Solomon, Coralie 2004, 'Elias Solomon: first Federal Member of Parliament for Fremantle: life and letters 1839-1909', Fremantle Studies, 3: 1-13.
Elias Solomon was a long-serving Mayor of Fremantle, MLA for South Fremantle, and the first Member for Fremantle in the Federal House of Representatives in 1901, but little was known of his early years in the colony until, in 1951, a letter book written by him between the years 1868 and 1872 was discovered. 1
Many of his personal papers had been discarded upon the death of his eldest son Wallace 2 but fortunately the letter book was retrieved. The book was handed to another son, my father Maurice, 3 and I have deciphered as much as possible. Some letters are personal, many contain details of business transactions, but overall they convey an impression of conditions in a colony which had been in existence barely forty years.
Elias Solomon, the youngest child of Leah (nee Myers) and Moss Solomon, was born in London on 2 September 1839. The family arrived in Sydney, Australia, on 19 January 1841. They paid their own way and there is no record of the number of children who accompanied the parents, apart from a daughter, Isabella. 4 On 3 March 1841 the family left Sydney for Adelaide, sailing on the Dorset, a brig owned by Emanuel and Vaiben Solomon, brothers of Moss.
Emanuel Solomon 5 was well established in Adelaide and had, among other business projects, built the first theatre in the colony, The Queen’s Theatre 6 of which Moss was made manager. This position proved to be short-lived as South Australia was undergoing a period of severe depression in 1841. Emanuel survived the crisis, but Moss and his family left the colony for Sydney. After the death of Moss in 1849 his widow Leah retumed to Adelaide.
Elias Solomon. Born London on 2 September 1839 and died in Fremantle on 23 May I909 Courtesy Coralie Solomon
After leaving school Elias Solomon joined his uncle’s firm and at eighteen years of age was sent to Mauritius to purchase a consignment of sugar. On his return he was appointed chief clerk and bookkeeper to the firm Solomon and Salom of Adelaide. He later worked for a time with Falk & Company of Melbourne. Believing that business prospects were good in the colony of Western Australia and supported by his family, Elias, at twenty-nine years of age, arrived at the settlement of Fremantle on 20 January 1868 on board the clipper brig Eliza Blanche, which carried cargo and four passengers. 7 A few days earlier the vessel had berthed briefly at King George’s Sound, and Elias had been impressed by the beautiful natural harbour and the tiny settlement perched on the wooded hillside. There the climate had been crisp and clear, but at Fremantle, 250 miles north, it was appreciably hotter and the port lacked safe anchorage.
Writing to his friend George McHenry in Adelaide, 16 September 1868, Elias summed up his first impressions:
Fremantle as a Town is not at all inviting at first sight, and to a person like myself, coming from the other Colonies, it had a peculiar appearance. It had a whiteness about it which is consequent of all the buildings, with the exception of one or two, being built of limestone, which makes it very dazzling to the eye. The ground was at that time [January] also very dry and white, being for the most part of the same material, that is, limestone. After leaving buildings like there are in Bourke Street and being deposited as it were in the centre of a town built of nothing but white stone, the contrast was not at all a pleasant one.
The English novelist Anthony Trollope who visited Western Australia in 1872 was also unimpressed:
Fremantle has certainly no natural beauties to recommend it. It is a hot, white, ugly town, with a very large prison, a lunatic asylum and a hospital for ancient and worn-out convicts … 8
Elias found lodgings in Henry Street, Fremantle, and on 16 March 1868 was joined by his two twenty-year-old nephews who arrived from Melboume on the Douglas. Their partnership, Solomon & Nephews, Auctioneers and Agents, was financed jointly by Elias, his half-brother Judah Moss Solomon, then of Melbourne, and his brother-in-law Isaac Solomon of Adelaide. Their sons, Elias’s nephews, were both named Samuel, which caused some confusion in later records.
Judah Moss Solomon, Elias’s half-brother, may well have set the pattem the younger brother was to follow. A merchant and ardent supporter of free trade, he had been a member of the House of Assembly for the City of Adelaide in 1858-1860 and a member of the Legislative Council in 1861-1866. He was Mayor of Adelaide in 1869-1871 and represented West Adelaide in the Assembly in 1871-1875.
Another son of Judah, Benjamin, twenty-four years of age, arrived in Fremantle on 19 May 1868 accompanied by his wife Louisa and their infant daughter. He commenced business on his own account as a saddler and importer.
1868 was not a good time to commence business in Western Australia. Red rust in the wheat and a succession of droughts and storms had resulted in crop failures and the labour shortage intensified, partly due to the fact that transportation of convicts had been discontinued in that year. Goods were often in short supply, especially if a vessel was long overdue. The feeling of isolation from the eastern colonies was keenly felt, even though those same colonies were also experiencing economic depression.
A shortage of ready cash created a system of barter which was to remain for some years. This is mentioned in a number of the business letters of Elias Solomon. Charles Crowther, merchant and landowner of Champion Bay, was asked: ‘ ... could you do with any Concertina Albums in barter for Barley?’ and to Scott and Giles, also of Champion Bay, he wrote: ‘I have made enquiries respecting your offer of exchanging Flour and Wheat for Rugs and Blankets.’ 9
During this time Elias wrote many letters to friends and family about his new life.
In another extract from the letter to George McHenry, 16 September 1868, he continues initial observations concerning the colony:
… Fremantle is the Port of the Colony and at present a very poor port it is, the anchorage being a bad one and there being no protection from the strong winds which we get in full force straight from the Indian Ocean. Vessels seeking safe anchorage at Fremantle will in all probability be blown on to the beach, and during the winter months are obliged to anchor at Garden Island where there is safe anchorage, but quite some distance from here (about 12 or 14 miles).
There is now great talk of having docks built, which would be a great boon to this place as I do not see how it can ever be much without something to protect the shipping ... this work should have been done some years ago but from all accounts the Governors who have had the management of the Colony did not take this into consideration. The present Governor, Mr John Hampton, is very unpopular but apparently a new Governor, Sir Frederick Weld, has been appointed, and this is viewed with great satisfaction by Colonists generally.
We have one of the most healthy climates in the world ... The heat of Summer may be oppressive during the day yet generally about 4 o’clock in the afternoon a breeze from the Westward would set in and be very refreshing.
We have also the advantage here of Sea Bathing") which I find is very conducive to health.
The inhabitants of Fremantle are about 2000 in number so you will perceive it is only a small place. There are only one or two gardens of consequence. The ground is so fertile that shrubs and wild bushes grow almost on the beach. The finest gardens are in Perth, which place still has the appearance of a village.
Mention is made in the same letter of the too few vineyards, the fruit and vegetables ‘which grow in abundance’, the plentiful fish (some of which were tinned) and the export of sandalwood and horses to Singapore and Calcutta: ‘for which we get goods in return.’
The letter continues with further descriptions of life in the colony; the possibility of there being gold and the efforts to find it, the sheep industry, the pearling fisheries at Nickol Bay (between present day Burrup and Cape Lambert), particularly the shells ‘which are very large and worth ten pounds a ton ...’
The weight of responsibility for the success of Solomon & Nephews weighed heavily on the shoulders of the senior partner and his letters betray a tension between him and his two young nephews. They, together with Ben, threw themselves enthusiastically into the business of amateur theatricals; performances were staged in the Oddfellows’ Hall in William Street. In company with other young Fremantle identities they frequently received glowing tributes from the correspondent of The Herald. In a town starved of entertainment their talent was acclaimed, except on rare occasions when ‘imported’ offerings stole the limelight. Exotic names such as Lyons Rocky Mountain Wonders, Stebbing’s Inter-colonial Circus and Professor Kohler the Magician then took precedence over the amateurs. Unfortunately Professor Kohler died during his visit to the colony, possibly of typhoid.
Unimpressed by theatrical activities, Elias wrote to his nephews on 13 July 1869: ' ... that you may not be under any misunderstanding with regard to my present dissatisfaction, I will be more explicit. You have taken up time belonging to the firm in Amateur Theatrical matters which, I believe, is acting prejudiciously to the business ... '
We can only guess how this reprimand was received by the young people concerned.
On 8 January 1869, Elias wrote to his sister Rose in Adelaide: ‘... there was nothing to do except a Cricket Match to mark the festive season, no concerts and no amusements of any kind whatsoever.’ He added that he had joined the Masonic Lodge ‘but had little time to attend it.’
The first Royal visitor to the colony, the twenty-three year old Duke of Edinburgh, arrived on 4 February 1869. On 6 February 1869 The Herald reported:
On the evening of Thursday a demonstration was made by the inhabitants of Fremantle in honour of the visit, by three immense bonfires, with a display of blue lights, rockets and other fireworks on what is known as Monument Hill ... As the carriage carrying HRH turned from Cliff Street into High Street, the view was excellent ... almost fairy-like - and the town may be proud of the welcome it gave the son of our Queen.
Elias commented in a letter to his sister Leah in Wellington, New Zealand (28 April 1869) that the public saw little of the Prince, ‘the authorities being afraid of something happening to him’. This was not surprising, as in Sydney the previous March an Irishman, Henry O’Farrell, had attempted to assassinate him. 11
Apart from the Royal visit and the arrival of Governor Weld in October, 1869 was a memorable year for Western Australia. The first telegraph line in the colony had been opened on 27 February between Perth and Fremantle. 12 On 6 August the expedition led by the young John Forrest retumed to Perth after a fruitless search for Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt 13 the explorer who disappeared while attempting to cross the continent from the Darling Downs to Perth. This remains one of the unsolved mysteries of Australian exploration.
These events, even the capture of the co1ony’s most infamous escapee, Moondyne Joe, found ‘after two years of freedom, in Mr Ferguson’s Wine Cellar on the Swan’ 14, no doubt provided interest for the colonists and temporary relief from the prevailing outlook.
Elias, in a letter to his brother Isaac in Adelaide on 13 October 1869, wrote: ‘Business is in a frightful state here - nothing at all doing. Flour is very scarce and is now fetching twenty pounds per ton. If the Emily Smith does not arrive within a week or so, we shall be without any in the place. I hope next month to be able to write less disappointingly.’
A letter written on 9 December 1869 told of the departure of Benjamin Solomon together with his wife and small daughter on the Emily Smith. Conditions had proved too hard for the young couple.
At the beginning of 1870 Solomon & Nephews commenced monthly sales in the stockyards at the rear of the Crown and Thistle Hotel on the comer of Henry and High Streets. They also received authorisation to collect rents and transact all business connected to properties owned by Captain WD Jackson. Jackson was in charge of the penal settlement on Rottnest Island and regularly sent quantities of salt, barley, bran and hay to the mainland on ‘Tapper’s Boat.’ John Tapper charged eight shillings a ton for goods and two shillings and sixpence a head for passengers.
February 1870 was an unusually hot month in Western Australia and the combination of weather and adverse business prospects caused the correspondent of the Fremantle Herald, 10 February 1870 to write: ‘... should another dry season afflict us, absolute ruin would result.’
This prompted a critical letter from Elias to Dr McHendry (15 February 1870):
... The anticipation of gloomy results seem to be by newspapers in general a kind of retreat to which they can run when other matters of importance are flagging. They paint the prospects of the Colony as gloomy as possible which, altho’ at present it may be true, their outlook makes reviewing the situation more difficult ... the times we are experiencing are only the difficulties experienced in a Colony about to rise, almost I might say, from a state of oblivion, not alone internally but forgotten and unthought of beyond our shores. The great mistake made by the Pioneers of the Colony has been in not sufficiently making known the capability of production, fertility of soil and other good qualities, particulars of which I gave you in one of my previous letters.
The same letter touched on the problem of the small population in Western Australia:
... the subject of migration has been woefully neglected. It is only very recently that the Government here have claimed from the English Government the recognition of an agreement made on the introduction of Convicts, which was, that for any Convict sent to this Colony, a free man should emigrate at the expense of the English Government. This has never, as yet, been done, and I do not think it likely now.
And on the subject of prices in the colony:
You ask if Butchers meat is as cheap in our market as quoted by you. It is not. The figures are nearly double. Mutton is from four pence to six pence, and beef six pence. I cannot account for the high price and besides which I do not think the meat here as well flavoured as in South Australia.
A letter to Benjamin Solomon, now of Adelaide, written on 6 March 1870, possibly left Ben with few regrets about his decision to leave Western Australia:
I went to Perth yesterday on business and saw about two people in the streets all day. Regarding Perth, a stranger a short time ago drove past it, and when he came to the Perth Bridge, he asked a workman where the city lay. When told he had passed it, he look’d surprised and thought the man was fooling him.
All was not gloomy. On 15 October 1870 Elias wrote: ‘ ... last week attended a ball given by Mr Samson to celebrate his daughter’s marriage. I enjoyed myself very much.’ The bride, Caroline Samson, married Daniel Henry Scott of Champion Bay. Daniel died four years later. They had no children.
Elias’ correspondence with his mother Leah was a lifeline during his early years in Western Australia. It kept him in touch with his family and his religion. After her death on 14 January 1871 he wrote fewer letters to the family and concentrated increasingly on business matters.
In mid-1871 the business partnership between Elias and his nephews was dissolved due to mounting loss. One of the nephews remained in Fremantle for a short time, the other retumed to Adelaide. Elias decided to stay in Fremantle and wrote to his nephew Samuel on 15 June 1871: ‘I have taken the old Express office in High Street, adjoining the National Bank, at thirty-three pounds per annum and think I can make a living there for the present as an Auctioneer and Commission Agent.’
Gaining and keeping business contacts was of paramount importance. Letters of enquiry concerning likely consignments were sent to friends and business contacts in London, Singapore and the eastern colonies. Clients such as D & J Fowler of Adelaide and Melbourne (who eventually became established in Fremantle) still sent consignments, and to keep them abreast of prices and requirements in the colony, Elias forwarded extensive Market Reports in beautiful copperplate handwriting. His other business dealings were varied: horses to Calcutta, sandalwood for Singapore, imported articles from London and the eastern colonies, cut hay from country districts and barley, bran and flour, mainly from Champion Bay. As from the beginning of 1872 he had been appointed sole agent for the sale of all Rottnest produce, he worked hard to find outlets, especially for salt sent from the island.
An important agency Elias acquired in 1872 was that of the Paterson family of Creaton, Dandalup, who also owned property in Fremantle. 15 Produce from their property included fruit and pork, brought to Fremantle over sandy tracks by bullock wagons, a journey which could take some days. Fruit, especially pears, was sometimes spoiled by the time it arrived.
Auction sales yielded little or nothing. Of the many reported in the letterbook, together with lists of articles auctioned, I will mention only two. An auction in August 1871 raised one pound ten shillings and seven pence, of which one shilling and sixpence was commission. Another, on behalf of a destitute family, was not charged any commission at all.
But of one auction Elias wrote to WG Quayle (12 May 1872), who had moved to Shanghai with his family from Western Australia:
I sold yesterday by Auction the lugger GH Peake for 2225 pounds, with whaling gear and everything on board of her. She was fitted up for whaling if you remember ... Mr Monger purchased her and intends putting cargo in her for Singapore.
Elias made five pounds commission on this auction, a large sum, about which he described himself as being ‘much pleased’. On 9 June 1872 he wrote to Samuel Solomon Jnr in Melbourne that he had taken over the management of ‘... Samson’s Books, so what with my own business and his, I have plenty to do. The Books have got into a frightful state of disorder and I shall have to put them right.’
Auctioneering was also done on behalf of both Lionel and Michael Samson and in June 1872 he was given the management of ‘Samson’s Books ... so with my own business and his, I have plenty to do.’
Business correspondence dated 6 August 1872 is the last item in the letter book. From then on information concerning Elias Solomon has been obtained from family and other sources.
Although he had written on a number of occasions to newly married friends that he was not destined to marry, on 21 July 1877 Elias married Agnes, the second daughter of Wallace Bickley, who had died the previous year. 16 Bickley had first arrived in the colony in 1830 but left five years later to work for the East India Company. He returned to the colony with his family in 1851. A merchant and businessman, he owned land at Geraldton and a property, Kenwick Park, at Cannington where horses were bred, mainly for India. 17 Wallace Bickley had been one of the most insistent advocates for the urgent need to build a protected harbour at Fremantle; he even designed what he called a ‘Harbour Dock’ in 1868, but the scheme was opposed. 18 The matter rested, with some inadequate improvisations, until the arrival of CY O’Connor in 1891. The first mail steamer from London, RMS Himalaya, arrived on 12 September 1900 and received a civic welcome, mainly because the Master, Commander Broun, had come from Fremantle. 19
Agnes Elizabeth Solomon (nee Bickley). Born in India on 1 February 1846 and died in Fremantle on 22 April 1886
Courtesy Coralie Solomon
By the time of his marriage in 1877 Elias was taking an active role in public life; he was a town councillor, and in 1881 was Chairman of the Fremantle Town Council. Among his civic duties was the opening of the railway between Perth and Fremantle on 1 March 1881. Replying to the official welcome, the Governor, Sir William Robinson, said: ‘The weekly visit which I am in the habit of making to your town will be none the less agreeable from the fact that I can now visit you by rail.’ 20
At a meeting of ratepayers in May 1881 Elias Solomon proposed an application for government approval to build a town hall, a subject which had caused controversy for some years. 21 The building was completed in 1887, at a cost of 15 000 pounds of which the government contributed 2000 pounds. As the population of Fremantle was only about 5000 when the building commenced in 1885, the undertaking was one of considerable magnitude.
On 22 April 1886 Agnes Solomon died of what was called in those days ‘lung disease’. She left four young children and one, Samuel, in his memoirs gives a poignant account of her funeral, through the eyes of a small boy.
Elias married his second wife, Elizabeth Stokes, on 1 May 1887. Elizabeth had been born in Fremantle; her father John 22 was an Irish Enrolled Pensioner Guard and Crimea veteran who had been granted land in Fremantle. On 3 December 1898 Elizabeth died while on a voyage to Adelaide with her husband. 23 She had been ill for some time and it had been hoped that the holiday would improve her health. From this marriage there were five children.
Elizabeth Solomon (nee Stokes). Born in Fremantle on 16 September 1868 and died there on 3 December 1898
Courtesy Coralie Solomon
On 28 March 1890 land was granted to Elias Solomon and William Samson for the purpose of a Jewish cemetery in Fremantle; in the same year they were granted a site for a synagogue. Elias laid the memorial tablet on 8 January 1902 24 but the building was only in use a short time as most of the small congregation eventually moved to Perth. It still stands on the comer of Parry Street and South Terrace.
Outbreaks of typhoid were prevalent in Fremantle throughout the 1890s and there was a real need for an adequate hospital. A public lecture given by the Reverend Boas of Adelaide in 1891 25 raised the sum of fifteen pounds towards a hospital; after this a building fund was opened. A government grant of 1500 pounds was approved in 1893 and the hospital, soon to become known as the Fremantle Public Hospital, became a reality in January 1897, at first providing fifty-two beds. 26
As Mayor, Elias condemned the unhealthy sanitary conditions prevailing in Fremantle. The Fremantle Times of 17 March 1896 attributed to him most of the credit for cleaning up ‘the filthy conditions of certain back premises in the town’ and for being ‘mainly responsible for the new by-laws relating to sanitary affairs recently adopted by the Board of Health.’ 27
Described as conscientious and hard-working, Elias Solomon participated in many areas of public life. A town councillor and chairman from 1877-1893, he served as Mayor of Fremantle during 1889-1891, 1896 and 1900-1901. A member of the Legislative Assembly for the South Fremantle constituency 1892-1900, he retired to enter federal politics as first Member for Fremantle in the House of Representatives from 1901 to 1903. He served as a member of the Technical School Board, was chairman of the Fremantle Tramways Board, president of the Fremantle Literary Institute, consular agent for Italy, chairman of the Hospital Board and Cemetery Board and Visiting Justice to the Fremantle and Rottnest prisons.
Historical links with Elias Solomon still exist in Fremantle. At the now busy intersection of Queen Victoria, Parry and Adelaide Streets is the Proclamation Tree planted by the Governor, Sir William Robinson, on 21 October 1890 to commemorate the granting of responsible self-government. ‘The Mayor (E Solomon) requested His Excellency to plant the tree in commemoration of the great boon conferred on the colony.' 28 A plaque on what was the Fremantle Literary Institute in South Terrace bears his name, and Ocean View, the home he built in 1884 at 134 Solomon Street, Beaconsfield, still stands. The Fremantle Markets opened on 17 June 1898 and the West Australian reported that the building ‘... cost about 8000 pounds ... had a wrought iron trussed roof of elegant design ... and there is nothing of its magnitude in a similar building in the colony at the present time.’ The Premier, Sir John Forrest, prefaced the opening ceremony by complimenting the Mayor (E Solomon MLA) upon the many good works that had been advocated and carried out by him, and his contribution towards the advancement of Fremantle during ‘his occupation of the Mayoral Chair.' 29
Elias Solomon died at the age of sixty-nine on 23 May 1909. He was buried in the Jewish section of the Fremantle Cemetery. A lengthy obituary in the West Australian paid tribute to this Fremantle pioneer: ‘... closely identified as the deceased was with the commercial and municipal life of the Port and State since 1868, there was no surprise occasioned by the attendance of a vast concourse of citizens, representative of every section of the community.’ 30
Total involvement and a passionate interest in public affairs had left him with little time for his own business and soon after his death Ocean View, the family home, was sold to defray debts.
Unfortunately there is no one now who can add to the personal reflections of Elias Solomon, written during the years 1868 to 1872. The extracts I have chosen from his letters provide some insight into conditions of the time. Any misgivings or apprehension they portray are dispelled by his sustained optimism in the future of Western Australia, especially Fremantle - a future he had a part in creating.
Presented at the Fremantle Studies Day
28 October 2001
1 Elias Solomon: Letter Book 1868-1872. The letterbook consists of 500 pages of tissue-thin paper, some of which is water damaged and illegible. In possession of the author.
2 Wallace Elias Bickley Solomon (1878-1950), first secretary and honorary solicitor to the Royal Western Australian Historical Society in 1926
3 Maurice Elias Solomon (1888-1977), Fremantle lawyer and Fremantle City Councillor
4 Immigration lists AO NSW Reel No 2134, South Australian Archives, SAA 1312
5 Emanuel Solomon, Business Letter Book, South Australian Archives, SAA 1312
6 Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide. The oldest existing theatre on mainland Australia, which has been restored and used during the Festival of Adelaide
7 The Herald of 20 January 1868 announced that the clipper brig Eliza Blanche (17- tons) had taken only ten days to reach Fremantle from Melboume. After this run the vessel was purchased for 2500 pounds by WS & G Pearse, Q Owston and WD Moore
8 John K Ewers, The Western gateway: a history of Fremantle, 2nd ed, University of Western Australia Press for the City of Fremantle, Nedlands, 1971, p 74
9 Rica Erickson, Dictionary of Western Australians 1829-1914, vol 3, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1979, p 746
10 Elias Solomon in a letter to the Express, 21 January 1870, quotes Ordinance 25, Victoria No 15 Clause 26: ‘That no person will be allowed to bathe in or near to any public wharf, or public place or jetty, in or near any City or Town between the hours of six in the morning and eight in the evening.’
11 B McKinlay, The First Royal Tour, 1867-1868, Rigby, 1970, p 166
12 F K Crowley, Forrest 1847-1918, vol 1, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1971, p 26
13 ibid, p 35
14 The Herald 27 February 1869
15 DL Cummings, ‘Creaton, Pinjarra: historic homesteads’, Western Mail, 6 July 1939
16 Rica Erickson, Dictionary of Western Australians, p 45
17 Horse breeding was important to the colony. On 17 June 1871 the Herald mentioned that Dr Salvado had imported ‘a splendid Arabian stallion from India for the New Norcia Mission. The Mission possesses, perhaps, the best breed of horses in the Colony.’
18 John K Ewers, Western Gateway, p 53
19 ibid, p 98
20 ibid, p 72
21 J K Hitchcock, The History of Fremantle 1829-1929, Fremantle City Council, 1929, p 91
22 Rica Erickson, Dictionary of Western Australians, p 803. Also F Broomhall, The Veterans: History of the Enrolled Pensioners Force in WA 1850-1880. John Stokes bought five acres at a pound an acre in 1867 and added to that in 1885 (S40 and S41)
23 West Australian, 7 December 1898
24 O Silbert, ‘Elias Solomon, a Fremantle pioneer’ in The Maccabean, 13 December 1974
35 John K Ewers, Western Gateway, p 90
36 JH Stubbs, Medical background, being a history of Fremantle hospitals and doctors, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1969, p 11
37 John K Ewers, Western Gateway, p 89
38 Inquirer, 24 October 1890
39 West Australian, 17 June 1898
39 West Australian, 24 May 1909
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