A tragic fatality: the deaths of May and Amy Atcherley

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The high rates of infant mortality in days gone by mean that most if not all family trees include a great number of children who died when they were very young. Many premature deaths were the result of infections or diseases which were poorly understood and which could neither be prevented nor cured effectively. Other young lives were cut short by tragic accidents – like the one which befell May and Amy Atcherley on 21 June 1896.

Over the course of two decades, from 1890 to 1909, Elizabeth Jane Atcherley (nee Poynter) of New Swindon, Wiltshire bore her husband George thirteen children – eight of whom died during Elizabeth’s lifetime. Her very first child, named George after his father, died within months of his birth, and her last, Sidney Edward, fared little better, his young life ending in 1910. Child number 5, Rose, met a similar fate in 1895. George William, born the following year, survived his childhood but passed away in 1914 at the age of 17. Daughters Amy Beatrice, born 1898, and Violet, born 1906, lived longer and both married, but Violet died in 1934 along with her baby daughter Elizabeth Chambers and Amy Beatrice followed in 1934, leaving her husband Arthur James Burnett with three young children.

All of these deaths would have been keenly felt by George and Elizabeth Jane Atcherley, but while the circumstances in which they occurred are unknown to me, I suspect that the most painful loss was that which I have yet to describe. May and Amy Atcherley were twins who, having been born together, both lost their lives within the space of 14 hours, aged just one year and eleven months.

The story of May and Amy’s deaths was told in the depositions of family members, a neighbour and a doctor, at an inquest held at The Ship Hotel in New Swindon (pictured below in 1902) on the afternoon of Tuesday 23 June 1896. In charge of the proceedings was the Deputy Coroner Mr A Barns (probably Amos Barnes, a Swindon solicitor). The foreman of the jury was Mr H Green and, as was then customary, the bodies of the deceased were on view.

May and Amy Atcherley, who were described as being very strong and healthy, and well nourished, had lived with their parents and their older sister Ada Elizabeth at 106 Dean Street, New Swindon. Their father George Atcherley worked at the Great Western Railway locomotive works. Although there is no record of it being mentioned at the inquest, the girls’ mother was at that time pregnant with her sixth child (the above-mentioned George William). The evidence she gave was reported by the Swindon Advertiser as follows:

She said her name was Elizabeth Atcherley, and she was the mother of the twin children, whose bodies the jury had seen. On Sunday morning she washed and dressed the little ones and sent them out to play about a quarter to ten. A short time afterward she heard screams, and on going to the front of the house she discovered one of the children, May, in flames. She ran to the kitchen and fetched a towel, and when she returned May had ran to her sister Amy, whose clothes also became ignited. She extinguished the flames on one child, and then fainted away, receiving injuries to her right hand from the burns. She could only account for the children’s clothes setting on fire by their igniting a box of matches, which she saw burning in the passage. She thought one of the children must have taken the box of matches off the kitchen table. She had never seen them playing with matches before. The lives of the twins were insured.

Because of the burns to her hand, Elizabeth was too ill to attend the Ship Hotel so the above evidence was taken at her home. Afterwards, the jury returned to the Hotel to hear evidence from the other witnesses. One of those witnesses was a neighbour, Mrs Thomas. The Swindon Advertiser reported:

Mrs Ada Thomas, wife of Rees Thomas, of 46, Dean-street, opposite Mr Atcherley’s, said she was outside her front door on Sunday morning, when she heard a scream. She went to Mr Atcherley’s and discovered two children in flames; one was near the gate and the other in the passage. She did not know the two little ones apart from each other. Mrs Atcherley was trying to extinguish the flames on one child, and witness wrapped an apron and a shawl around the other. Witness did not see a box of matches burning, but she saw some loose matches on the floor. The children’s clothes were burnt off. One child cried very much but the other did not.

A Dr Walters had attended to the children around midday on the Sunday. He found that both May and Amy were extensively burnt, mainly on their backs, arms and legs, and one more than the other on her face. They were also suffering from severe shock. He thought at the time that Amy might recover. He saw the children twice on Monday 22 June. May Atcherley died on Monday evening about 6 pm, and Amy expired on Tuesday morning about 8 am. Both children had suffered from convulsions. Everything possible had been done for the girls, but shock and the extent of their burns proved fatal.

The final witness was May and Amy’s grandmother, Elizabeth Atcherley (nee Weeks) of 43 Albion Street, who with her late husband Edward Richard Atcherley was the progenitor of the Atcherleys of Swindon. She had been called to her son’s home in Dean Street at about 10 am on the Sunday morning, and arrived to find a doctor was dressing May and Amy’s wounds. She remained in the house, doing all she could for the girls, until their deaths.

In summing up the evidence which the jury had heard, the Coroner said that it appeared the girls’ deaths had been purely an accident. He commended Mrs Thomas for courage she had displayed in coming to the aid of the Atcherleys, and for doing this so quickly.

The jury agreed with the Coroner and expressed their sympathy to George and Elizabeth Atcherley. They returned a verdict of “accidental death from burns.”

It is impossible not to feel for Elizabeth Jane and George Atcherley, who saw so many of their children snatched away from them. Their surviving sons and daughters, and the grandchildren and great grandchildren who followed them, must in consequence have been all the more precious.

The great improvements made in the field of public health (and safety in the home) over the last century mean that today, the loss of a child – at least in in developed nations – is the exception rather than the norm. There is still work to be done however. Child mortality remains unacceptably high in many developing countries. Armed conflict is robbing too many families of their children (and is also depriving children of their parents). Then there are inherited genetic disorders which advances in modern healthcare have yet to beat. As you think about the children needlessly lost a hundred or more years ago,  please spare a moment to lend your support to one of the many charities working to improve and save the lives of the children of today.

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Picture credits. Westcott Place, The Ship Hotel 1902: Original image from Swindon Viewpoint website, copyright © Viewpoint Community Media and used with permission (email dated 14 Aug 2014). Match: from Pixabay website, public domain image.


[1] Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle, Saturday 27 Jun 1896, page 4. “Burning Fatality : The Result of Playing with Matches.” Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[2] Birth of George Atcherley registered at Highworth, September quarter 1890; volume 5a, page 24.
[3] Death of George Atcherley registered at Highworth, December quarter 1890; volume 5a, page 9; age given as 0.
[4] Birth of Sidney Edward “Atacherley or Atackerley” registered at Swindon, December quarter 1909; volume 5a, page 14.
[5] Death of Sidney E Atcherley registered at Swindon, December quarter 1910; volume 5a, page 17; age given as 1.
[6] Birth of Rose Atcherley registered at Highworth, September quarter 1895; volume 5a, page 37.
[7] Death of Rose Atcherley registered at Highworth, December quarter 1895; volume 5a, page 12; age given as 0.
[8] Birth of George William Atcherley registered at Highworth, December quarter 1896; volume 5a, page 13.
[9] Death of George W Atcherley registered at Swindon, June quarter 1914; volume 5a, page 29; age given as 17.
[10] Birth of Amy Beatrice Atcherley registered at Swindon, September quarter 1899; volume 5a, page 32.
[11] Marriage of Arthur J Burnett and Amy B Atcherley registered at Swindon, March quarter 1923; volume 5a, page 29.
[12] Death of Amy B Burnett registered at Swindon, March quarter 1943; volume 5a, page 29; age given as 43.
[13] Birth of Violet Atcherley registered at Swindon, June quarter 1906; volume 5a, page 49.
[14] Marriage of William G Chambers and Violet Atcherley registered at Swindon, September quarter 1929; volume 5a, page 91.
[15] Birth of Elizabeth Chambers registered at Swindon, June quarter 1934; volume 5a, page 31; mother’s maiden name “Atcherlsy”.
[16] Death of Elizabeth Chambers registered at Swindon, June quarter 1934; volume 5a, page 23; age given as 0.
[17] Death of Violet Chambers registered at Swindon, June quarter 1934; volume 5a, page 25; age given as 27.
[18] Birth of Amy and May Atcherley registered at Highworth, September quarter 1894; volume 5a, page 32.
[19] Deaths of Amy and May Atcherley registered at Highworth, June quarter 1896; volume 5a, page 17.

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The six sons of Sarah Atcherley

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Following Sarah Atcherley’s life through her appearances in census records reveals a story which is fairly typical for a girl born into a family of farm labourers in the mid-1800s. After leaving school she went into service, later met and married a young man who worked as a servant in the same household,  and with her husband had four children.  But this is not Sarah’s full story, for the evidence indicates that in the years before her marriage Sarah had two other sons, both born out of wedlock.

Sarah Atcherley was born in the village of Admaston, which lies within the Shropshire parish of Wrockwardine and very close to the town of Wellington. The third child, and first daughter, of Thomas and Jane, she was baptised at the parish church (pictured below) on 26 March 1854. Her birth was registered in the second quarter of that year.

Seven years later the 1861 census recorded Sarah with her parents, siblings and her maternal grandmother Sarah Hussey, most likely still at Admaston, but certainly in Wrockwardine parish (the enumerator did not specify their address). Within six years of this census being taken however, in February 1867, Sarah’s father Thomas Atcherley died, probably at Eyton where he was buried. By 1871 Sarah’s mother, grandmother and four youngest brothers and sisters were living at the tiny hamlet of Tiddicross, to the west of Wrockwardine village.  Sarah meanwhile was living some nine miles away in Eaton upon Tern, where she was employed as a nurse by farmer John Heatley, whose wife Emma had a one-year-old baby. Within the space of less than three years, Sarah would find herself even further away from home – and with a child of her own.

On 22 February 1874 Arthur, son of Sarah Atcherley, was baptised at the church of St Michael in Ashton under Lyne, Lancashire. He had been born a little over three weeks earlier on 30 January. Neither the baptism register nor register of births named Arthur’s father. Sarah probably returned with Arthur to her native county later in 1874. Unmarried and almost certainly out of work, Sarah was in no position to bring her son up unaided and it is unlikely that her widowed mother was able to help. How was Arthur to be cared for?

The answer found by (or forced upon) Sarah is revealed by the 1881 census. This shows Arthur Atcherley living at 18 Barker Street in Shrewsbury as the adopted son of Irish labourer Thomas Burgess and his Shropshire-born wife Susan. Arthur’s age was given as 6 (he was actually 7) and his birthplace as Shrewsbury. Ten years later Arthur had taken the surname of his adoptive parents and was still living in Shrewsbury, with the widowed Susan Burgess. He married Louisa Connolley at Oswestry in 1900, where he established a business as a fishmonger. It seems unlikely that Sarah Atcherley, his biological mother, kept in contact.

A little over two years after Arthur’s birth Sarah was living in Camberwell, Surrey and was once again a single parent. The register of births for the Camberwell registration district in 1876 includes an entry for Albert, whose mother was Sarah Atcherley, a laundry maid of 69 Marlborough Road, off Old Kent Road. Albert was born at his mother’s abode on 29 July. As with the record of Arthur Atcherley’s birth, no father was named. (See extract below; click on the image to view a larger extract at Flickr.)

Albert Atcherley’s life was a short one. After suffering from “Spasm of Glottis” for four days, he died in the house where he was born, aged just 8 months, on 22 Feb 1877. He had been teething for three months and because this was regarded at that time as a cause of disease and death, “dentition” was also recorded as contributing to Albert’s demise. Although Albert was described as “Son of Sarah Atcherley A Domestic Servant” it was not Sarah who registered his death. The duty fell to another resident of 69 Marlborough Road, Eva J Branton, who was present when Albert died.  This begs questions which I doubt we can answer with any certainty. Was Sarah Atcherley present at her son’s death? Was she even still in Camberwell?

The censuses taken on either side of Albert’s birth and death (those of 1871 and 1881) show that 69 Marlborough Road in Camberwell was occupied by Charlotte Branton, a widow. In 1871 her occupation was recorded as ‘nurse’ and shared her home with three nurse children, aged 5, 3 and 1, in addition to a boarder, a lodger, a general domestic servant and two of her own sons. Her son William married Eva Julia Lane in 1876 – evidently the Eva J Branton who registered Albert Atcherley’s death the following year. By 1881 William and Eva had gone, but William’s brother Frederick was still at home with his mother (now described as a housekeeper), two lodgers, another brother named Archie, and three youngsters described as nephews – one of whom, Willie Wilcock, age 12, was clearly the 1-year-old nurse child Willie Wilcox who appeared on the 1871 census.

My reading of the facts relating to this unusual household is that Sarah Atcherley was more than likely lodging in the Branton household at the time of Albert’s birth with the intention of giving her son to Charlotte, so that Charlotte could nurse and rear him. This sounds, on the face of it, rather callous, but Sarah had (once again) found herself in a very difficult situation and I believe she tried to do the best for her unplanned child. We can only imagine how she felt, at the age of 23, after giving birth to two children and losing them both. Perhaps these events spurred her to move a long way from the places which had brought her so much unhappiness. Whatever the motivation for her long-distance relocation, she managed to secure work and accommodation at Crosswood near Aberystwyth in Cardiganshire, Wales (pictured below), the home of the Right Honourable Ernest Augustus Mallet Vaughan, fifth Earl of Lisburne.

The romantic in me likes to know how, where and when the couples in my family trees met, so I was pleased when I found Sarah Atcherley, a servant, and her husband-to-be David Parry, a groom, both living and working at Crosswood (the Anglicised name for Trawscoed, or Trawsgoed) in the parish of Llanafan, on the 1881 census. The pair were wed the following year, on 1 March 1882, at the parish church of St Afan (pictured below).

Sarah and David had in fact known each other for nearly four years at the time of their marriage, for their names appear in a report printed in the Cambrian News of 19 July 1878, as two of the servants who presented the newlywed Countess Lisburne with a gold locket on her arrival at Crosswood. It appears that after her previous misadventures, Sarah took her time before getting involved with another man!

David and Sarah’s first child, named David after his father, was born at Crosswood in 1884, and their second, Thomas, followed in 1886. Both of these children appeared with Sarah on the 1891 census, when the family was living at Llwynderw in the parish of Llanilar, Cardiganshire. The head of the household, David Parry senior, was not at home on census night. Most likely he was away in the course of business, as I suspect that he was by this time a coachman, the occupation recorded for him when his son Henry Morgan Parry was baptised on 24 May 1896. The family’s abode was by this time Northgate Street in Aberystwyth, which is almost certainly where Henry had been born, on 9 January that year.

David Parry’s work as a coachman, which in 1896 he was performing for the Lion Hotel in Aberystwyth, was not without danger. On the evening of 10 August that year, as he was driving his coach round a curve in the road, it collided with a smaller wagon. David and his three passengers were all thrown out, but fortunately two of the four were unhurt, and the other two – including David – suffered only minor injuries. Both coach and wagon were badly damaged. This accident does not appear to have affected David’s career as a coachman, as he was still in that occupation in 1901.

The 1901 census shows the Parry family at 28 Northgate Street in Aberystwyth, a street they remained in until at least 1904, when David Parry senior died there on 15 May at the age of 51. Notices of his death described him as an ostler. At some point after this, Sarah and at least two of her sons moved again, this time much further afield. The 1911 census records Sarah, by then aged 57, with Thomas and Henry Morgan Parry, at Ynyshir in the Rhondda Valley of Glamorganshire. Young Henry was a grocer’s apprentice, but Thomas was a coal miner, as were the two boarders living in the Parry household.

Another fact recorded by the 1911 census is that Sarah had borne her husband David four children, one of whom had died. I suspect that this was the Richard William Parry whose birth was registered at Aberystwyth in 1892, and whose death was registered there less than a year later. Following the fortunes of Sarah and her surviving Parry sons after 1911 has not been easy, their surname being rather more frequent than Atcherley. The only post-1911 record I have found which definitely relates is, sadly, that of the death of Sarah’s youngest son, Henry Morgan Parry. A Private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Henry died in Belgium on 22 February 1919.

Of course, Parry was not the only surname to be carried by Sarah’s sons. Her first-born, Arthur, was given the surname Burgess by his adoptive parents. I don’t know where or when Sarah Parry, nee Atcherley, passed away, nor have found out what happened to her remaining sons David and Thomas. But I do know something that Sarah herself almost certainly did not, something that I hope would have pleased her if she had known: Through her son Arthur, she had four granddaughters, and at least four great grandchildren.

Footnote: It is just possible that the Sarah Atcherley named in the records relating to the births and baptisms of Arthur and Albert Atcherley (and the death of Albert) was the second cousin once removed of the subject of this story. However the other Sarah, born in 1853 and baptised at Eyton, a daughter of Henry Atcherley, was part of a more settled family and I have found no evidence to suggest she ever left Shropshire. Given that the marriage banns of George Pye and Sarah, daughter of Henry Atcherley, were being read in Kinnersley, Shropshire from 17 September 1876 and were followed soon after by that couple’s wedding I think there can be little doubt that Sarah, daughter of Thomas Atcherley, was the mother of Albert Atcherley, born 29 July that year. This, to me, makes the same Sarah ‘prime suspect’ when considering which of the two was Arthur’s mother.

Picture credits.Wrockwardine parish church, St Peter’s: © Copyright Tony Smith, taken from Geograph and adapted, re-used and made available for further re-use under a Creative Commons licence. Extract from GRO birth certificate for Albert Atcherley: Image posted in compliance with General Register Office copyright guidance. Trawscoed (Crosswood): from page 129 of Annals and Antiquities of the Counties and County Families of Wales, volume I, 1859; out of copyright. Parish Church of Llanafan & Trawsgoed: by John Ball, taken from his website Images of Wales, modified, and used under the terms set out on John’s website.


[1] Wrockwardine, Shropshire, baptism register covering 1854. Entry for Sarah Atcherley. Copies viewed at Shropshire Archives and Findmypast. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch C00662-2, Film 503831.
[2] Birth of Sarah Atcherley registered at Wellington, June quarter 1854; volume 6a, page 736.
[3] 1861 census of England and Wales. Piece 1899, folio 123, page 8.
[4] Death of Thomas Atcherley registered at Wellington, Shropshire, March quarter 1867; volume 6a, page 579; age given as 50.
[5] Eyton, Shropshire burial register covering 1867, entry for Thomas Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[6] 1871 census of England and Wales. Piece 2808, folio 123, page 14.
[7] 1871 census of England and Wales. Piece 2803, folio 26, page 3.
[8] FamilySearch shows Arthur, born 30 Jan 1874, mother Sarah Atcherley, baptised 22 Feb 1874. Batch C17108-3, Film 1538437.
[9] Ancestry (England & Wales Christening Records, 1530-1906) shows baptism of Arthur as above (based on FamilySearch record) but also gives date of birth.
[10] Personal communication from Barbara Lang, relaying information from Irene Jenks that Arthur Atcherley’s birth certificate did not name a father.
[11] 1881 census of England and Wales. Piece 2653, folio 81, page 14.
[12] 1891 census of England and Wales. Piece 2109, folio 110, page 8. 21 Soho Terrace, Shrewsbury, Shropshire. Head: Susan Burgess, widow, 54, charwoman, born Whitingslow [= Wistanstow]. Son: Arthur Burgess, 16, timberyard labourer, born Shineton.
[13] 1901 census of England and Wales. Piece 2545, folio 65, page 25. 2 Hurdsman Street, Oswestry, Shropshire. Head: Arthur Burgess, 28, fishmonger, born Shrewsbury. Wife: Louisa Burgess, 32, born Oswestry. Dau: Elsie M Burgess, 7 months, born Oswestry.
[14] Birth of Albert Atcherley registered at Camberwell, September quarter 1876; volume 1d, page 822. GRO copy of entry in register of births held.
[15] Death of Albert Atcherley registered at Camberwell, March quarter 1877; volume 1d, page 530; age given as 0. GRO copy of entry in register of deaths held.
[16] Sonja Hunter (2013), Rethinking “Teething” Deaths. At Bushwhacking Genealogy: Kalamazoo and Beyond (website), accessed 16 Aug 2014).
[17] 1871 census of England and Wales. Piece 740, folio 120, page 40. 69 Marlborough Road, Camberwell, Surrey, England. Head: Charlotte Branton, widow, 46, nurse, born Harrow, Middlesex. Son: Frederick Branton, 17, cooper, born Camberwell. Son: William Branton, 14, brush maker, born Camberwell. Plus three nurse children (Lottie Ockney, 5; Walter A Mahon, 3; Willie Wilcox, 1), a general domestic servant, a boarder and a lodger.
[18] Marriage of Frederick George Branton and Eva Julia Lane registered at Gravesend, September quarter 1876; volume 2a, page 635.
[19] 1881 census of England and Wales. Piece 700, folio 18, page 34. 69 Marlborough Road, Camberwell, Surrey, England. Head: Charlotte Branton, widow, 56, housekeeper, born Harrow, Middlesex. Son: William Branton, 24, brush maker, born Camberwell. Son: Archie Branton, 14, scholar, born Camberwell. Nephew: Willie Wilcock, 12, scholar, born Camberwell. Nephew: Frderick Perkins, 3, scholar, born Camberwell. Nephew: Bertie Morris, 4, scholar, born Camberwell. Plus two lodgers.
[20] 1881 census of England and Wales. Piece 5449, folio 5, page 4.
[21] Earl of Lisburne. At Wikipedia (website), accessed 16 Aug 2014).
[22] Marriage of David Parry and Sarah Atcherley registered at Aberystwyth, March quarter 1882; volume 11b, page 60. GRO copy of entry in marriage register held.
[23] Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, 19 Jul 1878, page 5. Copy viewed at Welsh Newspapers Online.
[24] Birth of David Parry registered at Aberystwyth, June quarter 1884; volume 11b, page 55.
[25] Birth of Thomas Parry registered at Aberystwyth, December quarter 1886; volume 11b, page 52.
[26] 1891 census of England and Wales. Piece 4557, folio 14, page 2. Llwynderw, Llanilar, Cardiganshire, Wales. Wife: Sarah Parry, married, 37, born Wrockwardine, Shropshire. Son: David Parry, 7, born Llanilar. Son: Thomas Parry, 4, born Llanilar. Note: Head of household not present.
[27] Holy Trinity, Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire baptism register covering 1896. Entry for Henry Morgan Parry. Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[28] Montgomery County Times and Shropshire and Mid-Wales Advertiser, 14 Nov 1896, page 2. Copy viewed at Welsh Newspapers Online.
[29] 1901 census of England and Wales. Piece 5153, folio 90, page 7. 28 Northgate Street, Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire, Wales. Head: David Parry, 49, coachman, born Crosswood. Wife: Sarah Parry, 47, born Wellington, Shropshire. Son: David Parry, 17, grocer’s assistant, born Crosswood. Son: Thomas Parry, 14, grocer’s assistant, born Crosswood. Son: Henry Parry, 5, born Aberystwyth.
[30] Aberystwyth Observer, 19 May 1904, page 2. Copy viewed at Welsh Newspapers Online.
[31] Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, 20 May 1904, page 8. Copy viewed at Welsh Newspapers Online.
[32] Death of David Parry registered at Aberystwith, June quarter 1904; volume 11b, page 45; age given as 51.
[33] 1911 census of England and Wales. Piece 32386, schedule 17. 12 Ynyshir Road, Ynyshir, Ystradyfodwg, Glamorganshire, Wales. Head: Sarah Parry, 57, widow [crossed out: married 29 years, 4 children, 3 living], born Wellington, Shropshire. Son: Thomas Parry, 24, single, coal miner (hewer), born Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire. Son: Henry Morgan Parry, 15, single, grocer’s apprentice, born Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire. Boarder: Denis Curtin, 23, single, coal miner (labourer, below ground), born Rockchapel, Cork. Boarder: Joseph Curtin, 24, single, coal miner (repairer, below ground), born Rockchapel, Cork.
[34] Parry, H M. At Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, accessed 16 Aug 2014.
[35] Kinnersley, Shropshire Banns register shows Banns of Marriage between George Pye Bachelor and Sarah Atcherley, both of the parish, were read on 17 Sep, 24 Sep and 1 Oct 1876. Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[36] Marriage of George Pye and Sarah Atcherley registered at Wellington, Shropshire, December quarter 1876; volume 6a, page 1521.

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