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It took eighteen months for the Reform Act to go through parliament; the legislation came after public meetings, demonstrations, riots and potentially a revolution. The Whig government under Earl Grey was opposed by the Tories led by the Duke of Wellington who, ultimately, allowed the Bill to pass by telling the Tory Lords not to oppose the Bill any longer. The campaign was long and drawn out.
There were three types of reform proposals:
The radicals refused to moderate these demands because they knew the aristocracy would reform parliament only to maintain the existing system. It was unlikely that the House of Commons would reform itself unless it was confronted with an agitation too strong to be disregarded. The government's early activities showed that it was not revolutionary:
Earl Grey had the confidence of most of his Cabinet. The government was aristocratic and therefore was unlikely to favour any reform which would injure the landed interest. Wealth was felt to guarantee integrity and the Cabinet was too rich to need ministerial salaries. However, they did lack practical political experience of holding office.
Starting on 5 November 1830, the middle classes began to petition parliament for reform, which had to be the work of MPs, short of revolution. Between 5 November 1830 and 4 March 1831, 654 petitions for reform were presented to the Commons. Only four were sent by Political Unions, but 280 demanded a secret ballot. Many were very vague, asking for things like "the equalisation and extension of the right of suffrage" or "a real, substantial and effectual reform" without explanation. The vagueness reflected that of middle-class opinion but proved to be a strength.
The committee set up to prepare the Reform Bill in November/December 1830 consisted of Lords Russell, Durham and Duncannon and Sir James Graham. Writing in 1851, Sir James Graham recalled that their instructions were to prepare
'the outline of a measure.... large enough to satisfy public opinion and to afford sure ground of resistance to further innovation, yet so based on property, and on existing franchises and territorial divisions, as to run no risk of overthrowing the [existing] form of government'.
The instructions pointed towards a comprehensive measure, based on large-scale disenfranchisement of rotten boroughs.
Russell prepared the first draft quickly; it contained nothing unexpected. Lord Durham proposed a secret ballot as part of the Bill. This was highly controversial because the secret ballot was thought to be 'sneaky' and 'un-English'. However, this issue united the middle and working-class reformers (a difficult task) but in supporting the secret ballot, the middle classes were able to convince the working classes that they could expect help in achieving their aspirations.
Defeat for the Whigs would mean dissolution and a general election. The king was violently opposed to this because of the problems it might cause in Ireland. In addition, Grey's idea that the Bill would be passed without any popular upheaval was unrealistic. Had the Bill become law in the summer of 1831, pressure for further reform probably would have followed. During the campaign for the Bill, agitation strengthened, as did the reaction against any further change.
The Bill was prepared in complete secrecy. This had its drawbacks: for example, the strength of support and opposition could not be measured and few people could be consulted about the proposals and information contained in the Bill. However, had the opposition known of the Bill's provisions in advance, they might have killed it immediately. To hear the proposals, the Commons had to give leave for it to be introduced.
On 20 February the opposition met at Peel's home and decided not to oppose the introduction of the Bill. They could vote it out on its second reading. Peel was even prepared to accept a moderate Bill. Even a last-minute leakage of the terms of the Bill did no harm: Le Marchant, who was Brougham's secretary, noted in his diary that,
Almost at the last hour Lord Lowther contrived to learn some of the particulars of the plan, but they appeared so improbable that no-one believed him when he mentioned them.
Even the Whigs and Radicals were sceptical at the proposals and contemporaries were astounded at the scope of the proposed legislation.
On Saturday 26 February the Commons sat to receive the Reform petitions. Althorp presented about one hundred, including one each from Manchester and Bristol, each with about 12,000 signatures. The Leeds petition carried 17,000 names; Edinburgh's 22,000.
On 1 March 1831, the Reform Bill was introduced to the Commons by Lord John Russell who bored MPs almost into falling asleep, until the announcement of Schedule A - the list of boroughs that were to be disenfranchised. This came as a shock to Whigs and Tories alike. Peel failed to kill the Bill by forcing a division. This pushed him back towards the die-hard Tories. On the third night of the debate, Peel opposed a second reading on the grounds of the usefulness of the existing system. The government failed to produce an effective statement to lessen the impact of Peel's speech.
It was clear that there was no Commons majority for the Bill unless outside pressure could be brought to bear. Grey said he was committed personally to the Bill and was unable to retreat. The government could not abandon the Bill however extreme it might appear to be; nor could they allow it to be defeated because that would sink their political reputations. They needed to utilise public pressure. The government justified the wide scope of the Bill by arguing that only such a measure could be 'final' and so went to the limits of 'safety'. They also needed to be fair, to keep their support in the Lords. The Cabinet knew it could not produce a mild Bill which Peel could modify and adopt as his own: they had to produce a sweeping measure to win national support. Also they thought such a proposal would be their best chance of staying in office, although Grey and Althorp disliked holding office.
The middle classes welcomed the Bill as offering them at the same time an appropriate status within the Constitution while providing security against democracy. The Manchester Guardian commented on 5 March 1831 that
All parties seem pleased with it [the Bill] to a degree we could hardly have conceived possible" and thought that "Ministers are well entitled to all the support their friends out-of-doors can give them. The voice of the country ought to be expressed in a manner which the borough mongers could not fail to understand".
Archibald Prentice, writing in the same paper, found the Bill "a great deal better than we expected [and promised] most strenuous support to carry it into effect.
The Manchester Courier opposed the Bill - and lost half its circulation as a result. However, the lead for provincial agitation could not come from Manchester because the class cleavage there was too strong. There was less class conflict in Birmingham which could therefore lead the campaign. On 7 March 1831 a meeting of the Birmingham Political Union, attended by 15,000 people, expressed gratitude to the King and government and petitioned for the Bill.
Opposition leaders could not decide how best to defeat the Bill. Some wanted to let it 'bleed to death' in the Committee Stage after the second reading because they could not expect a decisive majority against it. The Tories were hopelessly divided in March 1831 so they had to try to defeat the Bill on its second reading on 21 March. William IV gave full royal support to Grey and refused to consider dissolving parliament because of the popular agitation and possible consequences. This became public knowledge. The Ultras were now opposed to the Bill because it was so extreme, although they did not want dissolution. William IV's decision helped them to decide to oppose the Bill.
The vote was taken at 3.03 a.m. on 23 March 1831. The Bill passed by one vote - because an opposition MP missed the division by mistake. Grey knew that he must prepare for dissolution as soon as the Committee Stage began. Parliament adjourned until 12 April and the government spent the Easter recess devising amendments to the Bill, especially in an attempt to reduce the number of MPs from 658 to 596. The government was prepared to adapt to catch votes and the opposition was thoroughly divided. The government found strength in the fact that by 8 April 1831, 23 county meetings had been held to petition for the Bill which was also supported by most of the London press and provincial newspapers.
On 20 April 1831 a vote was taken on an opposition amendment forbidding a reduction in the numbers of English and Welsh MPs. It was carried by 8 votes. On 21 April 1831 the king agreed to a dissolution of parliament to prevent revolution by providing an outlet for public excitement in the shape of a general election. He prorogued parliament in person, amid scenes of chaos. The king was no reformer, although he has been cast in that role.
On 23 April 1831 the king instructed Grey to modify the Bill but the government decided not to make any important modifications. The general election took place between 23 April and 1 June 1831. It was fought on the single issue of reform. The Whigs intended it to be their mandate to continue with reform. Also in April the BPU issued a National Address, signed by Attwood as chairman and published in The Times. It called for electors to vote only for supporters of reform in the forthcoming general election.
On 1 June 1831 the final returns of the election were made. The government ended with a majority of between 130 and 140 and had enjoyed great success in the counties. However, virtually all the election intimidation had been carried out by the reformers. Reform candidates generally had the support of the Dissenters.
On 24 June 1831 Russell re-introduced the Bill to the Commons. Parliamentary debates on the Bill became a discussion within the governing class to which others were allowed to listen. The government was helped by the divisions within the opposition, mainly caused by Peel's attitude to the Ultras: he did not wish to renew his alliance with them because he was not a die-hard by nature. Although he was cold in manner, he was irreplaceable. Althorp, for the government, was also indispensable because of his thorough knowledge of the Bill.
In July the bill passed its second reading in the Commons by 136 votes and went into the Committee Stage which ended on 7 September. The Bill went into the Report Stage and to the Commons for its third reading. On 21 September the Tory Lords decided that they would divide against the Bill at its second reading in the House of Lords. The following day the Bill passed the Commons 345:236 and was taken to Lords
Opponents of the Bill began with a tactical advantage, because government could not coerce 'doubtfuls' vote for it. The opposition launched an outright attack on legislation for which even the government did not believe there was a majority in the Lords. They hoped that public pressure might allow a second reading without a division, or that a government majority might be scraped together by the autumn. Creations of peers on a small scale were planned to convert the 'doubtfuls' by showing that the king supported his ministers and the Bill. Honours were also given, to 'persuade' peers to support the government. It proved difficult to find men who were "peer-able" and the government really had no idea of how many were needed, because the opposition - restrained by Wellington the tactician -concealed it strength. Wellington felt that he had to go for outright attack for several reasons:
Wellington expected to defeat the government on the second reading by at least forty votes; the government expected to be defeated by seventeen votes at most. Wellington thought that the government would either go for the creation of peerages or resignation and he was not afraid of the likely riots. He still believed that the agitation would die down if the government had to start all over again with a new Bill in the Commons. Wellington still did not appreciate the strength of the reform movement but some die-hards hoped that the delay of the Bill would lead to riots and bloodshed, which in turn would create a demand for a repressive government. A prolonged crisis would increase unemployment and distress and make society even more volatile. This would allow the Tories to return to office, promising 'law and order'.
On 3 October 1831 the second reading debate began in the House of Lords. Attwood held a meeting of the BPU on Newhall Hill in Birmingham, which was attended by 15,000 people. Brougham presented eighty petitions to the Lords, in favour of the Bill and Grey presented over forty more. However, some eight hundred merchants, bankers and traders of the City of London petitioned the Lords against it. The debates were hard-fought because the Lords believed that the waverers would be persuaded by speeches. Grey hoped that the "doubtfuls" would sense in voting for reform in order to strengthen their own position: Grey commented to the Princess Lieven in October 1831 that,
The Bill takes from [the Peerage] a power which makes them odious, and substitutes for it an influence which connects them with the people"
On 8 October the Bill was defeated on its second reading by 41 votes. Such a number of creations was felt to be 'out of the question', but Wellington felt that he had won time for high feelings to disperse. The Lords' vote had several repercussions:
On 10 October the Commons passed a Vote of Confidence in the government. The Lords, however, still believed that the unnatural coalition of the middle and working classes would break down now that Grey had to start all over again with the legislation. They also thought that there was still some chance for Peel's "Tory Democracy" to gain momentum.
Between 8 and 31 October the BPU received fifty requests for a copy of their rules from would-be founders of other political unions. The Lords' vote stimulated the demand for reform; the Political Unions were founded but this presented the leaders with problems of controlling especially the working classes and radicals.
On 12 October a meeting of 10,000 in Manchester passed a resolution in favour of universal suffrage. This split between moderates and extremists was common and the leaders of the Political Unions had to maintain their agitation in the face of internal divisions and over a period of several months. On the same day, the Globe suggested that if peers were not created immediately, the middle classes would have to set up armed groups to protect property. The Poor Man's Guardian wanted working-class groups to be established to protect the working man.
In mid-October, rumours began that Grey wanted to negotiate the passage of a modified Bill, so therefore there would be a long prorogation of parliament and no creation of peers. Consequently, on 24 October the BPUs second Address was published in The Times, coinciding with a peak of tension, because parliament was prorogued after the defeat of the Bill by the Lords. The Address used highly emotional and rhetorical language:
Let all be united as one man, in the enthusiastic and determined support of this great, this holy cause. Let political unions be formed instantly in every district, and in every village, where they do not already exist. Let the nation stand forth in its strength, and in peaceful and commanding majesty express its will, and that will is certain to become the law of the land.
Russell and Althorp, who were more sympathetic towards the Political Unions than most of their colleagues, thanked the BPU for its support. Most other politicians, regardless of their party, thought that this was a blunder by leading members of the government.
On 29 October the Bristol riots began and lasted for three days. They were caused by the arrival of Wetherell, the Recorder of the city. He was opposed to reform but instead of keeping away from Bristol he caused problems by arriving with 93 soldiers to protect him and preserve the peace. The centre of Bristol was sacked by the mob and there were over four hundred casualties. Attwood claimed that outbreaks of violence occurred only where there were no Political Unions. He was supported by The Times which argued that the success of the Political Unions in enabling the peaceful expression of opinion made them more formidable than the mobs.
On 31 October Francis Place set up the National Political Union to press for reform and to co-ordinate the activities of the Political Unions. The organisation was divided from the start, had few links with the provinces and failed to dislodge the BPU as leader of the reform movement.
On 1 November the council of the BPU appointed a committee to draw up a scheme for organising it on semi-military lines. This was done elsewhere also. The idea raised opposition and alarm because it appealed to neither the middle classes nor the working classes. The middle classes were shocked by the idea of private armies; the working classes could not afford either the time or the money for such a scheme. Attwood's choice of phrase - 'National Guard' - was unfortunate too. The Guard was to protect property against outbreaks like the Bristol riots, although the scheme may really have been drawn up in a show of force to ensure that the Whigs did not abandon reform. The events of October/November 1831 led to a reaction against reform. Many of the middle classes thought of the 1789 French Revolution and its results; the government realised its dependence on the support of the 'respectable' unions and was ready to defend Attwood's plan for armed groups even thought the plan was illegal. Grey was disturbed by the Political Unions and said they were,
'far more mischievous and dangerous than any proceedings of a more avowed and violent character, palpably illegal and treasonable' (The Times, 12 November 1831)
Furthermore the likelihood of armed clashes between the Political Unions and their opponents was heightened. Althorp, who wanted to avoid an open breach between the government and the Political Unions, secretly met Joseph Parkes in London to warn him that the 'National Guard' scheme was illegal and that proclamations were to be made against it. Parkes, duly primed, persuaded Attwood to abandon the idea, without mentioning the meeting with Althorp.
On 22 November Grey's proclamation, emphasising the illegality of military organisation was made just as the plan was abandoned. The Political Unions had been shown the limits of their power, but the government was unable to ignore the clamour for 'the Bill, the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill'. Even thoughts of altering it to get it through the Lords were eventually abandoned, mainly because the negotiations for a modified Bill failed. This did gain some advantages for the government, however:
One proposed modification was to raise the borough franchise qualification to more than £10, a suggestion mentioned by Lord John Russell to Edward Baines in Leeds. The answer was blunt: the measure 'would make the Reform Bill as unpopular as it has ever been popular'.
On 12 December a new Reform Bill was put to the House of Commons: it was so new that only Russell knew its contents since he was still working on it half an hour before he presented it. Substantially, it was unchanged from the previous presentation but such alterations as had been made proved to be acceptable in parliament and in the country. The new Bill was seen as 'less objectionable' than the first attempt.
The Political Unions set to work to organise meetings and petitions with greater success than they expected, with the result that on 18 December the Bill passed to second reading in the Commons by 324 votes to 162. There was still a problem with the House of Lords, however, where there was great resistance to the Bill. Consequently, on 2 January 1832 the Cabinet met, and produced three possible plans of action:
This latter was accepted by the Cabinet, but the King objected to it. He did agree to the first plan should it be needed, but thought he was being asked to create twenty-one new peers. In fact, fifty or sixty new peers would be needed. News of William IV's decision led to the 'waverers' deciding to let the second reading pass in the Lords, but also persuaded some reformers to threaten to vote against the second reading. On 10 March the Bill reached the Report Stage in the Commons. If peers were to be created, it was essential to do it immediately, and Grey was faced with the resignations of four ministers if the creations were not made. This threatened the destruction of the ministry and therefore failed because the four backed down. No creations were made.
On 24 March the Bill passed the Commons and on 26 March it went to the House of Lords. The debate on the Bill began in the Lords on 9 April. On 14 April a division was taken for the Bill to go to a second reading in the Lords; it was accepted by 184:175 votes. The Cabinet expected trouble at the Committee stage, but the possibility of using creations to prevent amendments to the Bill was becoming something of a problem because William IV disliked the government's activities. The king:
Early in May an opposition meeting decided to vote for a postponement of discussions on the disfranchising clauses of the Bill. This gave Grey the best excuse for resigning that he was likely to get. The opposition did not realise this: they thought that Grey would give in to them because a creation of peers was unlikely at this stage. The Tories simply did not appreciate how tired of office Grey and Althorp were, or how much they both wanted to resign.
Amending the Bill would be difficult and the two alternatives were equally untenable: the franchise qualification could be raised, but those who had been offered the vote on lower qualifications would be unlikely to withdraw peacefully. Alternatively, the franchise qualification could be lowered, but that would give the vote to the working classes, and Wellington did not want that. He commented to Lord Bathurst,
'We are all too ready to believe that the lower orders of the people in this country are the best. I admit that they were well inclined. But they have been educated, and read, and are corrupted by the newspapers. Plunder is everywhere the object; and the lower we go, the stronger we find the desire to plunder'.
Some Tories wanted to enfranchise the working classes to counteract middle-class influence, but they wanted the working classes to be 'independent' and 'respectable' to receive the vote. The Ultras wanted to concede nothing.
The debate began in the Lords on 7 May. The government made it clear that if they were defeated they would either secure the creation of peers or resign. The opposition still carried the amendment postponing the disenfranchising clauses of the Bill by 151:116 because - as Le Marchant said,
'The Peers with few exceptions - as usually happens when a question is imperfectly understood and the House is taken by surprise - voted according to Party'
Grey decided not to stay in office without the creation of the fifty or sixty peers. He needed the creations as a matter of principle and also to defend the government's standing with the reform movement. Grey expected the king to refuse, and most of the government hoped that he would
Also on 7 May a meeting attended by 100,000 (said Attwood) was held on Newhall Hill, Birmingham in support of the Bill. It was a "Gathering of the Unions" which existed in the Midlands. It was mis-timed because reports of the meeting were not available in London on 9 May, the day on which William IV accepted the resignations of the Cabinet after refusing to create the peers needed to pass the Bill, although he wanted a government which could pass an 'extensive' Reform Bill. The following day, the news of Grey's resignation reached Birmingham and prompted another mass meeting, which assembled spontaneously.
The three days between 11 and 13 May 1832 were spent in a frantic search to find a PM. Peel refused to serve in a projected government either as Prime Minister or in any other office and other Tories could not really take office to sponsor a Reform Bill which they had opposed for the past year. Peel refused to change sides again. He was still smarting over the accusations that he had 'ratted' in 1829 and his refusal to serve took others with him: in 1829 the Dowager Duchess of Richmond had invited Wellington's Cabinet to dinner, then filled her drawing room with stuffed rats to show her contempt for the apostates. Wellington, as always, put his duty to the Crown before his anti-reform opinions, his popularity and his reputation for political consistency. The King appointed Wellington as PM. The Duke had the support of the Ultras in the Lords - but he had no front bench in the Commons. The prospect of Wellington's return to office put the country in uproar, and thousands of provincial merchants, manufacturers and workmen who had previously stood aside joined the Unions or signed reform petitions.
Between 9 and 19 May the Political Unions began to show their strength to persuade MPs that order could not be restored unless Grey was returned to office. The May Crisis marked the high point in co-operation between the working and middle-class reformers. The press played down the agitation and retrospective accounts are suspect: much evidence comes from an elderly Place. The agitation was perhaps not as overwhelming as the reformers made out. Disunity still existed between the working classes and middle classes.
The Political Unions opposed Wellington's appointment and disliked the Duke's proposals to pass an extensive Reform Bill. Resistance to his attempted ministry followed traditional and legal lines: a refusal to pay taxes until the Bill had been passed and an attempted run on the banks. Business activity had been at a low ebb since Grey's resignation. On 12 May the Manchester Guardian reported that
'Orders were forthwith countermanded; buyers from a distance went, or were recalled home without effecting their purchases, and a large number of our manufacturers and warehousemen state that, for anything they really have to do, they might just as well actually close their establishments'.
This scale of trade disturbance led to fears for the stability of the banking system. Also, from 11 May there had been regular consultations in London between members of the National Political Union and deputations from the BPU and other Political Unions on the best means of organising a national civil resistance if Wellington did form a ministry. On 13 May Parkes and Place planned a run on the banks. Place placarded much of London with the slogan: 'To Stop the Duke, Go for Gold' although the effectiveness of his campaign is debatable. The run on gold was aimed directly at the Bank of England, and politicians were worried about the possible actions of panicky depositors: fear breeds fear. The placards may have intensified the fear since the City was thoroughly frightened and wanted Grey to return as PM to settle the reform question quickly. In the ten days of the May Crisis over £1.6 million of gold was withdrawn from the Bank of England and great fear was provoked because of the absence of riots. The government was concerned that Attwood might lose control of the Political Unions. If the Bill was further delayed the stagnation of trade would lead to further unemployment which would lead to outbreaks of violence. In 1832 England was under-policed and had a high unemployment level, besides suffering from the effects of cholera which began in Sunderland in October 1831 and reached London in January 1832.
Place and Parkes also discussed arrangements for a possible rising if the Duke took office. The London mob was to riot and keep the army occupied there while Birmingham acted as the centre of revolution and overthrew the government. This might have been a threat to Wellington but it seems that the clamour of provincial opinion actually played little part in Wellington's failure to form a government. He failed because he could not find enough Tories and others ready to join him in a Ministry committed to some fairly extensive measure of parliamentary reform, which even he now saw to be necessary.
Between 9 and 19 May some 200 meetings in support of the Bill were reported in The Times and the Morning Chronicle, which was far below the real total. Three hundred petitions were presented to parliament asking the Commons not to vote supplies until the Lords passed the Bill. The Manchester petition was signed by 24,000 people in a few hours and was rushed to London in only seventeen hours. It was the first to be presented.
On 14 May the leading Tories told Wellington that they could not form a government and Wellington gave up trying: He said that 'The King had better send for Lord Grey at once. He will have to do it at last; and it is not right to keep the country in agitation during the interval'. Wellington also agreed to withdraw personally from opposition to the Bill to spare the king from having to create peers, although the Duke refused to make the promise publicly. On 15 May William IV asked Grey to resume office and pass the Bill 'with such modifications as may meet the views of those who may still entertain any difference of opinion upon the subject'. Grey refused to modify the Bill and the Tories wanted no creations, so that they could keep control of the Lords. Grey asked the King for a written undertaking to create sufficient Whig peers to pass the Bill should it be necessary. This was duly done. There were widespread fears that revolution was imminent. The provinces believed that they had defeated Wellington in the 'Days of May'. Grey's return to office was greeted with peals of bells, meetings and soon, because the Bill would now be passed - with the creation of peers if necessary. On 16 May Attwood said that Grey 'had been carried back... on the shoulders of the people'.
Between 15 and 18 May the future of the Reform Bill was still in doubt. Discussions between the Whig Cabinet and the king were inconclusive; an expected declaration from leading Tory peers that they would desist from opposing the bill had not materialised. Since 11 May there had been regular consultations in London between members of the Political Union and deputations from the Birmingham and other provincial political unions on the best means of organising a national civil resistance in the event of a Wellington ministry. On 18 May a Cabinet meeting was held at which a letter from Place to John Cam Hobhouse, the Secretary-at-War and a leading radical, was produced. The letter clearly was designed to stiffen the resolve of the cabinet by a graphic description of the consequences if they did not.
The Bill's third reading in the Lords passed by 106 votes to 22 on 4 June, mainly because the Tories failed to turn up for the vote; on 7 June it received the Royal Assent. The king refused to announce this in person and his assent was declared by commission. The Act, as finally passed, was not greatly different from the original Bill which had been introduced to the Commons in March 1831.
On 19 May Grey saw Attwood and thanked him for his services; on 22 May Attwood was given the freedom of the City of London. Before Christmas had arrived Grey was calling Attwood a 'coxcomb and a knave'. By then, disillusionment had set in. The upper classes were expecting the middle classes to turn on them, which the working classes still expected the middle classes to help them get the vote. Attwood went on to become the first MP for Birmingham and soon discovered that the Whigs did not appreciate the aspirations behind the provincial demand for reform.
After the celebrations were over it became obvious that nothing much had changed. The radicals were divided and the government was weak. Most of the new voters wanted recognition from the upper classes and few of the middle classes were radicals. Hardly any of them wanted the working classes to get the vote.. Hetherington said in the Poor Man's Guardian on 15 December 1832,
'We have often told you the Reform Bill would do you no good. The great majority of electors are middle men who thrive by your degradation'.
In May 1833 the BPU denounced the Whig government for betraying the trust of the people in denying the existence of general distress and in refusing an inquiry into the means of relieving the distress.
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