E pur si muove, tre

Water levels were 16 feet higher in the flood of 1935 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D. In the context of climate change, is what we are seeing in Houston a new level of disaster which is becoming more common? The flood disaster unfolding in Houston is certainly very unusual. But so are other natural […]

via Why Houston Flooding Isn’t a Sign of Climate Change — Watts Up With That?

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Medals count for little in class warfare

It’s the same the whole world over… it’s the poor what gets the blame

the police magistrate


George Walters was a hero of the Crimean War. At Inkerman on 5 November 1857 his quick thinking and bravery saved the life of an officer in the heat of battle. Sadly although he carried the Brigadier General to safety he later died of his wounds in the military hospital at Scutari. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry and later left the army (and his home town of Newport Pagnell) to start a new career with the Metropolitan Police.

His mini biographer (in the link above) noted that he soon left the police and ‘joined the Regents Park Police, and little is known of what happened to him before the 1871 Census’. Well, thanks to the newspaper coverage of the Police Courts, I can fill in a small amount of detail, at least as to what he was up to in 1865 when he was about 36 years…

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The king in the north

Do you remember that gruesome massacre scene in Game of Thrones when Jamie, the sixth of his name, who would one day rule from the stone throne was out hunting. He is lured to go almost alone to Castle Ruthven, by two young brothers, Earl Gowrie and Alexander Ruthven. They were planning to assassinate him in revenge for the cruel Jamie beheading their father. Jamie gets locked in a tower and is just about to die a horrible death only to be saved when John Ramsay finds a secret way in. The brothers are then killed in a bloody sword fight down the stairs and across the yard by the king’s retainers and the king is saved.

Well, you are probably struggling to recall that bit of Game of Thrones.

Here’s why.

It is because it happened in that other multi-part blockbuster series — known as ‘real life’.

On this day (well, not counting the dates in between getting skewed by the shift from Julian to Gregorian calendar in 1752 — “give us back our 11 days!”) on August 5 1600, all that stuff happened to Jamie, James VI of Scotland — later James I of England, aka the King James of King James’ bible fame.

castle James

James VI of Scotland and first of his name in England: nice shoes

Here’s a bit of background. Firstly Castle Ruthven was a bit more metropolitan than I’ve described it. It was the Gowrie’s townhouse in the ancient Scottish city of Perth and known as Ruthven House. Nevertheless it was pretty defensible unless you turned up with a few cannon and a large army.

castle ruthven

Where King James was imprisoned: Ruthven House

James had been there before — again under duress. A bunch of ultra-Protestants had kidnapped the boy king for ten months in the 1580s and allegedly humiliated him and made him cry, it is reported. The conspirators including Gowrie the father were angered by the influence of Europe on the young king. Queen Elizabeth of England was herself having Euro-issues with the Spanish in the shape of an invasion and was more than happy to see James locked up.

But as in the Game of Thrones, fate turns and now in 1600, Elizabeth is old. The Spaniards are defeated and vindictive James is in the ascendant.

The king had a reputation for liking money. He spent it faster than it came in. So when the Ruthven boy Alexander turned up at the hunt and asked for a quiet word with the king it was to tell him some news that Ruthven knew would interest the old Scot.

Back in 1588 weather and the English had defeated the Spanish Armada. The Spanish fleet was forced for safety’s sake to sail  north, up and around the top of Scotland, before heading for home. One of them, the treasure ship Florencia was said to have been sunk in Tobermory Bay. What Ruthven whispered to the king was that they had captured a peasant in possession of a large amount of Spanish gold from that treasure. This interested the king enough to fall into the trap.

Persuaded to come back to Ruthven House with just a few men, he was led alone up to a turret, with the Earl of Gowrie locking two doors behind them. Instead of meeting a man with gold, he met Gowrie’s armed accomplice, a servant. Gowrie held the servant’s knife to the king’s throat. Stupidly he left the king alone with the servant to go back downstairs to get his younger brother so that they both could take part in the revenge.

The few king’s men were about to leave after Alexander Ruthven had spread the story that the king had ridden off, but then they heard the shout of ‘treason’ from the tower and saw the king. They ran to help but the locked doors barred their way. That was until John Ramsay (yes I know, Game of Thrones) found another way in.

But that’s one side of the story. It’s known as the Gowrie mystery as much as it’s the Gowrie Conspiracy for some say that bad king James planned the killing all along and made up the story that he was lured to the Ruthvens. The evidence points to the fact that he wanted to wipe out the dynasty — and pursued two other Ruthvens who had nothing to do with the alleged crime. It was also said that he owed the Ruthvens a substantial amount of money, and unlike the Lannisters, this Jamie did not pay his debts. So sensitive was the king about this later that he ordered his version to be preached in churches while prosecuting and persecuting any that would repeat the contrary version.

And just for good measure, to make sure that the Crown, ie Jamie, got all the Ruthven land, he had the corpses put on trial for treason — and as you can imagine, the boys did not put up much of a defence.

And you thought Game of Thrones was bloody and far-fetched?

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Tehachapi to Tonopah

OK, now it can be told. I do not know too well my left hand from my right. Those that know me may take this as a metaphor for all-round incompetence. But no, I protest. However those classmates for whom I was navigator around the twisting lanes of Cornwall when we were but schoolkids with our first car will attest that there were times when, like some demented satnav, I was demanding with some urgency that the driver “go left at the next junction” while I was at the same moment wildly gesticulating with my hand in his eyeline that right was the approved direction which would lead us to safety, civilisation and where we were going.

Maybe it is this dis-handedness that has led me to worry distractedly and at length about when and why America changed from the traditions of its patrimony and heritage — driving like the English had done since the beginning of recorded time, on the left side of the highway — to the plainly Napoleonic and, let’s face it, wrong, side of the road, ie the right side of the road.

I’ve rehearsed the arguments before. Colonial America had built cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and New York for horse and carriage traffic. There were almost certainly “rules of the road” and one of them was for everybody to stay to their side so that accidents did not happen. The logical choice bearing in mind so many had come from England in those days was to do as it was in the old country. And for that matter English law was to be obeyed before 1776 so it’s fair to say that left was right.

Then came the revolution. But after that upheaval it did not stop folks following English fashion, buying English wares. Even after the war of 1812 not much had changed and it was only gradually that English style was supplanted. So why go on buying everything from English china to English bricks (yes they did) and yet hate the old colonials enough to boycott a perfectly innocuous piece of Englishness.

Ah you say, he will never be able to answer the question definitively as there is no visual proof of how roads were, how people were and which side they drove.

Then I started to look at early street scene film footage. Most of it is shot in the 1890s and 1900s. At that late stage I imagined, with trams and traffic jams, police controlled intersections and people, thousand upon thousand of hurrying and distracted people, then it would be clear that driving on the right would be ingrained in the American psyche.

And yet, this very morning I watched some Manhattan street scenes and all I could see was peripheral evidence that pointed a little to the contrary, if you accept this premise. If you drive on the right you will sit on the left side of the vehicle to be able to judge passing traffic coming the other way. If you drive on the left, likewise you sit on the right. I am not wrong in this, am I?

23rd st

Click the pic

You can watch it all as it’s fascinating stuff, but “m’lud, I draw the court’s attention to” that skinny man in suspenders and a white hatbanded slouch hat on the sidewalk on 23rd St in August 1901 at 8′ 30″ in.

He is the driver of the open wagon with the large crate. Watch him get into the wagon and deliberately avoid the seat on the left and slide over to the right. Now watch the vehicle across the street going away from us. Then watch while he waits for the brewery dray to pass coming toward us. None of them seem to have gotten the memo.

If you watch the video from the start, which is excellently slowed down and has appropriately evocative sound effects, most wagoners seem to favour sitting on the right. The auto drivers seem to mostly have their steering tillers on the left. Tram drivers sit in the middle.

I welcome any transport historian’s take on this, as I do not know my left hand from my right.

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At the going down of the sun

World War One has been jogged back into the UK’s collective consciousness once more with the Third Battle of Ypres,aka Passchendaele getting its own Royal Command Performance on British TV.

Two thoughts; one pretty much universal and the other pretty much local.

The local first. There is a tiny village in Suffolk named Bildeston. A few weekends ago I went there for an antiques fair held in its little square, surrounded on three sides by Georgian houses. In the square is an obelisk war memorial upon which are inscribed the names of the dead of two wars. Two dead men from from the Great War with the same name caught the eye. Their last names were so evocative of the England of yore that I have to share.

They were the Squirells, Alfred Squirell and the second, so as not to be mistaken for Alfred, Fred Squirrell.

Bildeston is not alone. Across Britain and in similar hamlets in France or Germany within their lists of the dead many hold those with the same surname. Brothers, cousins, father and son; who now knows? But you can be sure that everyone was recalling them in Bildeston that mournful Saturday afternoon in late March 1920 when the village assembled around the square to see the monument unveiled.

Carved on the Portland stone spire 17 and a half feet high are 15 names in all of locals from the village among what is often referred to as the “fallen”. The word itself is a euphemism, by suggesting as it does that they had tripped up and lost their footing on life, rather than the uglier reality of having it ripped from them as a two foot square red hot piece of cast iron shell shrapnel travelling at the speed of a bullet detaching a limb or ripping open a belly in a way that makes Game of Thrones look tame. But let that pass.

The village had itself subscribed for the memorial.  Remember that the war had finished just 18 months before and so emotions and memories had not been dulled by time. Around its base that Saturday and for many years to come were laid wreaths of flowers from close relatives.bildeston

Local worthies and churchmen made speeches, the scouts and guides marched and tea was taken.

I know nothing further of the Squirells’ lives, save that one of them was just coming up to his 19th birthday when he died, three months before the war ended.

It is worth thinking of folk like the Squirrells all the time, not just when prompted by the BBC when there is an anniversary with a zero at the end. Imagine that day when old Mrs Squirell was told of her son’s death, or visualise the father and brothers Squirell’s stoic faces in their family pew that following Sunday, while the village either awkwardly avoided the family completely or commiserated in that understated English Edwardian manner about the lad doing his duty for ‘King and country’ etc.

The second thought is something of a throwaway musing about what the people wish for and what the people get in life. It’s as true today as it was in 1914 to 1918. It is a truism that at the outset the British populace “voted” for the war against Germany. It had been coming for years.

Yes, I realise there was no referendum where the men (voting was not “a woman’s place” in 1914) cast a vote, but just glance at the enthusiastic papers of the time; remember the patriotic songs and posters; see those silent films of men “flocking to the colours” at recruiting halls across the country. Were they voting for The Somme, Passchendaele, and the rest of the nightmare? You know they weren’t. So when the public is asked for an opinion it is likely that they ‘vote’ for a vague strategic intent not the means to that end… It was Beat the Hun! not a vote for those on the Home Front to have to witness through their lace curtains a telegraph boy open the gate and walk up their neighbour’s  path  to deliver that terrible telegram “We regret to inform you…” to a million Mrs Squirrells.

This is a fact that poignantly echoes on a more tragic plane down to today’s maundering gibberish uttered by those in Britain who want to remain in the undeniably faltering EU.

The remoaners are often heard to say “The British people did not vote to…” and then they add the words “…leave the Single Market” or “…leave the Customs Union” or “…fall off a cliff edge”.

Sadly for the dissenters and the Squirells, yes, in effect they did.

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Have our Romans already departed?

Ah, the Dark Ages. That period in British history after the Romans went away where everything just stopped, or seemingly so.

It didn’t of course. The record petered out. The accepted wisdom is that because people built in wood, drank from horn and worked in leather our archaeological tools to discover their civilisation become useless.

Yes and no — and it’s a complex subjective pool of evidence before us. Jewellery such as the Sutton Hoo treasure signify sophistication and a high order of civilisation. And yet time after time what must have been substantial and beautiful buildings of the Roman period, those farmhouses to palaces that are dubbed “villas”, are found trashed or left to decay. So often beautiful mosaic floors are ruined, torn apart for a kiln or hearth, presumably done at a time the building still had a roof on it.

And for a generation or two after the Roman armies went home there must have been Romanised locals born into a Latin speaking, literate, letter writing class who seemed to have seen no value in trying to nurture their heritage. Neither did they seek to defend it.

So civilisation, whatever that may mean, is not a steady upward curve. This period — if there had been statisticians to measure — would have seen increases in lawlessness, falling life expectancy, falling literacy and numeracy, greater propensity for hunger, sickness, low intensity local warring.

And here we are in 2017. The question to ask ourselves is this: Have our Romans already departed?

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The piratical eyes of the magnetic healer

Leamington is a quiet little spa town in Warwickshire near Stratford upon Avon. In the late 1880s it is not difficult to envisage how very Jane Austen it still must have been, with its Pump Room and all, though visitor numbers “taking the waters” had declined drastically.

Nearby big city newspaper the Birmingham Post really loved this yarn it could publish at the town’s expense when it came across a newspaper report  from America of domestic disharmony.

Hard to believe, Jealous Leamingtonians, wife swapping, pistols on the stoup, and private “magnetic” sessions in a wife’s bedroom from a chap who was not her husband.

You are already as shocked as the good folk of Leamington must have been in 1888.



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I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled

Here’s a note of despair from, of all places, the Grauniad, that is to say an English Liberal newspaper, The Guardian, (once famed for its consistently poor proof reading hence the epithet). It ran a story yesterday that proves Western civilization is indeed collapsing.

For the Romans it was lead in the water; for the fall of the Elizabethans it was fat in the (semi) colon…  As Shelley so presciently said: “Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair”.


I had to check the full quote from Ozymandias and it’s even more accurate about the hand cart to hell-ness of the colossal wreck that used to be civilization. Last scene of Planet of the Apes and all, when Charlton Heston encounters the Statue of Liberty…charlton

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
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The modern economy of time

You know nothing of progress until you know the 19th century.

This was written in 1864. (‘Quicksilver on glass’ by the way is mirroring):-


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The cad’s brother


In a Berlin art museum there is a portrait of a family assembled around a rotund, modest-looking little German man.

He is uncomfortably seated, apparently shifting his weight. Standing about him is are his English wife, his sons, daughters and even the family dogs. He could be a successful local burgher, but no, he is der Eisenbahnkönig — the railway king of the Fatherland. The palatial modern town house in which they sat to be painted he had built for his family in one of Berlin’s highest class streets, Wilhelmstrasse, opposite the Brandenburg Gate. Just one of its claims was that it was the first private house in Germany that had its own indoor swimming pool. The Berlin mansion was so imposing that in 1877 it fell into the hands of the British government which made it into the Embassy. It is just one of many palaces and estates he owns. He was that wealthy.

It is 1870. That balding, tubby gentleman in the picture employs 100,000 people — and though he does not show it, save for the gold watch and chain, he must be among the richest in all Germany. Hold that thought for a minute and travel back 25 years.

At 7 am on July 10th 1847 a new-built American paddle steamer Washington was towed into Southampton Water for its return voyage from England to New York. The Washington was, to use the words of The Times‘ shipping correspondent who observed her, “about as ugly a specimen of steam-ship building as ever went through this anchorage”.

At 4pm, with the last mail on board, she departed. By late that night she was 100 miles away down the English Channel when a problem arose. Stokers discovered that the English anthracite coal was burning so hot that it was melting the grates. With engine trouble and facing a journey of 3,000 miles, that signaled a return to port. It was to be the undoing of one of its passengers. That young man must have been feeling pretty comfortable that Saturday evening as the Washington paddle wheels thrashed further and further along the southern coast of England, soon to leave sight of any land behind. That man had been in something of a hurry to reach a country where the living would be easy and extradition back to the UK was hard.

He was named Bethel Henry Strousberg. Yes, he was indeed the brother of Ferdinand Philip and he was on the run. The week before he paid £30 for a ticket to New York in the name of Bartholde, but it was he who boarded the ship.

It was so out of character. Young Strousberg had worked incredibly diligently since he arrived in Britain, aged 16, some eight years before. Baruch, as he was then named, a fourth child, had been left impoverished when the meagre family inheritance back in Prussian controlled Poland was divided  after the sudden death of his father. Baruch was shipped off to stay in England with his three uncles who ran a successful importing business. He got his first sight of London when he disembarked from the Sirene on September 27th 1839. He lodged with his uncle Peter in Newgate Street. There he was persuaded to take his new name Bethel and learn all he could about finance, markets and moneymaking. He stayed there until Bethel did the unthinkable act that severed the connection forever.

At least that must have been the way that his uncle, Peter-Moyses, saw it. Bethel repaid all the hospitality he received from his close family with a kick in the tukus. What Bethel did was to abandon the Jewish religion of his ancestors. Bethel converted to Christianity. And on March 13 1845 he married a scandalously young 16 year old named Mary Ann Swan, the daughter of a linen draper – in St Bride’s Church in Fleet St.

As far as the older generation of the family were concerned Bethel was dead. They were religious, part of the growing reform movement. Their late father, Bethel’s maternal grandfather, had been a rabbi back in Prussia and “lived a life dedicated to God alone”; so much so that when the old man died in his nineties it was on his daily journey back from the synagogue. The black cloths over the mirrors in Newgate Street would have marked the seven days of shiva for the dead – or in this case the otherwise departed forever from their lives.

Three months after his marriage in July 1845 Bethel suffered his first financial reverse, when he was made an insolvent debtor. Under the harsh regime of the day, that accident of dropping the ball while financial juggling meant spending a couple of weeks in prison while Strousberg waited for the seedy insolvency court where the London School of Economics now stands to hand his debt over to an assignee who would sell any assets Strousberg could lay hands on. That seemed to have worked for by the next year, 1846, the year before his attempted escape on board the Washington, Strousberg was discharged from insolvency.

Within that year he progressed from a somewhat lowly and disreputable job as commission agent, a money lender cum debt collector. Now relying on his salesmanship and ways with money he was fronting the launch of a number of embryo building societies. Known as building clubs, they were a cross between a lottery and investment and loan company. They catered for working people for them to get to buy their own houses or to invest their small savings in order to get a return.

The Times Building and Investment company was one such and the Fifty Pound Building Club was another. When the Times took out a launch advertisement the society was proud to announce that Strousberg was the man who had calculated the actuarial table on which the society would rely. You’re ahead of me if you think there is a whiff of embezzlement coming up in this story. But against some of the earlier tales of gross and cynical corruption, Bethel’s embezzlement was both tiny and inexplicable.

We do not now all the facts, but it seems Strousberg went missing at work, though it is not clear how anyone was able to find out that he was leaving the country and for that matter by which port or which ship, but you have to suspect that his wife may have known something of his plans. For though he was leaving her, he was not abandoning her. In any event a senior man from the Building Society went down from London to Southampton on the train to have him arrested. When he got to the port he first thought he was too late — but you can imagine his glee as the ugly Washington trundled back into port. Strousberg was hauled off the ship to face criminal charges for not banking £7 and 17 shillings for the Times Building Society that a member gave to him on July 6.

The officious, ludicrously named magistrate, Hughes Hughes, sat at London’s Guildhall magistrates because he was an alderman of the City of London. He had previously been an MP, but was it was noted in his obituary that in the unofficial directory of the House of Commons his name was mentioned in a passage devoted to ‘Unpopular Members’.
Strousberg had a defence, though it was a subtle one — too subtle for Hughes Hughes. Strousberg protested that the building society was only allowed under the regulations to have just one paying-in day a month. Until that day came around he was just holding the money, not on behalf of the society, but on behalf of the man who gave it to him.
“Aha” said Hughes Hughes, “you were sailing to New York and so you could not have been able to pay it in when the time came due”. He was remanded until later that week, as the Fifty Pound society had chimed in saying that £19 was missing from their accounts too. By the end of July when he was back in the dock again, things at first looked up. Both building societies had decided not to press charges, principally for the lawyer costs involved. Unfortunately though for Strousberg, both building societies had taken a precaution to re-insure any losses with an insurer, The General Guarantee Company. Rather than see Strousberg’s release prompt a string of copycat cases, General Guarantee wanted to see Strousberg made an example of. So did Hughes Hughes.

The charge carried a penalty of repayment of twice the amount owed, or three months in jail. Strousberg’s solicitor pleaded for more time for the defendant to find the cash to pay back the fine. No-one in England was able to go surety for him but he had reached out to family and friends back in Germany. The newspapers reported that he got the fine and as he could not pay was committed to jail.

Here the reporting goes cold. Did he break rocks for three months in 1847? Did the money come through from Germany and satisfy the court so that he did not have to spend endless hours hooded and climbing steps in a silent prison treadmill? We don’t know. However it says something about the Victorian idyll of redemption that a one-time bankrupt such as he should have been given a second chance to manage financial organisations. And on the face of it he repaid the offer of forgiveness with embezzlement.

But a third chance? Let’s put it this way. There must have been something magnetically charming about this young man and for that matter his brother too;  that and the fact that Bethel appears to have been something of a mathematical genius. Six years go by and when he next surfaces on the record, he has become a business magazine owner/editor and so much of an actuarial whizz that he is listed as consultant actuary and manager to at least two life assurance companies. He published a highly commended pamphlet remonstrating with government, warning it of the near monopoly of old-established firms in the life assurance business which aiming to squeeze out new entrants. So popular was the document that by October 1852 it was in its second edition.

And though a convicted felon he was unafraid to do the almost unthinkable — call the law an ass in general and especially berate one particular magistrate — to his face. Not that he was a defendant or even a witness in any case, he was so angry in March 1854 over what a judge had said that he just turned up at Bow St Magistrate’s Court asked for and was granted a public forum to tell the judge his opinion was biased and wrong. He got his day in court because on the previous Saturday his Honour Justice Jardine — or ‘In-justice’ Jardine as he was widely known, for dispensing very much softer sentences to the rich than the poor — had been giving his own advice from the bench.

The previous week Jardine had let two “decently dressed Irishwomen” come to court in what appears to be a put-up job to discredit Strousberg’s Oak Life Assurance. They complained that the poor and illiterate were being seduced into buying life assurance policies. There was no case but they were allowed to ask his advice in a pointed question about this state of affairs. This allowed the judge to make a speech in which he roundly condemned new building societies, especially the Oak. Jardine looked over the papers they brought and hurrumphed that while the Oak appeared to be genuine, he did not know the names of any of the directors. Jardine was of the opinion that “the practice of sending agents among these poor ignorant people… was a very extraordinary one, to say the least of it.”

The following week Strousberg demanded that Jardine retract his comments, for what he had said had a “very injurious effect upon the society” and claimed that 100 people had turned up at the Oak offices, asking for their money back. His Oak Assurance had simply replaced the unofficial and unregulated ‘Burial Clubs’. His directors were “among the first merchants in the City”.

The judge was not about to back down in his own court. “I still adhere to the opinions I expressed.” Using all the understatement available to the reporter, Strousberg’s reply to Jardine was said to be deliver “with warmth”. The angry Strousberg told the judge: “With every desire to be respectful, I wish it to go forth that I think a magistrate’s function is to decided upon facts, and not to give opinions.”
Not getting, or not waiting for an answer. Strousberg walked out.

And Henry Bethel?  He went back to Germany  to become that comfortably tubby, multi-millionaire family man in the portrait.

In Germany he went on to launch companies worth £100 million, employ upwards of 100,000 people making the steel and building the rails that carpeted Eastern Europe in a network of railways. He invented for himself the Trust, the vertically integrated industrial system that garnered profits from owning all the means of production in his industry. He owned the mines that provided the coal for the steelworks that made the rails and raw materials for his engines to run on his railways. He owned the railroads and even ran the vegetable markets and abbatoirs that relied on his lines.

But his was a journey to monopoly based on necessity. He started his railway engine works to ease his company from price gouging from Germany’s sole engine maker. In doing so he brought efficiency such that he introduced the production line concept to manufacturing some 50 years before Henry Ford re-invented it. Sadly the “European Railway King” had a final descent almost as precipitate as his fall from grace in 1847, but that’s another story…

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