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Help and advice for BARLOW 1925-1935

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BARLOW 1925-1935


by Alex Johnson

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This is not meant to be a History Book. It is purely the musings of someone who spent a very happy childhood in Barlow.

Author at 11 years old
Author at 11 years old

It has been written because of a chance remark by my old friend and relation Stephen Waters. He thought it was a great pity that there was nothing in print about life in the Depression Years of the '20s, and soon there would be no-one living to describe the village of Barlow and the villagers who lived in it.

I took up the challenge and so here in print are some of my recollections from my early days in Barlow between 1925 and 1935.

There will be some mistakes, I have no doubt, but it was a long time ago and as my memory is not infallible; accept my apologies now.

I do hope that I have not upset anyone in my descriptions. If so, I apologise again.

The world today is wicked, vile, greedy, grasping and vicious. The world of "yesteryear" was calm, gentle, loving and friendly for children, in spite of the poverty of those days.

Everyone was a neighbour and just as Jesus said, "Love Thy Neighbour", so did they, the people of Barlow. Help was always at hand, in childbirth, accident, or death. There was no Social Services in those days, it wasn't needed; there were enough volunteers.

The people of Barlow were a race of their own. They had a life-style peculiar to their village only; a community of miners, farm workers and idlers - yes we had them in those days too! I write this as a Thank You and Tribute to those nice people who lived in Barlow. Most will have sadly passed on. God Bless them.

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I first saw the light of day in 37, Back Row, Barlow it vas a colliery house with one room up and one room down with a large scullery on the back.

It housed my Grandparents (and for a short while, Great Uncle Jack), my Parents, my brother (later another ore) and myself.

My Mother had also been born in this house for we had occupied it since it was built.

This stone built house was one of a row of six and as it stood back off the main road, it was called the Back Row. It had a cobbled area at the back and on it stood a poss-tub, mangle and a water butt to catch the water as it ran from the scullery roof. The coal house and earth closet were several yards from the back door - an uncomfortable journey in the Winter. Father received a load (15 cwt) of coal every month. This was dumped beside the coal-house and had to be shovelled in by the occupier. I remember Mother and her two small children throwing it in; to save a tired Father from more work.

There was no front door. The colliery owners would not buy the extra land needed; it was probably only about 20 sq yds per house. No thought of safety - such was the meanness of the colliery owners of those days. We had a large window instead. This looked out on to a field, appropriately named the Back Field . This window had to have a grill over it, as the animals in the field were prone to kick in the window as they lazed in this corner of the field, using the houses as shelter.

Inside the house was a huge fireplace. The grate was about two feet wide and could hold two pails of coal with ease. This fire never went out, at night it was dampened down and left. In the morning it only needed a poke and a draught and it would be a roaring fire. This of course was the only means of cooking. Hinged on the front was a grid on which stood the kettle.

On one side of the fire was the oven, heated by the large fire which could be drawn under by the manipulation of a rod called a "damper". In this oven was baked the many loaves required by a hungry family. On the other side was the "pot", a deep iron vessel which was filled with cold water and heated as for the oven. This vessel had to produce enough hot water for washing purposes, washing-up and clothes washing. Bathing was in a tin bath. Water was precious, so bath-time was the same time for all the children. Every ladle full of hot water was replaced by a ladle of cold water so that the "pot" was always full. It was covered with a lid and on it stood the tin ladling pot.

Above the fire was a mantelshelf. On it were two brass candlesticks, ornaments and a tea caddy. Hanging from the mantelpiece was a brass line which usually held pit socks, vest or other clothing being aired. At the end hung Father's lamp; a small carbide lamp. How he ever saw anything in the dim light it produced I will never know!

In front of the fire was a large gleaming fender displaying the fire-irons, a well-used poker, tongs, brush, a toasting fork and a coal rake. The rake was used to pull down the coals from the back of the fire where they had been thrown from the pail.

The floor was covered with lino (green, I remember) and on the floor were several proggy mats, a colourful one being at the fireside. These mats were made by my Mother. On a cold winter's night she would put up the frames and sit progging (or hooking) away while we either played or assisted her. When I was very small we lost our Airedale dog and I was very upset. Mother cut up three or four sacks to get the hessian (it saved precious money), drew the outline of an Airedale dog and proceeded to make a new mat with the dog as a centrepiece.

Very soon I was able to sit in front of the fire stroking my dog again. This story helps to show what lengths Mothers in those days would go to to please their children. Their children were their lives.

Inside the door was a brattice (a partition) to keep out the draught; and behind this was a chest-bed. This was a cupboard or upright chest which when folded down produced an excellent double bed. In one corner tucked under the stairs was a bed, its brass knobs shining in the lamplight. A "press" stood as the main piece of furniture. It was large, with four capacious drawers and on top of them a glass fronted china-cabinet. Chairs and a large table filled the room. On the table was a thick deep green tasselled tablecloth and in the centre was the oil lamp, the only source of light in the house.

On the ceiling, from the beams were hooks on which to hang the bacon or pork when the village pigs were killed. Adjacent to the living room-cum-kitchen was the huge scullery and larder. Upstairs was my family's bedroom, two double beds, separated by a curtain, filled the room. On the stair-head stood grandfather's "kist" a family heirloom. Three pictures hung on the walls; "Geordie haad the bairn", a picture of a miner dressed for work holding the baby and looking ill-at-ease. "Going Home", a picture of two miners returning from Blaydon Main Colliery and my favourite picture - that of a little pink-faced girl in a frilly dress sitting at a table eating jam and bread with a little fluffy kitten perched on her shoulder. The pictures downstairs were different - one each of Mother and Father when they were married and a large parchment proving that Grandfather was a member of the Royal and Ancient Order of Druids.

I will never forget that house, small as it was. When Mother lit the oil-lamp, with a huge coal fire burning in the grate it was warm, snug and secure.

I used to curl up on the fireside and read, read, read. We had few books of our own, we got more from the County Library which was in the School.

A child's imagination is boundless. We also had the "kist"' a Scottish chest of unknown date. This to us was full of treasure. One of us lifted and kept up the lid, while the other searched and delved for the articles we thought were in there - a knife, a wartime shell, a Glengarry hat, a plaid, various tins. With these our imagination ran riot and we were travelling the world. Our boat was the cracket (a miner's stool) turned upside down. Our tent was the wooden clothes horse laid on its side and covered with the plaid (a Scottish shawl).

On many a Saturday night the house was full of Grandfather's friends. This was after the Black Horse had emptied. There was always a fiddler and he usually began with "Half a pound of twopenny rice".

We children were in bed, fast asleep when they arrived but brother Jim would waken me and we would creep to the top of the stairs to hear more clearly the fiddling, singing and dancing of the party. We danced as well - till Mother heard us and gave a call (in mock anger) and back to bed we shot. What a house - I wonder how many modern houses will leave such happy memories lingering in the minds of children.

Grandfather was over six feet in height and built in proportion. Stories abounded about his success in bare-fist fighting. This was organised for Winlaton Hoppings and took place on Barlow Fell. It was witnessed by great crowds, who had come from as far afield as Newcastle and Gateshead to watch these bloody battles. He was a real Victorian grandfather who believed that children should be seen and not heard. Every morning he would take my older brother Jim and myself around Barlow Fell before breakfast. He asserted that no air in the country was as good as that of Barlow Fell. On return we had porridge oats (he called it crowdy) and carved huge pieces of fat mutton for us to eat - no wonder I still hate fat!!! He was kind but strict, especially when he had had his ration of rum!

Father was a miner; he liked his beer, whippet and sport. Mother was kind and gentle and like most of the mothers in the village she adored her children. She was Aunt Emma to all the village children. I worshipped my older brother Jim. He was my protector and a very thoughtful brother. He taught me about nature, how to box and how to dress and behave correctly.

Great Uncle Jack died in my early childhood but was well known as a bagpiping Scotsman who liked to wear his kilt on suitable occasions. He was a great Methodist and assisted at the Primitive Methodist Church for many years. Mr Hopper (Wesley's disciple) certainly left the evangelistic spirit behind him when he died and this tough Scotsman carried it on. Grandmother was small and gentle, unfortunately she died when I was young.

My younger brother Robert was very much a baby at this time, probably still in a dress, for boys were about four years old when they were "breeched".

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Barlow derived its name from Bar Lei (mentioned in 1207) meaning - a clearing for barley. It was probably surrounded by Chopwell Forest and as it was a thriving village in the Bolden Buke, it is possibly a thousand years old. Records show that it was a bigger village than Winlaton and Blaydon before the Industrial Revolution. They enlarged rapidly with the advent of factories whereas Barlow remained as it had been for centuries. For some reason, Barlow became famous for its "treacle ponds" and "cheese quarries". This joke must be very old for it had spread rapidly well before 1920. Its origins are lost in the passage of time.

At school we were taught that the Normans had fought a battle at Winlaton and because it had been won late on in the campaign the battlefield was named Winlaton. The Normans then rode away over Barlow Fell; hence the name Normans Riding. It is rather a nice story but riddled with doubts. Stephen Waters confirmed that he too had been taught this story.

Barlow in 1925 was neither a colliery, village nor a fully-fledged country village for it had no mine, but it had miners. The colliery houses were built for the miners of Garesfield Colliery and later High Spen Colliery, from stone hewed out of Barlow quarry, which was in the field opposite the school.

The village was long; about three-quarters of a mile and was surrounded by fields with woods in each direction. To the N.W. below Pawston Birks Farm, was the Fox Covert leading down to Barlow Burn which meandered along from Brass Castle to the Tyne at Blaydon. Behind the village and to the North (a footpath led to it from the Black Horse) was the Gill Wood. It was only two hundred yards from the main street so it was a popular rendezvous.

Beyond the bottom of the village and bordering the Burn was the Brockwell Wood. This wood was a fair walk from the village so it was seldom visited, although I remember many occasions when the gamekeeper Mr Young allowed me to accompany him on his rounds and he pointed out many interesting items of nature, including a badger's sett. Unfortunately I was never allowed to go out at dawn to see the family but I saw the odd badger occasionally.

I enjoyed these walks with Mr Young. He was collecting his pheasants eggs for rearing at home and I went with him to fill in my holidays. My brother Jim was the first Barlow boy to go to Grammar School. I followed him and as we had much longer holidays than the village school children, I roamed the woods alone, so I appreciated very much, the company and guidance of Mr Young.

Mr George Jenkins, George Teasdale, Edwin Scott, Lawrence Wills, Frank Scott
Rear: Mr George Jenkins
Front: George Teasdale, Edwin Scott, Lawrence Wills, Frank Scott
Edwin Scott ploughing, followed by George Jenkins
Edwin Scott ploughing, followed by George Jenkins

To the South of the village and over Barlow Fell was the Little Wood, beside the stagnant pond at the old engine house. Over the mineral line, which ran from Chopwell to Derwenthaugh was the Bark Wood. This was a large deciduous wood which had been partly replanted with spruce. The Bark Wood was a most popular playground. It ran along the railway side till it became Sherburn Wood and finally over the Bank Head till it became the Norman's Riding Wood. The Bank Head was where the large waggons of coal were set free from the locomotive to journey down to Winlaton Mill by gravity only. The full trucks going down on a cable pulled up the empty trucks, which were then hitched up to the locomotive and taken back to High Spen and Chopwell Collieries.

Country lanes led to all these woods and so I became an amateur biologist and botanist. I remember collecting and naming eighty nine different wild flowers when I was ten years old. They were pressed at home between newspapers and weighted down with anything heavy, then taken proudly to school. All these flowers were from the surrounding woods and fields of Barlow. Today unfortunately there are very few left due to insecticides and the cutting back of the hedges.

I never felt dull in the country. No matter how often I walked down the same lane over the same fields or the selfsame woodland paths, there was always something new, something fresh to see. It may have been a little plant that had sprung up, a hedgerow that had been a tangle of brown twigs, was suddenly covered with blossom. I may have found a bird's nest in a thicket or a bramble bush, and taking great care as the days passed, saw first the tiny eggs and then the baby birds within the little nursery.

Most village children, having had the fun of finding the nest left the eggs alone; but some ignoring the teacher's orders, took them home. Here they pierced both ends and blew the yolk out and added the egg tc their collection.

The Bark Wood helped to satisfy my love of natural things, for many times I startled a rabbit from the bracken, where it had been lying motionless, hoping I would pass it unnoticed. I would see the bright eyes of a field mouse peeping through the grass, or surprise a squirrel hunting for acorns or beech nuts in the wood, sending it scurrying and scolding up to the top of a tree. A sight of a deep-red fox would set me excitedly after him but he would look at me disdainfully and then lope haughtily into the security of the wood.

Every tree in this wood was known to us. We knew which trees we could climb and which were left for the bigger boys. Some were special to us. From these we could make our bows and arrows; the sycamores, the wild rose, the holly and the hazel were our favourites for this purpose; although some of us were loathe to cut the hazel branches for we knew that if we did we would deprive ourselves of hazel nuts.

The sycamore provided us with whistles. We would cut about three to four inches of straight twig and then by wetting it (with our saliva in our mouths) and tapping it repeatedly we finally eased off the bark. A notch was then made in the white interior and a little slit in the end. A hole was made in the bark above the notch and the bark slipped on again. When it dried and the bark tightened, the whistle was ready for use. We usually gave the whistles to younger children so that they could follow on with the tradition.

Deep inside the wood was a dirty sluggish stream with rushes on its banks. These rushes were collected (and at Barlow Burn) and we made them into baby rattles and whips. This skill was taught to me by my big brother Jim who seemed to enjoy the countryside as I did.

The Bark Wood was a veritable larder for us. Blackberries abounded on its edges. The railway line which ran its length produced wild strawberries and raspberries, and if you knew where to look and what to look for, you could pull up some "earthnuts", wipe them clean (on your trousers) and chew them. Hawthorn leaves provided the rest of the salad. The bolder elements would supplement this diet with a "snadger" or "snanny" (turnip) from the nearest field. Bigger boys searched for hives of bees, wasps and hornets and having found them, stuffed them with paper, lit it and retreated to watch the irate insects stagger out, completely bemused and choking with the smoke. I usually kept well away from these boys when I was young - I had no wish to be stung on my face and hands. Many times I saw a boy tearing through the woods followed by an angry swarm of buzzing bees.

Then there were the fields. Some growing short grass ideal for playing; others covered with thick lush grass with buttercups and daisies growing in abundance. To lie in such a field on a bright Summer's day was Heaven. Little girls spent hours making daisy chains and collecting the lovely golden buttercups for Mothers.

Others were ploughed and what a sight to see; Billy Bullerwell, Joe Rochester, Billy Roddam or Norman Iley behind a pair of huge draught horses, with their feet in the soft yielding furrow, desperately striving to hold the swaying handles level, with their eyes fixed upon the blade in front and on the wriggling line that it traced in front of them. Behind them flocks of seagulls, rooks and other birds wheeled and swooped overhead, before diving and landing to devour the unfortunate grubs and worms turned up by the relentless plough.

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My Father was a miner, it was a calling born in him, after generations of miners in the family. It had to be a calling to endure it. His day often began at 4.00 a.m. when he would put on his clothes, dusty and polished with coal. Collecting his "bait" and bottle (sandwiches and cold black tea) from my Mother, she rose too, to see her "man" off to work, he would walk up the road and over the hill to High Spen.

The pit head and the mine chimney loomed up on the side of the hill, somehow rather fine and heroic in the pale light of dawn, not light enough yet to expose the squalor and untidiness, the air of makeshift and dirt. He would report to the office and then wait with other members of his shift for the cage that would plunge them into the depths of the earth. Here in the still, hushed world of darkness he would meet the haulage boys, their chatter making him smile; chat about the world above - girls, the Spen Picture Palace, of football - Spen Black & Whites or Newcastle United. Then the "putters" who moved the tubs and whose glistening perspiring bodies could be seen bending and twisting coal dust everywhere showing off their gleaming teeth in begrimed faces. Their money depended on the produce of the hewers who lay, often in six inches of water, digging out the coal using hand-picks. This hive of industry proceeded in the dim light of carbide lamps and candles. High Spen colliery was not very deep so candles were allowed, canaries nevertheless were taken down as a safeguard.

These men were a race apart, honest, hardworking, uncomplaining. They worked hard and played hard. Perhaps their thirst for beer was an unconscious desire to wash out all the filth, the soot and coal dust that daily entered their lungs.

George and Stephen Waters outside the Black Horse
George and Stephen Waters outside the Black Horse

Who could forget the sight of these men coming over the Fell top, their clothes dripping wet their faces as black as the coal they clawed from the bowels of the earth. Their wives would be waiting at home for them, a dinner and a "pot" of boiling water ready. The tin bath would be brought in from its hook in the backyard and there in front of the coal fire the miner would rid his body of the clinging black dirt. He would then dress, and while grooming himself his wife would put his dinner on the table; usually a suet pudding, a leek pudding, onion pudding or something equally satisfying. She would then let him eat in silence and would throw the pit-clothes into the back-yard where she would dash them against a wall to get rid of the coal-dust. Pit boots were put to dry. A miner's wife certainly had a hard life! She also had to be a good time-keeper. Woe betide any wife who was not at home waiting with the meal ready when her husband returned. It was traditional however that a miner's wife saw him off to work - it could be the last time she would see him alive - accidents were an accepted part of a miner's life. Similarly the wives had to be at home when their menfolk were at work; in case a miner was brought home injured or dead.

It was dreadful when the pit buzzer sounded during the day. It meant there had been a fatal accident and people appeared silently in the streets, gathering in small groups, waiting anxiously to hear the bad news. Everyone praying silently.

The boys in the village longed to leave school to get a job as a "driver" down the pit; with a few exceptions, these preferred farm life.

The idea of driving a pony in such conditions appalled me. The language of these pit boys was foreign to me as a child - talks of "covils" "onsetters" "galloways" meant nothing to me. I had made up my mind from an early age that I wanted to be a teacher; but this was met with derision when I boldly declared it. If one of my brothers or myself misbehaved or if our school reports left much to be desired, we were threatened with a job down the pit. This seemed to have the necessary effect. It shows great credit to Father and Mother that all three boys were kept out of the mines; no mean feat in the 1930's.

Father was a datal hand. Unlike the hewers and putters, who were paid according to their output, my Father was paid by the day. He was a "rolley-way man" and later a haulage engine driver. His datal wage in the mid-thirties 6/7½d a day. Not much to clothe and feed three growing boys, and later keep two at Grammar School. We boys tried to help by walking to school at Blaydon. We left at 7.10 a.m. and walked through Winlaton down to Shibdon Bank to the Grammar School. This was not too bad but walking back up Shibdon especially after football was a real task for the tired legs of an eleven year old boy. Then of course there was homework. I later went to Hookergate Grammar School and I thoroughly enjoyed walking to school through the Bark Wood. I knew every path and clearing in the wood. The other senior children in the village walked to High Spen so they too had quite a walk. There were no school buses from Barlow.

The miners when not at work, could be seen sitting under the Big Tree opposite Back Row and beside Iley's garden. They sat for hours on their "hunkers" (haunches), a habit learnt in the mine. Here they talked politics, mining, whippets and football but they kept off "religion". Barlow unlike many villages was not a pigeon village.

Children were forbidden to join this select gathering of elders. These men loved their gardens and most families were self-sufficient in vegetables and those who did not have a garden were well supplied, for miners are by character a very generous breed, and looked after their neighbours.

Leeks and celery were grown for Show. Every pub and club had its own Leek Show and rivalry between leek-growers was intense.

These gardeners had their secret recipes to make the leeks grow. My father had an old "poss" tub set in the ground and in it he threw sheep droppings and water. It was left covered and when the lid was lifted the smell was utterly vile. Many heads went up and noses wrinkled when father watered his leeks. Others used horse dung to manure their gardens and it was a common sight to see someone with a bucket and shovel dashing out into the road once a horse had performed its duty. The fields were also scoured in search of this brown treasure- I seem to remember old Mr Carter being first in the chase many times. This was probably because he spent much time sitting on a chair outside the front door. From here he saw everything that was going on and so could act quickly when necessary. Several miners had whippets and at week-ends would disappear, money changed hands to the detriment of some families. The miners' jobs depended on the demand for coal and so whenever a miner went over Scotswood Bridge he looked down at Derwenthaugh Staithes and if a collier was lying off, he knew that the pit would not be laid off for another week. Hard times indeed.

The miner was the breadwinner of the family but the miner's wife was the hub around which the family revolved. It was to her that the miner handed over his pay packet, unopened. She apportioned out the money and gave her husband his pocket money. The household bills, the clothing, the candles and carbide were all her responsibility. She it was who bought his socks his shirts and underwear and dragged him to the drapers to get a suit.

Miners' daughters, having been brought up to help Mother to clean pit clothes, polish brasses, wash, scrub and sandystone, nevertheless continued to marry pit boys. They probably accepted this as their destiny.

Once a girl married a miner, in those days, she had committed herself to a life of drudgery. Pit clothes to clean and repair, large meals to prepare and on time, a dirty fireplace to be kept blackleaded, a house to be kept spotless inside and out, mats to be made and the family washing to be done in a very primitive fashion. Yet, strangely enough, these girls were happy and contented with their lot. They accepted the hard work without a complaint and were devoted to their children. I have previously mentioned the household tasks but the worst of them was washing.

Monday was washing day. The village echoed to the thumping of the "poss-sticks" in the "poss-tubs". Hot water was ladled from the big pot (with the fire roaring beneath it) and was quickly refilled with cold to boil again, into the poss-tub. Clothes were shaken out and dropped into the tub. After a soaking they were thumped with a huge wooden instrument weighing about 20 lbs, to force out the dirt. This washing took all day, for having beaten out the dirt the clothes had to be rinsed in more clean hot water. They were then put through a large iron mangle with two wooden rollers and the excess water was squeezed out. Drying was the next problem. If it was a fine day, the washing was carried into the back lane in a large wicker basket. It may be interesting to note that in 1850, the Johnsons of Barlow were basket makers; where they carried out their business I have yet to find out.

The clothes were then hung on a line which stretched across the lane. Many a hawker was verbally assaulted as he tried to lead his horse and cart down the lane. We children, having seen someone enter the lane, took great delight in running to tell the woman whose washing was about to be attacked. The ensuing verbal battle was well worth watching and hearing.

If it was raining then it meant drying indoors causing much friction between parents and children as the steaming clothes fouled the atmosphere of the whole house. Poor Mother! Having dried the clothes she then had the ironing to contend with. Today, an electric iron makes fairly light work of ironing. Then mothers had to use a solid flat-bottomed iron. This was put on the fire till it was hot. The woman then shook a drop of water on it or spat on it and watched it sizzle and shoot off, from this she gauged the heat of the iron. Every few minutes the iron had to be reheated. The washing was a full day's work especially if there was a big family of children. Daughters were expected to help and even boys have been known to turn the mangle.

This was not often however, as boys were regarded as potential "bread winners" and were molly-coddled unlike the poor daughters.

Dinner on Wash Days was always cold-warmed-up. The meat and vegetables left over from Sunday lunch were fried together in a large iron frying pan and it was enjoyed by all. Looking back to those days I feel very guilty, for when I was on holiday I seldom offered to help Mother on a washing day, but disappeared to the woods or fields till the call of the "inner man" brought me home to wolf down the fried feast and some slices of lovely home-made bread.

Mother was also the nurse. It cost money to call out the dcctor, who lived at High Spen. Doctor Mary Livingstone was the doctor and she was absolutely worshipped by all and sundry. She knew all her patients and was quite happy to put a bet on a horse with some patient "backer". Every home had its own medicine chest and without fail it would contain Aspirins, Syrup of Figs, Ex-lax, Camphorated oil, Vick, Wintergreen, Fennings Fever Cure, Scott's Emulsion, Malt and Cod Liver Oil. Many people of those days will still remember the daily dose of Cod Liver Oil and Malt.

The school doctor examined each child and parents dreaded the results. If a child was thought to have T.B. (which was rife) he had to attend Whickham Chest Clinic. This meant that if a mother didn't have the few pennies needed to bus from High Spen to Swalwell Bridge, the family had to walk. It is a long walk from Barlow to Winlaton Mill then to Swalwell Bridge and up the hill to Whickham. Being a hospital you then had a long wait before retracing your steps all the way back home. I know only too well. I went with the familv for inspection. Fortunately we were all negative so Mother's steps on the return journey were much lighter.

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© Copyright 2000 Alex Johnson