Until the 19th century, the Wirral peninsula had remained a rural backwater noted only in history for its strategic location as the ideal place for foreign invaders to attempt to get a foothold on part of mainland Britain. Following withdrawal of the Roman Empire in 410 A.D., Wirral subsequently became the home for Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 7th century, followed by invasions by Norse Vikings at the end of the 9th century.
At that time, most of what is today the New Ferry area would have been a gently rising hill centred on where the Toll Bar Crossroads (junctions of New Chester Road/Bebington Road/New Ferry Road) is situated today. To the east was the sandy (mud now!) shore of the River Mersey. To the south was a tidal inlet that led to the River Dibbin with a further tidal creek coming off this which led northwards to border the western flank of the New Ferry "hill" (this creek was filled in by the Victorians when Port Sunlight village was constructed, the village school, the church and Lady Lever Art Gallery were all built on the filled ground). The various tidal creeks were surrounded by large areas of flat mashes.
Below is what we think an aerial photo of the area might have looked like around 900 A.D. compared with today. The coloured splots show the positions of New Ferry Park (yellow); Shorefields (blue); Toll Bar Crossroads (red); and Lever Art Gallery (lilac).
Painting of "Vikings Arrive" by Chris Collingwood
Wirral is the only place in mainland Britain with documented evidence of Norwegian Viking settlers. Ancient Irish Chronicles report the first peaceful settlements led by the Norseman Ingimund in 902 A.D. when settlers began clearing some of the woodland to build homesteads and farms. Although no evidence of settlement in the New Ferry area has been found, we know that Tranmere, the next community to the north is a name that dates from the Norse "Trani-melr" meaning "cranebirds' sandbank". Meanwhile, immediately to the south of the River Dibbin is "Brunanburh", the old Norse name for Bromborough, a place that also gives its name to a famous battle fought in the area in 937 A.D.
After invading England in 1066 and subduing Northumbria in 1069/70, William the Conqueror invaded and ravaged Chester, laying waste to much of Wirral. Between 1120-1123, Earl Ranulph le Meschin converted Wirral into a hunting forest where wild deer and boar were allowed to flourish undisturbed. However, 250 years later, after local people complained about the wildness of the area, in 1376, King Edward III ordered the forests be cut down.
Unofficial ferries had been operated by fishermen as a means of earning extra income, from the New Ferry shore, for centuries. Records from the 14th century suggest that a man named Adam del Fere operated a ferry from here.
1764 seems to be the year in which the first “modern” reference to New Ferry is made, although it is a name that is likely to have been in common usage for some time prior to this date. The first occurrence of the name in an official record was in a legal action brought by the owner of the Rock Ferry who, apparently, considered that the entrepreneurial style of the New Ferry’s owners would cut into his potential profits. The name referred solely to the actual ferry itself and did not take in any part of what we today consider to be New Ferry.
Wirral's lack of raw materials and undeveloped transportation network meant that it was ignored by the Industrial Revolution that started elsewhere in the country. Even the presence of Liverpool, one of the biggest and fastest growing cities of the 18th and 19th centuries, only two miles away across the Mersey, had failed to have an effect. At this time, Lower Bebington was one of the bigger of Wirral’s townships with a population of about 300, three times that of Birkenhead. The majority of people lived in the immediate vicinity of St Andrew’s Church and the nearby junction of the Chester and Neston Turnpikes. In what is now New Ferry, just half a dozen houses were situated.
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In 1817, steam powered ferryboats came into service on both the Eastham and Birkenhead ferries. Suddenly, everything began to change. With land on the Cheshire shore of the Mersey far cheaper than in Liverpool, Wirral was ripe for development. Now easily reached by ferry, the shipping magnates and merchants who were keen to escape from the ever-expanding confines of the smoky city of Liverpool were offered an opportunity to escape the consequences of their greed and to live in the clean air and rural peace she offered. Amongst their number were some entrepreneurs: men ready to take advantage of the cheap land and eager to make or increase their fortunes. By 1831, at Birkenhead a whole new town of 2,569 inhabitants had arisen. Following the coming of the Chester to Birkenhead railway and improvements to the Chester turnpike, by 1841 the population had grown to 8,223.
A number of the tranquility-seeking merchants bypassed Birkenhead, travelling further afield to take up residence in other local townships, amongst them Bebington and the New Ferry and Port Sunlight locality which had been an area of rough land, creeks, marsh and fields. In the wake of the merchants came other people:- shopkeepers, tradesmen, servants etc. to service their needs.
Lower Bebington village, clustered around its church and the junction where the important Chester and the cross-Wirral, Neston roads met, began to grow. Once combined, and after having descended the hill to turn northwards to go on to Birkenhead, a lane or track appeared to run eastwards to meet the Mersey. This lane followed the line of today’s Bebington and New Ferry Roads to where the unofficial ferry had operated over the centuries.
In the 19th Century, two Acts of Parliament were to totally change the traditional focus of importance within the township:
Both these important civil engineering projects were completed by 1840. It was these, along with the coming of the steam ferryboat, which gave rise not only to Birkenhead, but also to New Ferry and, at the same time, lessened the traditional importance of places like Lower Bebington village.
Through the early decades of the 19th century the river ferry itself had a somewhat chequered history, at times going out of service. All of this was to change in 1865 when a local man, a sugar refiner from Liverpool named MacFie, built – at his own expense (£10,000) – a new iron pier at New Ferry. It projected into the river from the cobbled car park by The Esplanade, where there was also a hotel (replaced by the Derwent Court residential home in the 1990s) and a row of shops (also replaced in the 1990s by some small modern houses).
From New Ferry pier, two steam ferryboats of the South End Ferry Company connected the growing Wirral settlement with South Liverpool via Harrington Dock. It was from 1865 that the name New Ferry became applied to a specific area bounded on the east and west by the River Mersey and the railway line respectively; to the north the rear of Stanley and Thorburn Roads; and to the south by Bromborough Pool (the mouth of the River Dibbin) - including land where Port Sunlight village would eventually be built from the late 19th century onwards.
The first newcomers to Lower Bebington were a few merchants and businessmen from Liverpool. Later, others came from Birkenhead and elsewhere. In the decade following the coming of the railway and the New Chester Turnpike, the population of Lower Bebington rose from 440 in 1831 to 1,187 in 1841. By 1900 it had reached 8,398. The development of New Ferry followed a pattern: the richer newcomers tended to settle in large houses with extensive gardens well away from the new Toll Bar junction (where tolls were collected from people using the new road). Other, lesser, middle class newcomers settled in smaller, but still large villas, built closer to the centre. Some of these can still be seen in Stanley and Thorburn Roads.
This pattern of development continued to the point where, at the very centre, in the immediate vicinity of the Toll Bar in Woodhead, Olinda and Grove Streets, large numbers of poor quality, small, crowded, terraced houses were built. These were necessary to accommodate the workers who serviced the peripheral screen of larger houses and villas. At the junction, as the population grew, there arose a commercial centre to service the needs of rich and poor alike. In many cases, rather than their being purpose built, earlier, existing residential premises were converted into shops. New Ferry was evolving to develop a natural, commercial centre.
The final factor in the establishment of the New Ferry District Shopping Centre came with the building of two local works. The first came in 1853 when Price’s Patent Candle Company built Bromborough Pool Village. The second and most influential development came in 1888 when William Lever bought land within the bounds of New Ferry and built his soap works and Port Sunlight Village. With its already well established road links, New Ferry grew to serve the needs of an extensive area to the north, south and west. New Ferry also became the terminus for part of Birkenhead’s tram system – the tram shed stood on the site of the current post office.
Throughout the century, the shore at New Ferry was used to break up old ships that were no longer needed. Much of their interior fittings were salvaged for auction or re-use elsewhere; most materials were recycled. The most famous ship to have been dismantled here was the SS Great Eastern, an iron sailing steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. She was the largest ship ever built at the time of her 1858 launch, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refueling. Brunel knew her affectionately as the "Great Babe". He died in 1859 shortly after her ill-fated maiden voyage during which she was damaged by an explosion. After repairs, she plied for several years as a passenger liner between Britain and America, before being converted to a cable-laying ship. Finishing her life as a floating music hall in Liverpool, she was broken up in 1889 on the shore between New Ferry and nearby Rock Ferry. The ship's artefacts were auctioned and a number of these were bought and fitted into the Great Eastern Hotel on New Ferry Road. The bar and beautiful stained glass window depicting the old ship could still be seen inside the pub until recently. Unfortunately, the pub - New Ferry's last iconic building on the eastern side of the bypass - was demolished in 2010.
In the mid 19th century, quarantine ships used to moor in the river off New Ferry, to cater for people with tropical diseases such as cholera, smallpox, chickenpox and leprosy. As a more permanent facility was required, the New Ferry Isolation Hospital was built and opened in 1875. Behind its high brick walls and railings were several wards, a laundry and houses for nurses and doctors. A flight of wooden steps led down the cliffs to the beach where patients were brought by ship – today you can just see the remains of a small stone jetty on the beach, whilst the broken stone pier cap lying upside down on the ground next to a red brick column on the edge of the woods at the end of Starworth Drive is all that remains of the surrounding wall.
To look after the community’s spiritual needs, St Marks Church appeared on New Chester Road in 1866. It is still with us today, but the Wesleyan Methodist Church that was built on the corner of Bebington Road and Boundary Road a few years later was demolished in the 1960s to be replaced with the flat roofed building which eventually housed a furniture store that was destroyed in the New Ferry explosion in 2017. St Johns Roman Catholic Church (beside the former Bebington Liberal Club - now the Vista Business Hub) would not appear until the first few years of the 20th century.
By the 1890s, a regular ferry plied the route between Dingle, New Ferry and Liverpool. New Ferry became something of a holiday resort. Throughout the summer months, boatloads of families came over the water to play on the riverside fields (Shorefields) and take donkey rides on the shore. A marquee was sometimes erected behind the New Ferry Hotel, which – like the four shops opposite it – did a flourishing trade with the trippers.
The New Ferry shoreline at "Shorefields" was originally developed as a pleasure park, with bowling greens and tennis courts centred on the Great Eastern pub, and a park (the first New Ferry Park, since relocated to another site) was constructed behind the New Ferry Hotel (now demolished and replaced with the Derwent Lodge retirement home).
As New Ferry continued to grow, its facilities were gradually updated and improved. The first New Ferry Park by the river was now seen as desirable building land for houses (now Onslow Road), so was moved to where it is today - off Longfellow Drive - previously farmland from where clay for brickmaking had been extracted. The new site was landscaped with a bowling green, tennis courts and a garden for the blind with highly-scented flowers which had Braille name plates next to them. The Park Lodge, New Ferry's only listed building, was installed at the main entrance as a home for the park keeper.
In 1900, the trams to Birkenhead were electrified. Previously having been horse drawn, the stables to keep the horses in overnight were no longer needed and subsequently demolished. They stood behind where Kesh's cafe is today.
In 1906, some cottages on New Ferry Road were demolished to make way for Hope Hall, which remained in use as a church until a few years ago.
New Ferry continued to build on its success as a shopping and leisure destination. The Lyceum Cinema opened at the junction of New Chester Road and Grove Street in 1913.
In 1922, disaster struck New Ferry's tourism industry when a Dutch steamship, enroute to Manchester, got lost in fog and ran through the pier, demolishing two spans and putting an end to the ferry service. Its private owner didn't have the money to repair it - neither did anyone else. The wreckage lay untouched until 1927 when the whole pier was demolished. With no daytrippers coming over from Liverpool, New Ferry's pleasure grounds at Shorefields fell out of use.
In 1926, Grove Street School was built next to the park, replacing the earlier school building in School Lane (now the Ex Civil Defence Club) which had become too small. A police station was also built infront of it (today, this is the Park Lodge Day Nursery). Next to it, where Grove Street Car Park now stands, was the district fire station, demolished many decades ago.
By the 1930s, there was a housing boom. New homes appeared to the south of New Ferry, at Bolton Road East and the surrounding streets. Meanwhile, the Council was building houses on infill sites such as Grove Square, and all over the former pleasure gardens at Shorefields (Shorefields, Merseybank Road, Mayfields, Pollitt Square, Field Close, etc).
As compensation for loss of the gardens, the Council also built an open-air swimming pool – New Ferry Baths – in 1932. The pool closed in 1981, and in 1986 was demolished to make way for the Wimpey housing estate (Shorefields, Scythia Close, Samaria Avenue).
As times changed and people had more money to spend, an enterprising builder constructed a new estate of small terraced cottages at Beaconsfield Road / Poolbank Road / Elmbank Road in the early years of the 20th century. He used bricks that came from the brickworks at Mayfields, a site where clay had been dug from the ground, creating a large pit. When the brickworks closed, the Council used the hole to fill with Wirral's rubbish. The tip site was closed and levelled in the mid 1970s, when residents in Shorefields, Merseybank Road and Graylings Road remember a plague of displaced rats escaping from the tip and running through the streets. Once capped, the tip site was landscaped with the two football pitches that are still on it today.
Adding to the Lyceum Cinema which had stood at the corner of New Chester Road and Grove Street since the early part of the century (the site now occupied by Iceland), the Rialto Cinema was also built on Bebington Road in 1933. At the time, it was the most up-to-date cinema in Wirral and people came from all over Wirral to watch films there. It screened its last film in 1961, and was used for the next 30 years by a variety of clubs until being demolished in 2002 to make way for the new Aldi store. New Ferry also had an exclusive billiards hall built in the 1930s at the top of Beaconsfield Road – today the building is occupied by Andy’s Aquatics.
During World War 2, New Ferry and its shoreline played an important role in the national crisis. The Shorefields overlooking the river were host to an anti-aircraft gun emplacement, defending Liverpool and Birkenhead from attack by German bombers and manned by Poles. Despite this protection however, during the 1941 Blitz, a bomb fell on some of the terraced houses in Egerton Road (those on the north side). The houses, only completed a few years earlier, were destroyed. Garages stood on the site until 2003 when new houses were finally built. Other bombs fell on the villas at the junction of the Dell and Rock Park Road – they were demolished and today there is just a grassy bank leading down to the Esplanade.
Following the war, when the gun emplacements were removed, the barracks were used as a temporary internment camp for German POWs during 1946 and 1947. There was no barbed wire surrounding the "camp", and the prisoners were allowed out during the daytime where they found work on local farms; they simply had to return to the camp each night by the allotted curfew time.
After 1948, the barracks were then used as temporary living accommodation for people who had lost their homes during the blitz. Abandoned by the 1960s, the derelict buildings became an adventure playground for local children until they were eventually demolished in the early 1970s. Today, there is no trace of them on the flat grassy field overlooking the river..
At the bottom end of Bolton Road East, behind the houses in Eccleshall Road, is a large mound (not the tip!). Underneath this is buried one of the fuel storage tanks that was part of the PLUTO system. A pipeline was laid down the length of the country to the south coast during the middle of World War 2, and then on the bottom of the sea bed across the Channel to France to supply fuel to the Allies when they invaded Europe following D-Day. It collected the oil from various storage tanks such as the one at Bromborough Dock, and by autumn 1944 over 100,000 gallons a day were being pumped over to France after D-Day to fuel tanks, armoured cars and other vehicles used by the Allies.
The New Ferry shoreline was also used to construct some of the landing pontoons used for the D-Day landings. These had to be towed around the coast and taken across the Channel as part of the invasion.
American servicemen were billeted with local families in New Ferry; anyone who had a spare bedroom offered it to our Allied personnel.
New Ferry Park still has its public air-raid shelters – although they are buried under the grass mounds next to the playground! They were needed, as several bombs fell on New Ferry - a row of terraced properties in Egerton Road were destroyed, and the flats at the end of Winstanley Road were burned out by incendiaries.
In the 1950s, rising car ownership saw New Ferry becoming a traffic bottleneck. The New Ferry bypass opened in 1960, starting at the Bolton Road junction but terminating at Thorburn Close where a roundabout was constructed. The bypass was extended to the Tranmere roundabout in 1976, after many of the decaying Rock Park villas had been purchased and sadly demolished. The Thorburn Close junction roundabout was removed and replaced with the underpass.
By the 1960s, the isolation hospital had closed down. Fearful of catching any of the diseases once treated there, contractors refused to demolish the complex – so, in 1963, the local fire department burnt the hospital to the ground. The site also disappeared under the second phase of Wimpey homes in the early 1990s (Scotia Avenue, Oakworth Drive, Ortega Close, Alvega Close).
In the 1970s, highway engineers recommended that so much traffic was still using New Chester Road that it should be widened to a dual carriageway. All the buildings on the eastern side of the road between Earl Street and Bolton Road East would have been demolished, whilst the pavement outside St Marks Church would have been moved right up to the door of the church. Fortunately, the Council rejected the proposal.
The former bus depot was demolished in the early 1980s to be replaced by the new Post Office. The bus depot moved closer to Birkenhead, further down New Chester Road towards Rock Ferry.
Like many parts of the North, the New Ferry area suffered with the country's recession and the indifference of national government. Unemployment rose and parts of the community began to experience increasing levels of deprivation. Council cuts saw the closure of the New Ferry Swimming Baths in 1981. House prices began to fall and, by the end of the decade, New Ferry was not considered a desirable place to move to. Wimpey Homes bought the site of the former New Ferry Swimming Baths and the adjacent empty site where the former Isolation Hospital once stood for a housing development. By 1987, the first phase of houses completed on the swimming pool site were hardly selling, forcing Wimpey to put phase 2 of the scheme on hold. They had to wait until the early 1990s to complete the development when the local housing market started to recover.
The largest and most significant blow to New Ferry's district centre came with the development of the Croft Retail Park down the road in Bromborough. Featuring a large Asda store which enticed shoppers away, New Ferry's shops began the spiral of decline.
1989 saw the first proposals to turn Bromborough Dock and the silting ponds next to them (which sat against New Ferry's shoreline) into a landfill site. Fearing years of wagons of rubbish, smells and flies, and further falling house values as a result, local residents banded together to fight the application. The Council actually agreed with them and turned down the proposal, but the decision was overturned by the government, and New Ferry and Bromborough Pool residents were going to have to live with the landfill site for the next 15 years.
Bebington Road was pedestrianised in 1991 as part of a development deal when Kwik Save constructed a purpose-built new store on New Chester Road. It was the first major development New Ferry had seen in decades, and would prove to be its last for several decades to come. Unfortunately, at the same time, the Nat West Bank decided to quit, leaving New Ferry with just two banks - HSBC and Lloyds TSB; the Nat West building would lay empty for over a decade until Shillings bar opened inside it.
Annoyed that other parts of Wirral (Birkenhead, New Brighton, Wallasey, Tranmere) always seemed to see the lion's share of national government, European and local government funding - and that New Ferry ALWAYS seemed to get nothing - a group of residents and local businesses formed the New Ferry Regeneration Action Group in 1999. They wrote an Action Plan based on surveys of residents and businesses; that plan contained a list of ideas and projects which the community wanted to see. The plan was adopted by the Council, and over the next 20 years, many of the ideas in the plan were actually put into action or built, including:-
New Ferry District Centre's decline began to gather pace. The Job Centre quit in 2001 when the government moved it down the road to Bromborough. One of the first major retailing casualties was the loss of Woolworths after the company was destroyed by the 2008 credit crunch (Heron Foods moved into the building). Kwik Save became Somerfields, and HSBC Bank also quit in 2008 (now occupied by Money Matters). A few years later, Connexions (who provided careers advice for young people) also quit.
It wasn't all doom and gloom. New kid on the national food retailing block, Aldi, built a new store and car park just out of the district centre on the site of the former Rialto Cinema in 2004. In 2008, Wetherspoons opened a new pub restaurant which has become one of New Ferry's most popular daytime and evening attractions, and Heron Foods moved into the vacant Woolworths building in 2009. Co-op took over the former Kwik Save building from Somerfields.
As house prices rocketed elsewhere during the late 1990s and early 2000s, New Ferry's stock of small and modest sized homes became and remain much sought after by first-time buyers. Between 2000 and 2002, Beazer Homes redeveloped a site of former (and very unpopular) Council maisonettes at Longfellow Drive with a mixture of three and four bedroomed semis and detached homes that overlook New Ferry Park in a very traditional "village green" style. In 2007, the former Travellers Rest pub on New Ferry Road was converted into a row of terraced houses, whilst in 2008 the site of another pub (The Little House) and builder's yard on New Chester Road was redeveloped as a block of stylish apartments which also look out over New Ferry Park to the rear.
Boosting New Ferry's tourist potential, in 2002, the beach was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), giving it protected status. It is also part of the Mersey Estuary Special Protection Area for birds (a European designation showing international value). Throughout the winter, the New Ferry shore supports numerous waders and wildfowl, feeding at low tide on the many invertebrates in the mud. There are nationally important numbers of pintail (a type of duck) and black-tailed godwits (waders) as well as many redshank, shelduck, ringed plover, knot, dunlin and turnstone. Obviously, the site is very popular with bird-watchers.
Tipping operations at the landfill site came to an abrupt end in 2006. Biffa, the operators, had applied to the Council to extend the height of the landfill to get more rubbish into it, but soon afterwards it was discovered that the increased weight of the rubbish mountain was putting pressure on the oil pipeline which ran inside the river wall between Tranmere and Stanlow. Amidst fears of an ecological disaster for the Mersey estuary if the pipeline buckled under any increased pressure and spewed oil into the river, the decision was taken to close the landfill site immediately. It would then have to wait 8 years until the site would finally be landscaped and opened as Port Sunlight River Park.
In the summer of 2006, New Ferry Regeneration Action Group (now renamed New Ferry Residents Association) ran the first New Ferry Festival in New Ferry Park. This first event featured displays of World War 2 re-enactors and included a full scale battle for visitors to watch. In 2007 the event featured a Viking Living History Camp, whilst the 2008 event focussed on young people performing on a large temporary stage. The event has been run for most years since that time, either in the park or in the precinct - the 2020 event having to be cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
New Ferry's district centre continued to see its spiral of decline worsen. The Citizen's Advice Bureau closed in 2012, as did Rightway DIY. Co-op, who had moved into the former Somerfield/Kwik Save store quit in 2016, at the same time as Ethel Austins in the precinct and New Ferry's last bank, Lloyds TSB, despite a desperate campaign by residents and local politicians. Plans to close the Post Office were averted when the franchise was offered to a local business who took the building over.
By far the largest blow to New Ferry's fortunes came when Pascal Blasio blew up his furniture store "Homes in Style" (the former Connexions building) on the evening of Saturday 25th March 2017 in order to submit a false insurance claim. The deliberate gas explosion obliterated not only the entire block of buildings in which the store sat, but also took out many other shops and homes and injuring over 90 people. Over 100 buildings received varying degrees of damage, with a further 10 buildings having to be demolished including the popular Lan's House Chinese restaurant where most of the casualties on the night had been dining. The entire precinct was out of action for several months, businesses forced to close and not offered any compensation whatsoever by national government despite the disaster featuring on the national (and later international) news. Wirral Borough Council belatedly paid victims of the explosion £1,200 each in late 2019 when a scrutiny report was published which criticised some failures the authority had made in its subsequent handling of the disaster. Several residents (of damaged homes in Port Sunlight Village) had to stay in alternative accommodation for two years while their homes were repaired. In February 2022, Wirral Borough Council announced the Regenda Group will be its development partner who will replace the destroyed buildings with a mix of replacement shops and homes. Find out more about the New Ferry explosion and its aftermath at www.newferryexplosion.com.
The effect of the explosion has continued to the present day, with several of the businesses in the precinct which survived the explosion having since closed down. Losing so many shops at once in the disaster, including the much-loved Griffiths Meat and Pie Shop, and Lan's House Chinese Restaurant saw footfall (already depressed by years of neglect by absentee owners and increasing vacancy) collapse by 90%. Despite this, footfall along New Chester Road has recovered and several new niche businesses not dependent on internet sales have arrived in recent years.
In November 2018, a group of residents and business people formed the New Ferry Community Land Trust with the aim of acquiring empty properties to refurbish them and rent them out for a mix of flats and commercial uses; the rental income to be reinvested in local community projects including environmental improvements in New Ferry, pop-up markets, christmas lights and the festival to attract visitors back into New Ferry. The organisation received an unexpected early boost when it was put forward by Wirral Borough Council to be the recipient of a £500,000 grant from the Office of the Combined Regional Authority to support its goal of acquiring properties for the benefit of the community. Wirral Council's funding bid was approved by Metro Mayor Steve Rotherham in January 2020 and the Council secured the funds to its own account to pay for the works organised by the Trust. New Ferry Community Land Trust's first building project will complete in Summer 2022.
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