length became a bold and resolute street-robber. She confessed to numerous robberies, beginning in December 1741 in company with Ann Barefoot, with whom she generally walked out. She laid hold of a man who was walking along the street, and cried out to Barefoot to come to her assistance, and held her arm around him while Barefoot dived into his pocket. ‘After we had got the money, we cried out George! George! which we did on purpose to frighten the old man, that we might have an opportunity of making our escapes.’ In June 1743, with Elizabeth Yates, she picked up a man and brought him into the house of Mary Ballat, or Ballard, in Thatched Alley, had a dram, took him upstairs, threw him down by force on the bed, dived into his pocket, and when he struggled she gave a knock on the floor with her foot, and her bully came up and swore he’d throw the man out the window if he made any disturbance; he left, but came back with a constable and she was committed to Newgate. Another time, with Alice Norman ‘on our usual walks’, she brought a man to the house in Thatched Alley, threw him by force on the bed and picked his pocket, gave a knock with her foot, the same prearranged signal as before, and their bully came up, pretending the women were his wife and sister. Their victim came back three days later and they were sent to Newgate, but he didn’t appear to prosecute, so they were discharged. She recounted several other robberies, usually involving the infamous house in Thatched Alley and following the same pattern. She and her female companions were frequently sent to the Compter, but their victims seldom appeared to prosecute later. (When the Daily Gazetteer reported her execution, it noted that she had been tried nineteen times.) In prison, she wrote letters to her cousin and to her mother, and wrote an account of her robberies.

I acknowledge I have been in almost all the gaols in London, viz. Wood-street and the Poultry Compters; New-Prison, Clerkenwell Bridewell, three times in the London Work-House, once in Bridewell Hospital, and several times in Newgate. I hope none will reflect on my poor mother, for if I had taken her advice, I had not brought myself to such an unhappy end. I hope my sister will take warning by me, and take care what company she keeps, for ill company has been the ruin of me. So the Lord have Mercy on my poor soul.

 Ann Duck.

From my Cell in Newgate,

Nov. 1st, 1744.

The three women did not behave very penitently in prison, even after the Dead Warrant arrived. When Ann Duck went to Chapel, she ‘would much rather talk with her old companions thro’ the lattice, than attend to the more serious affair, the welfare of her soul’. The three women went together in the same cart to Tyburn on 7 November 1744. (Seven men – four of them Jewish – were hanged the same day.) At the place of execution Ann Duck denied the specific crime for which she was condemned (a comparative trifle, stealing four pence from a man she had assaulted and put in fear), ‘but own’d she had been a most wicked creature, and had done many robberies’. Ann Barefoot and Ann Gwyn both owned the robbery for which they were to die. ‘They were all very serious and devout at prayers, wept plentifully, and went off the stage crying out, Lord have mercy upon us, Lord Jesus receive our spirits.

            One of the thieves living in Black Boy Alley, Ann Wildair or Wilder, alias Hawkins, was transported for theft in 1744, but she returned and eventually became famous for her frequent appearances at the Old Bailey. In May 1765 she was charged with theft but acquitted (though two men who lodged at her house in Black Boy Alley were convicted). In May 1769 she gave evidence against Louise Smith, alias Lucy Locket, who was sentenced to death for robbery with violence. Her death was noted in the Morning Chronicle on 18 February 1773: ‘Tuesday was buried from Black Boy Alley, the famous Mrs. Ann Wildair, supposed one of the largest women in Britain, famous at the old Bailey, and over whose memory charity directs us to draw a veil.’

            The ‘Black Boy Alley Gang’ (as it was dubbed by contemporaries) comprised twenty to thirty young men and boys, and five or six women, and rampaged through the streets of Holborn during 1744. About two years earlier Joseph Field was captured by a man whom he and William Billingsley were trying to rob near Temple Bar. Billingsley went back to Black Boy Alley and raised a posse of six to rescue Field. Carrying large broomsticks, at Holborn Bars they met up with the coach carrying Field to gaol and forced it to stop, opened the door, and carried Field off in triumph. Although Field and others had been thieves since five years earlier, from that point they organized themselves into a gang, and armed themselves with pistols, hangers and cutlasses. Generally they robbed in groups of six to ten. The pattern usually involved mobbing a man while Henry Gadd, a little boy, dived into his pocket to steal his watch.

            A dozen youths from the gang attacked and robbed several men during Bartholomew Fair on 24 August 1744, between the George Inn and the Swan. One of their first victims thought they were ‘a parcel of frolicksome young sparks’ and didn’t realize they were street robbers: ‘they made a noise like a parcel of ravening wolves. I did not imagine that a robbery was committed; it was done in a quarter of a minute, and then they went about their business.’ However, before the night was over eleven of the gang had beaten and cut the man in Bartholomew Fair for offering resistance. The following night some of them walked up and down the Strand, and five of them stole a watch from a man while they held him. Later seven of them went drinking at a public house in Cross Lane, then set out to rescue one Edward Young, who had been captured earlier, first going to Black Boy Alley to fetch more of their accomplices. Then they went to Woodstreet Compter and spoke to Young to decide how to make the rescue, using their pistols and cutlasses, but nothing came of it, though they did attack and rob a man on Woodstreet. The next night ten of them attacked and robbed a liveried servant in Charterhouse Lane; then attacked a gentleman in Aldersgate street and knocked him down; then robbed several persons in Cheapside; then a man at the bottom of King Street; then stole a gold watch from a man in Catherine Street; then robbed a man in Fenchurch Street, when Field was captured but the others managed to rescue him; then stole a watch from a man in Bishopsgate Street; and lastly stopped another man in Bloomsbury Square, whom they cut with their hangers (short swords) and nearly killed. This was a single evening’s work. A few evenings later they gathered in the Piazza in Covent Garden, hanging around the playhouse door, and were shot at by a soldier, who accidentally killed a chairman nearby. Later they went up and down the Strand picking pockets, drawing their hangers and cutlasses when they met any resistance. One of them was captured and taken to the Watch House, but the others attacked it bearing choppers and pokers, broke it open, fired pistols at the neighbours who stuck their heads from the windows shouting Murder! Murder!, and rescued him.

            The Black Boy Alley gang became increasingly violent as September progressed, often cutting their victims. On one occasion Billingsley attacked a family, and meaning to hit the man with his bludgeon accidentally killed a child. Billingsley one night ran up to a man to take his watch, who pushed him away, whereupon Billingsley punched him in the face and drew his cutlass and almost cut his fingers off. The next evening they attacked a man in Leicester Fields and fell upon him with their bludgeons and fists when he tried to take Field, then went to Long Acre where they attacked another man, then dispersed before meeting up again at their rendezvous in Black Boy Alley. The next day they heard that Country Dick (who was later executed) and Ann Duck had been taken together with others for tossing up for money in Black Boy Alley, and heard that a party of soldiers was coming to break up the gang. Four of them fled to Queenhithe where they hid out for a few days. One who didn’t flee was caught and eventually transported. Then they fled to Hackney, then to a house in Rosemary Lane, then eventually they holed up in a house in Drury Lane for several nights to avoid more searches. The gang was now breaking up and panicking. Five of them nevertheless found time to break open a house and steal large quantities of linen and silverware, and go to Black Boy Alley to share their booty. As a last desperate act seventeen of the gang one night went to Copenhagen House with the intention of killing a constable and a Headborough and Jones the City Marshall and others, but failed. Gadd was of this party.

            On 24 December 1744, six carts carried seventeen men and one woman to be hanged at Tyburn. Nine of the men were members of the Black Boy Alley Gang (four other members were sentenced to death but not captured). William Billingsley, nicknamed Gugg, age 21, had been a lamplighter about Newgate Street. Thomas Wells, age 23, was also a lamplighter in the same precinct, and ‘husband’ of Ann Barefoot (executed in November). William Brister, nicknamed Dillsey, age 24, had been apprenticed to a waterman; the Ordinary of Newgate said ‘He was very poor and naked, and a miserable object to look upon.’ Joseph (or John) Field, nicknamed Nobby, age 22, was an apprentice to a carpenter. His companion William Norwel, nicknamed Long Will because he was a bit taller than the rest, age 30, was apprenticed to a brick maker, and owned that he had been a street-robber for the past seven years. James Roberts, age 30, had no trade, just loitered about the streets. Theophilus Watson, age 25, was a Roman Catholic. John Potbury, nicknamed Jack the Sailor, age 19, sometimes worked on ships with his father, a seaman. These all confessed their crimes, and also their cruelty to their victims.

            The ninth person hanged was Henry Gadd, nicknamed Scampey or Scamper. He was about 14 years old, and sold rabbits in Clare Market. He had joined the gang when he was about 10 or 11, and was employed for special jobs suitable to his diminutive stature, such as picking pockets. He was very surly tempered and refused to confess any of his crimes. The Ordinary of Newgate was shocked and grieved by Scampey’s lack of religion. ‘He was ask’d, Who made him? and he could not tell. I inform’d him, that the great God created him, and all the world. A second question was, Who redeem’d him? he hesitated a while, and at last he said, The Devil.’

            Most of these youths were convicted on the evidence of their older accomplice Richard Harper, nicknamed Old Daddy, who was granted immunity for helping the authorities to break up the gang. First he bred them, then he broke them. One of the men Harper testified against, William Norman, was acquitted in July 1745 because Harper seemed indecisive about identifying him. An associate, Charles Remmington, nicknamed Long Charles, said that Harper told him that ‘he had hanged men enough already, and he did not care to hang any more for fear of being killed.’ Another older member of the gang who turned King’s evidence was James Bye. In July 1745 Sarah Lambert, the wife of Jack the Sailor, was prosecuted for breaking and entering, but she was acquitted since the only evidence came from her accomplice James Bye. Their lodgings were at the house of Joseph Lucas, in Blue Anchor Court off Whitecross Street. Lucas used to bring stolen goods to be fenced by Ann Collier (mentioned earlier). When his house was searched, piles of goods were discovered, whose owners were never located. Lucas had previously been convicted in Chelmsford under the name of Ninn, and prior to that he had been transported for seven years. Partly on Bye’s evidence, Lucas was hanged in July 1745 for burglary, together with his accomplices John Jeff and Richard Horton, nicknamed Toss-off Dick. Bye also testified that he and Jeff used to rob together with gang member John Martin, who was convicted and transported in July. The Black Boy Alley Gang was totally broken up by the end of 1745. One member, Richard Worris nicknamed The Irishman, was not prosecuted until 1748, by which time Harper, the main evidence, had died, and there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Worris of several street robberies.

            While the memory of the Black Boy Alley Gang became part of the thieves’ heritage, the area itself remained a notorious den of thieves throughout the remainder of the century. In late June 1773, for example, the London Evening Post reported that six men and boys and three women were arrested in Black Boy Alley for picking pockets, and taken before the Lord Mayor. He committed them to Bridewell, and they demanded to be treated like the criminal aristocracy: ‘They swore they would have a carriage; upon which the executioner was sent for, who procured them a cart, into which, after being tied together, they were put, the hangman rode upon the copse; and in that manner they were carried to the above prison amidst a vast crowd of spectators.’


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