Titanic’s Anchors

April 2022

In April 1912, the Titanic – the largest vessel in the world, and the largest man-made moving object that had by then been created – struck an iceberg, split in half and sank in the middle of the Atlantic, taking with her around 1500 souls. Her early demise meant that one of her most important pieces of safety equipment – her anchors – were never used as intended. In this fascinating episode Dr Sam Willis speaks with Clare Weston from the Black Country Living Museum about the fabrication of Titanic’s anchors and the crucial role that Britain’s industrial heartland played in creating a powerful maritime economy and empire.

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    Sam Willis  00:09

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

     

    Sam Willis  00:24

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. Today we are starting a great week of maritime history with a couple of episodes relating to the Titanic disaster. Yes, that well-known historic moment when, in April 1912, the largest vessel in the world struck an iceberg and split in half in the middle of the North Atlantic, taking with her around 1500 souls. First up today, we hear from Claire Western who tells us about Titanic’s anchors. Claire has worked in museums for over 20 years, curating industrial and social history collections, and is currently a researcher at the fabulous Black Country Living Museum, where her work focuses on uncovering and promoting the history of the once heavily-industrialised region known as the Black Country in the centre of England. Now, I’m lucky enough to have actually spent some time filming at the Black Country Living Museum, so I know how good it is first-hand. But for you, let me just say that they bring to life 300 years of history, exploring the story of the first industrialised landscape in Britain, known as the Black Country. At the brilliant open-air site, visitors can step back in time to meet historical characters and watch demonstrations of traditional Black Country industries like nail and chain making. They can also discover real lives and real stories through the recreated houses, shops and industrial buildings, many having been moved brick by brick to the museum. The museum also has a designated collection of objects and archival material of national and international importance, which reflect the region’s history. It really is a fabulous place. Now, you might be wondering why on earth I would be talking to someone from the Black Country about maritime history. It’s about as far from the sea as you can get in Britain. But the Black Country was instrumental in shaping Britain’s maritime history because of all of the heavy industry there that created crucial maritime equipment like anchors and anchor chains. And the story of Titanic’s anchors is one of the very best. It’s a story of ingenuity, pride, and hard work and of course, steam hammers. Now, if you want to put this episode in context then do please check out our previous episode on the Titanic, in which I speak with a brilliant Don Lynch, a historian and member of the Titanic Historical Society, and the man who has spoken to more survivors of the Titanic than anyone else alive – an astonishing 20! He’s also spoken to numerous relatives of survivors and victims; you can find that episode in our back catalogue published in January of this year. And there is also, coming up in the next couple of days, an episode on the Carpathia, the ship that sailed to Titanic’s rescue and which has the most wonderful history of her own, and one that also ends in disaster. So, keep your eyes and ears peeled for that in the coming days. For now, though, let’s head to Middle Earth, the Midlands, and meet a real-life person from the Black Country. I hope you enjoy listening to her as much as I enjoyed talking with her. Here is the brilliant Claire.

     

    Sam Willis  03:48

    Claire, thank you very much for joining me today.

     

    Claire Western  03:51

    Sam, it’s a pleasure to be here.

     

    Sam Willis  03:53

    So, the Black Country, for all of our listeners around the world who’ve never heard of the Black Country, can you tell us where it is, what it is?

     

    Claire Western  04:00

    Well, if they look on a map, they won’t find it. If you look at a map of the UK, look in the middle of England and find Birmingham. And then the Black Country is kind of to the north and the west of Birmingham. The most important thing, especially if you’re talking to somebody from the Black Country is: it is not Birmingham. They get very upset at this. There is a distinction in the accent as well, which if you live in the area you’ll get to know, between Birmingham and Black Country. It’s a term that started to be used around 1830, and it’s really a geographical area that was this explosion of industry in the Industrial Revolution. It’s an area that’s rich in a lot of raw materials like coal, iron, stone, limestone, fireclay. So, a lot of industries just emerged, like erupted, and the Black Country is described in the 1860s by the American console to Birmingham – I think he’s called Alliah Burret – describes it as “black by day and red by night.” The red is the furnaces because it was just around-the-clock production. The main thing about the Black Country, as well, is that it’s a geographical term. It’s lots of little towns, all with like unique industries, so Walsall is famous for leather-making like saddles, also brass. Willenhall was famous for locks. The anchors and chain which we’re going to talk about comes predominantly from areas like Netherton, Cradley Heath, Cradley Quarry Bank. Now, if you live locally, you’ll know all these Western 04:00 towns and they will mean something to you, and I appreciate to other people they won’t. But people had quite a strong local town identity, usually linked to the industry that they worked in. Today, if you look at a map, it’s largely made up of four local authorities which are Wolverhampton, Walsall, Sandwell and Dudley. The anchor-making industry was predominantly centred in what we would call Dudley Local Authority today. So, I hope that helps!

     

    Sam Willis  06:09

    Absolutely, it helps me. Birmingham’s in the middle of the UK. If you’re listening in South America and you’ve never even heard of Birmingham, then that’ll help you. But it’s not Birmingham, and I really like the fact that they identify themselves as not being next to the very large city which they’re next to – there’s something very British about that by saying “I don’t really care who I am, but I’m not that. I’m not over there.”

     

    Claire Western  06:34

    I’m actually from the Black Country but my brother was born in Birmingham, but he’s adamant that he’s not a Brummie. That’s the local term, a Brummie, from Birmingham. So, people strongly do identify with where they come from around here.

     

    Sam Willis  06:48

    Yeah, absolutely. And the industries are slightly different as well. So, you’ve got the Black Country, you talked about that. But how did that differ from the industry going on in Birmingham at the time?

     

    Claire Western  06:58

    I think there are some crossovers with the industries. I know Birmingham had a brass industry. Birmingham is often called ‘the workshop of the world,’ but so is the Black Country. There are crossovers in some of the industries and, once the canals came along, that really linked up the area: Birmingham in the Black Country. You could travel look to and from. But it’s just this identity of each town being famous for particular products. So, like in Stalybridge, Briley Hill area: glass, there’s brickmaking in Bilston, in Wolverhampton, it’s enamels that are a pretty big industry there. So, I think it just comes down to these little towns and these industries, really.

     

    Sam Willis  07:51

    So little microcosms within the Black Country. What we should also say for our Willis 07:51 listeners who aren’t familiar with British geography, is that Birmingham is nowhere near the sea, and the Black Country is nowhere near the sea. So, how did it come to be associated with this amazing maritime industry?

     

    Claire Western  08:09

    A lot of it comes down to the raw materials that were available in the area. Nails and chain are being made in the late 18th, early 19th century, and then the industry expands. And as technology expands, they’re able to start making anchors. A lot of the chain-making companies actually move into making anchors. You’ve also got a skilled workforce, and that grows as the industry is exploding and expands, you get a skilled workforce. You will get migration coming into the area because it wasn’t heavily populated before industry. There were farms, but I don’t think it was a particularly rich-for-farming area. So, you need people to come from somewhere, as well as your local population. It’s that coming together of skilled workforce and the raw materials, and entrepreneurs. We’re going to come on to Noah Hingley whose works made the Titanic anchor. These entrepreneurs who see opportunities and seize them are able to expand their businesses.

     

    Sam Willis  09:16

    Let’s talk about those raw materials. What did you need to make enormous anchor chain or an anchor?

     

    Claire Western  09:22

    You needed the fuel for the furnaces for a start, because they are quite guzzley. To make the anchors, they need a lot of fuel. So, one of the things the area was very rich in is coal. If you know the area, people talk about the Staffordshire seam. It was a massive length of coal. Sometimes it was so big it actually came up out of the ground, you could see it.

     

    Sam Willis  09:48

    Wow.

     

    Claire Western  09:49

    The mining industry really came to an end in this area in the late 1960s, whereas other areas continued – in the North and the East Midlands. Coal was a massive industry here, and so a lot of the companies set up by collieries or companies owned by collieries. And then you’ve got the Hingley factory, which specialised in using wrought iron. So, you’ve got the materials all coming together, really.

     

    Sam Willis  10:21

    And I suppose it was very important that the Black Country is well connected to other parts of the UK. So, should we just talk a little bit about the canals and the railway system which allowed all of this industry to happen in the middle of the country, but then link to the coast?

     

    Claire Western  10:35

    Yeah, before the canals, the roads in England were terrible, pretty bad. And they were getting their goods out into the world. The Hinckley’s had links, say, with Liverpool, they were sending their nails that they were making, and chain, out to Liverpool. But the journey, it was a really bad way of getting around. So, when the canals came along, it really opened up the Black Country in Birmingham. I think it’s a bit of an urban myth, but people will say that Birmingham has more canals than Venice. There’s certainly a lot, and there’s some parts that are quite picturesque, not all, but some parts of the canal are.

     

    Sam Willis  11:22

    I’ve always been suspicious of that but I would love it to be true. Someone tell us, someone get in touch and tell us whether it is actually true.

     

    Claire Western  11:28

    Yeah, I think someone’s got to go and actually measure them all, haven’t they, perhaps. But it really connected up the area, and where Noah Hingley’s works were in Netherton, they were right by the number two Dudley Canal. And that would just open you up to – and my geography is going to be quite weak here on where it linked up to – but I think it would take you off to Birmingham, definitely that canal link. And then that would open you up into the network of canals around the country, into the areas you needed to get your goods to. So, the canals were hugely important. And then along come the railways, again, which mean you can get your goods somewhere a lot faster as well, which changes everything.

     

    Sam Willis  12:13

    I know that’s how they got the Titanic anchor to where it needed to be as well. So, we’ve got the raw materials, we’ve got the coal, and the iron, and we’ve got a well-connected place, which is why it all happened there. So, let’s now talk about Willis 12:13 Hingley’s: the firm that was given the commission to build Titanic’s anchors. What do we know about this firm? What do we know about Noah Hingley?

     

    Claire Western  12:39

    He was born at the end of the 18th century. Fairly humble beginnings; his family were making nails. But they probably had a very small workshop. You think of Manchester, and it’s like the big cotton mills. The Black Country didn’t have lots and lots of big factories, there were some, but a lot of it was also like cottage industry – workshops in people’s backyards. So, they probably started out quite humbly. He had a bit of a basic education and then helped with the family business, which was quite typical of that period. The children would be put to work, certainly in the late 18th, early 19th century. And he’s not massively educated but there’s something about Hingley, from what I was reading, that he had an entrepreneurial kind of get-up-and-go; I think that’s the best way I can describe it. And he sees an opportunity in Liverpool, they’re trading with Liverpool, to set up a warehouse there to sell chain and nails. And he goes out there and, from what I can tell, he’s initially welcomed, but then they start to see him as competition. And I think he has to leave Liverpool, really, he’s sort of forced out, but comes back to the Black Country; an area called Cradley he was growing up in. He comes back there to set up his own business. And he eventually settles on a site in Netherton, which is a few miles from where he was born. Gradually, this massive work starts to develop. He buys up collieries and rolling mills and things, and he ends up with this massive, massive works in Netherton right by the canal. He dies in the 1870s but he’s got his sons involved in the business and they continue it. He’s very good at getting agreements to use, like the Hall’s Patent stockless anchor, which is what the Titanic anchor is based on. He sees these opportunities and really expands the business. He’s the first in the Staffordshire area to take on the steam hammer that Nasmyth invented because he sees the opportunity: being able to make much bigger anchors. So, these kinds of things all lead up to him being able to get the Titanic anchor contract.

     

    Sam Willis  15:11

    I thought it was fantastic that, when it comes to the Titanic anchor contract, Hingley’s oversees the Willis 15:11 anchors final assembly, but there are other firms involved who make different parts of it.

     

    Claire Western  15:23

    Yes. So, they get the contract. They’ve already worked with the White Star Line for the oceanic liner. But yes, they liked to do everything. But obviously, it comes to this point that this anchor needs to be the biggest ever made, and they don’t have a steam hammer that’s powerful enough to do the lead plates. I think it’s over 18 foot long.

     

    Sam Willis  15:48

    I’ve got it in front of me here, it’s 18 foot, three inches long, 10 feet, six inches wide, and it weighs 15 tonnes.

     

    Claire Western  15:54

    It was huge. There’s a company called Walter Summers in Halesowen, which is – this means something to local people – a few miles down the road from Netherton. So, this company get the contract to do one element, and then there’s a company in Newcastle, Roger’s I think it is, who make another part. Then it all gets brought back to the Hingley works. They make the rest of the anchor and assemble it all there. They do make another two anchors, the smaller eight-tonne anchors for the ship, there’s two of those. Hingley’s actually make that completely themselves; they don’t farm that work out.

     

    Sam Willis  16:36

    Right, so we’ve got the shaft being made somewhere, you’ve got the head being made somewhere else, and then Hingley’s doing what they need to do. We skimmed over, quite briefly, saying that there wasn’t a steam hammer large enough for the job. What’s a steam hammer? Why don’t you tell our listeners what a steam hammer is?

     

    Claire Western  16:54

    Well, it replaces an earlier tip hammer. Basically, you’ve got a furnace that captures the steam, you get it hot enough and it captures the steam and then funnels that steam to the hammer, which forces the hammer to drop down. But, from what I understand, it’s a double action so it forces it down but the steam also forces the hammer back up as well. You would still require a lot of men working on it, but you’ve obviously got the power coming through the steam which is forcing a hammer at tremendous speed, which is much more effective than what men could do on their own.

     

    Sam Willis  17:36

    You’ve sent me a video of a steam hammer working. Is that the one at the Black Country Living Museum?

     

    Claire Western  17:43

    Yes, I did send you that one. So, we’ve got an anchor forge at the Museum and the steam hammer comes from a place in Preston’s in Cradley Heath. They were the last ones making anchors in the Black Country into the 1970s. So, when they finished making them, the Museum acquired them. It does run. You can imagine how much fuel it uses. It works on oil today, but it guzzles quite a lot and requires five people. We have it running at special events rather than an everyday occurrence.

     

    Sam Willis  18:17

    I like the idea of steam hammer. It’s like it’s the most wonderful, pure Industrial Revolution invention. All it did was hammer stuff, but it did it unimaginably powerfully. And it also looks quite frightening in a brilliantly Victorian-industrial way, doesn’t it?

     

    Claire Western  18:37

    And the thudding! Hingley’s: there were people who lived right by Hingley’s works and the vibrations and the noise must have been immense sometimes when they were hammering huge anchors. You can hear the Stillen stamping works nearby, and on hot days when they throw open the doors, you can hear that rhythmic stamping noise a few miles away. But from what I understand from the steam hammers back in the day, people who lived nearby would feel vibrations in their houses.

     

    Sam Willis  19:10

    Gosh, how extraordinary. I also hugely enjoyed the photograph of one of the gangs making chain for the Titanic. It’s a photograph taken at Hingley’s. These chains are really quite extraordinary, aren’t they? So, you’ve got the world’s biggest anchor that’s being made. But then I presume you’ve got to have the world’s biggest chain to hold it in place.

     

    Claire Western  19:32

    Yes, and Hingley’s could make that. The men, they’re quite stocky, aren’t they?

     

    Claire Western  19:38

    Yeah, they would work long hours. I don’t know how true this is, but I was just reading this morning that they kept their own hours. They would try and get in really early to avoid the heat of the day, particularly in the summer, and would work so many hours and go. I think these might have been the more highly-skilled ones. I don’t think a lot of companies would have just let workers choose their hours. But it would be hard work, they would have to put in the hours and the sheer physical labour. Even though you’ve got a steam hammer doing some of the work, and you get cranes brought in to start lifting the metal, you still need that manpower, as well.

     

    Sam Willis  19:39

    They’re tired as well!

     

    Sam Willis  19:56

    I’m looking at the picture, now. Each link looks roughly the same size as a sheep, I think that’s the only way I could put it in terms of its kind of size and girth.

     

    Claire Western  20:33

    Yeah, they’re huge. They are huge. We’ve got some amazing photographs and a collection of anchor works and chain works. And these anchors, these chains, they’re phenomenal, the size. But they need to be because they’ve got to take the weight of the anchors, haven’t they, and lower them down. You don’t want them breaking either.

     

    Sam Willis  20:54

    Just one little crack in one of these links, and it all goes wrong. It says here they made over 1000 feet of chain for the Titanic. That’s a seriously repetitive job.

     

    Claire Western  21:03

    Yes, and it took them a long time. I don’t know if we’ve got like an estimate of how long, but they worked on that contract for quite a long time. Obviously, all of this chain would have to be tested. There was a Lloyd’s Proving House adjacent to the works, well quite near to the works.

     

    Sam Willis  21:19

    Handy!

     

    Claire Western  21:21

    So, they would have to be tested to quite a strength, literally pulled apart. They have to pass a certain test. The Titanic anchor chain all passed.

     

    Sam Willis  21:36

    And the anchor itself would have been tested, wouldn’t it?

     

    Claire Western  21:38

    I believe so, yes.

     

    Sam Willis  21:41

    I think we need to do some more research to find out how they actually did that. I’ve got no idea.

     

    Claire Western  21:47

    No, I was going to say, I can talk about how they tested the chain but not the anchors. I love the fact that Hingley’s gave a quality mark on their anchors, and they marked the Titanic one with NSBB which stands for Netherton’s Special Best Best iron.

     

    Sam Willis  22:04

    Best best. The best of the best.

     

    Claire Western  22:06

    I love that. We’ve touched on how they didn’t make the whole of the Titanic anchor, the main one, but they did paint Hingley’s on the side of it, which you see in the photographs when it was pulled along by the horses. You can see Hingley’s written on the side of the anchor. They paint the anchor white as well so it really stands out.

     

    Sam Willis  22:29

    They’re using it as advertising, aren’t they? Even today, we’re here still talking about it. It’s also interesting that they didn’t just make the chain, but they made the shackles because you’ve got this huge anchor, and then you’ve got this 1000 feet of chain, but then the surely the most important bit is the bit that attaches the chain to the anchor. And there’s a shackle workshop at Hingley’s.

     

    Claire Western  22:49

    Yes, they’d have workshops for every part of the process. Because other anchors could do the whole of the job, they had different workshops.

     

    Sam Willis  22:59

    Claire I’ve got this wonderful photograph here of this enormous anchor on a fairly rustic-looking waggon. Tell me about this, the celebratory journey it seems to have been?

     

    Claire Western  23:11

    The thing that interests me about the Titanic anchor journey is that I don’t think Hingley’s would have had a PR department that a lot of companies have today, but they obviously saw an opportunity to really celebrate this anchor. The largest ship in the world was being built in Belfast, they were making the largest anchor in the world. They knew they had a story here. So, they did turn it into a spectacle. The vehicle that he travels on is a dray that was provided by the London and North-western Railway line, which is where the Titanic needed to anchor, needed to go to. It couldn’t travel by canal, apparently it was too large, so that’s why the road was the chosen route. I think originally Hingley’s had six horses of their own that they were going to use, and the railway brought along eight of their own. And I don’t know what happened but they got put together, there’s different stories, and then more horses turned up so you get the spectacle of 20 horses. That to me feels like a bit of the showmanship of the whole thing. Apparently, some of the horses were decorated with May Day ribbons because it was actually May Day that the North-western anchor was being moved in 1911.

     

    Claire Western  24:27

    The local press were there: the Dudley Chronicle which does a big article on it, the big local newspaper at the time. They say that there’s photographers on every embankment trying to get a good shot of it. People start gathering and coming out of their houses to see it, and the procession is apparently watched. As it proceeds through Netherton up to Dudley, there’s lots of people standing on the roadside. There’s a local photographer, E. Beech from Cradley Heath, who photographs it. A lot of those photographs that you’ll see of the anchor are taken by him, and they get turned into postcards at the time which do get sent out. They’re still in print today, but they were sent out at the time. So, really, we’re grateful to him for capturing them. I love the fact that somebody from Birmingham, who runs a cinema, comes over and actually takes very early film footage of the procession. And then he takes it back to his cinema in Birmingham to show it to the audiences, I presume before a feature film.

     

    Sam Willis  24:27

    Wow.

     

    Sam Willis  24:30

    Does that survive?

     

    Claire Western  25:39

    I’ve never come across it. The first I’d heard about it was in this Dudley Chronicle newspaper article from the time. I would love it if somebody said, “Oh, I’ve got that” because I’ve never seen it. Apparently, the sight of the horses being filmed pulling the anchor along up a steep incline really wowed the audience in the cinema. To see this moving image must have been quite stirring. To see it in real life must have been pretty special. People were probably used to seeing anchors coming out of the works but this was massive, the biggest that had been made. So, yeah, it was a big spectacle. And Hingley’s really did capture a real PR moment, I think.

     

    Sam Willis  26:28

    Yeah, didn’t they do well? Actually brilliant. And I love it because obviously, the anchor is huge, and in its own right, that and the chain is astonishing. But there’s a gap here, there’s a shadow, and that asks the obvious: if the anchor’s that big, how big is this vessel?! And so, if these poor people wouldn’t have been able to see photos of the Titanic, or drawings of it, but they would have known just what was going on in Belfast.

     

    Claire Western  26:53

    Certainly, people were aware of these big ocean liners. There were people in the Black Country who were actually emigrating out to America and Canada in this period, and trying to get on ships like this. In my own family, there’s a story that one branch of the family tried to get tickets for the Titanic, and couldn’t get it, but they did book their furniture and belongings onto it. And they lost, obviously, all of their belongings. They later did carry on to emigrate to Canada, so that branch of the family lives in Canada today. So, people would have been aware of the ship because that’s how they filled up the ship wasn’t in – third-class passengers, the cheaper tickets, emigrating. I was reading about that; it wouldn’t have been a very nice journey. The women and children were at the end of the boat and would have had all of the vibrations of the propellers, the engine and the boilers. It wouldn’t have been, perhaps, a nice journey for the third-class passengers.

     

    Sam Willis  26:53

    Pretty grim, pretty grim. Now, you were telling me about a little bit of family research, why don’t you share that with our listeners?

     

    Claire Western  28:02

    I’ve always known about the Titanic anchor journey from Netherton to Dudley because it was always said in the family that my Great Gran is in one of those photographs with two of our brothers. She would have been 10 in 1911. The family lived on Washington Street, which is right by the Hingley works. They had an entrance on Washington Street. The houses have completely gone now. So, there’s that bit of history. And I know the person that she’s meant to be in the photograph, which is lovely. I never got to meet my Great Gran, she died just before I was born. But then I came across something my Gran had written, and there was a photograph published in a newspaper of men who’d worked on the Titanic, and she said that her grandfather was in the photograph. I just found this the other day, and I was like “Oh, I didn’t know this, never heard about this.” So, I looked on the Census and his name was Frank. He actually was a furnace man at a rolling mill. And part of the complex of the Hingley works included a rolling mill. So there’s a good chance, living right by it, that he worked there. But I also noticed that my Great Gran’s older brother Frank, age 20, was listed as a blacksmith striker at a chain and anchor work. So again, you’re thinking that it was probably Hingley’s, it being near where they lived. This was quite new to me. They lived at number 55 Washington Street, and I was like “Ooh,” they were probably working there when the Titanic anchor was being made, even if they didn’t work on it themselves.

     

    Sam Willis  29:37

    They would have known about it.

     

    Claire Western  29:38

    Yeah, and my Gran says that he’s in this photograph, which I’d never come across before. So, I’ve got to try and track down this photograph and see if I can identify him on it because I’ve never heard that mentioned before. My Gran is not here to ask her about it. But yes, I’m in touching history of the Titanic.

     

    Sam Willis  29:57

    Yay! Well done you, and the Titanic anchor, more to the point. Claire, thank you very much indeed for sharing this wonderful story with us today.

     

     

    Claire Western  30:05

    That’s okay!

     

    Sam Willis  30:10

    Thank you all so much for listening. Now, do please check out the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast on YouTube, where you will find some fabulous and innovative video material telling our maritime past in new ways, ways you have never seen before. Most recently, a wonderful video showcasing one of the finest ship models ever made, filmed with the very latest camera technology, and it really does blow your mind. And for you Titanic fans out there, we have a lovely little animation of what we call Titanic in Miniature, explaining how a steam engine of the time worked. There’s also an astonishing flyover of a 3D model of the Titanic which was built based on the ship’s original drawings. It’s all worth checking out. Best of all, however, do please join the Society for Nautical Research. It doesn’t cost you very much, but it supports this podcast. You receive four copies a year of the Mariner’s Mirror Journal, which has been published for over a century. You get to come to the SNR’s annual dinner on board HMS Victory, and you get to support the world’s maritime heritage. There really is no better way to spend a little bit of your spare change. You can find out everything we do and everything we have done in the past at snr.org.uk.

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