In the following speech Cobden argues for what he terms the American system of secular public education in which schools teach no religion out of fairness to different denominations. George P. Landow

MANCHESTER, JANUARY 22, 1851. [The National Public School Association, the objects of which were nearly the same as those advocated at present by the Education League, held an annual meeting at Manchester, at which Mr. Cobden moved the following resolution : — 'That the present aspect of the Educational Question gives high testimony to the value of the efforts of this association, and promises a complete and speedy triumph.']

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he aspect of this room certainly affords encouragement to the friends of Education. The very numerous and influential body of gentlemen that I see before me is a proof of the growing interest taken in this important question ; and I see around me many gentlemen, — I see many of the old familiar faces with whom I was associated in a former struggle; and if continuous courage and perseverance, and an undeviating adherence to principle under trying circumstances can warrant success, then, I think, the past experience which those gentlemen have given to the world, augurs a triumph for the cause we have now in hand. But, gentlemen, I don't disguise from myself, — and you will not for a moment conceal from your minds, that we are indebted for this meeting, in some degree, to a recent movement that has taken place in this city by gentlemen who have hither to not taken a prominent part in the cause of national education.

Now I join most unfeignedly in the expression of congratulation upon the fact, that those gentlemen have come forward to avow, to a great extent, their adhesion to the principles of this association. They have given the sanction of their approval to the main features of this association, as has been well observed, — they have adopted the principles of local rating; and I will further say, they have, by one of the provisions of that scheme which has been published to the world, given in their adhesion to the principle of secular education, inasmuch as they leave to the parents of children the power of demanding for their children an exemption from that doctrinal instruction, which has been hitherto held by every party an indispensable requisite of education. Now, I must confess, I have always been so impressed with the difficulties of this question, that if a proposal had been made by which it was intended to give an improved education to the people, coupled with conditions ten times as objectionable as those we have lately had proposed to us, I do not think I could have found it in my heart to have offered any very strong opposition. I have really passed beyond the time in which I can offer any opposition to any scheme whatever, come from whatever party it may, which proposes to give the mass of the people of this country a better education than they now receive. I will say more, — that in joining the secular system of education, I have not taken up the plan from any original love for a system of education which either separates itself from religion, or which sets up some peculiar and novel model of a system which shall be different from anything which has preceded it in this country. I confess that for fifteen years my efforts in education, and my hopes of success in establishing a system of national education, have always been associated with the idea of coupling the education of this country with the religious communities which exist. But I have found, after trying it, as I think, in every possible shape, such insuperable difficulties in consequence of the religious discordances of this country, —that I have taken refuge in this, which has been called the remote haven of refuge for the Educationists,——the secular system,—in sheer despair of carrying out any system in connection with religion. I should, therefore, be a hypocrite, if I were to say I have any particular repugnance to a system of education coupled with religious instruction. But there is no one in this room, or in the country, that can have a stronger conviction than I have of the utter hopelessness of ever attempting to unite the religious bodies of this country in any system of education; so that I can hardly bring myself even to give a serious consideration to the plan that has been now brought forward by gentlemen in this city, and who have brought it forward, no doubt, with the best possible intentions, and who have only to persevere in order to find what I have found, for the last fifteen years—the hopelessness of the task. For what is it those gentlemen have now proposed to do? Is there any novelty in it? Why, it is precisely what Parliament, and the Government, and the Committee of Privy Council, have been attempting to do now for a great number of years,—that is, to give a system of education to the country which shall comprise religious instruction, and which shall call upon the people of this country to subscribe, through taxation or rates, for the general religious as well as secular education of the country.

There is no novelty in the plan now brought forward; it is merely a proposal to transfer to Manchester, as the theatre of contest, what has been hither to just going on in the House of Commons and the Government. It is, in fact, a proposal by which everybody shall be called upon to pay for the religious teaching of everybody else. Now, this is precisely what has been objected to by a great portion of this community, and what has prevented the present system, administered through the Minutes of Council, from being successful. There is this novelty, certainly,—that for the first time a body of Churchmen have themselves come forward, and recommended that all religious denominations should be allowed to receive public money for the teaching of their catechisms and creeds. Now, that is a novelty, because hitherto, although the Church body have themselves been in favour of endowment for one particular sect,—if I may be allowed to call it so,—yet the Church has not hitherto been an active promoter of any system which shall recognise the right of other religious sects to receive public money to teach their catechisms. So far, then, we have a difference in the quarter from which this proposal has come; but does this alter the character of the opposition we may expect from those who have hitherto opposed the Minutes of Council and the parliament ary grants for education? It is precisely the same thing over again,—the same thing, whether you ask the religious voluntaries of this country to receive and pay public money for religious teaching through a local rate in Manchester, or through the Minutes in Council voted by Parliament in the annual grants. There is no difference in the two proposals, except that one is done by rates levied in Manchester, and the other by a vote in the House of Commons. How then are we to escape those difficulties in the religious question which we have hitherto encountered? If the members of the dissenting bodies have been sincere in their opposition hitherto to the national system of education, as administered through the Minutes of the Committee of Privy Council, there is not the slightest hope of that proposal, which has now emanated from the Church party in Manchester, being acceptable to this city. But I am not sure we are dealing with any well-considered or matured proposition from any particular religious body. We probably have the plan of an individual rather than the manifesto of a party. I am not sure that any party in this city, any religious body as a body, or any committee as a committee, has yet endorsed the proposal submitted to us; and I do not think the gentlemen who have so far given in their adhesion to this proposal, as to assemble together and discuss it, have considered the ultimate bearing and scope of the proposal that has been put forward. It is based upon the principle of voting public money for the teaching of the religious creeds of every religious denomination in the country. If it does not recognise that principle, it is an unjust proposal. There are but two principles on which you can carry on an education system in this country, or in any other, with the slightest approximation to justice. The one is, if you will have a religion, to form your plan so as to pay for the teaching of all religions; the other is, to adopt the secular system, and leave religion to voluntary effort.

Now, I must say, I doubt if the gentlemen who have so far joined this new association as to attend in person to hear it mooted, — I question if they fully understand the ultimate scope of what must be their proposal, if carried out with fairness; for it amounts to this, that you should pay from the public rates of this city the money for educating children in the Church schools, where, independent of the secular education which they shall have secured to them, they shall be taught the Church Catechism; and to the Independents, the Baptists, and the Unitarians and Wesleyans, the same system would be applied, in which, besides the secular instruction which should be enforced, they must be allowed to teach their various creeds or catechisms. But there is a large body in Manchester and Salford lying at the very lowest stratum of society, whose education must be embraced in any plan, or that plan must be worse than a mere pretence, fraught with downright injustice and negligence, and negligence of the most necessitous portion of the people. I speak of the Roman Catholics, — that portion of the people which was described by Dr. Kay, now Sir James Shuttleworth, in his pamphlet written here, some fourteen years ago, — that portion of the population which he has described, comprising 60,000 or 80,000 of the Irish, or immediate descendants of the Irish, being all Roman Catholics, and who import into this city a great deal of that barbarism which has, unfortunately, characterised the country from which they came. Any system which does not embrace that part of the population, cannot be entertained for a moment as a system.

Well, then, the proposal of the Church party must mean, that the schooling of all of those Roman Catholic children shall be paid out of the public rates, and that, besides the secular instruction they may receive, they shall be taught their catechism, and be permitted to observe their other religious ceremonies, precisely in the same way that the Church of England and the dissenting schools are allowed to do. Have those gentlemen made up their minds that they will pay rates for the purpose of the religious training of the Roman Catholic children? Now, I say, I should be a hypocrite if I expressed any great repugnance myself to that which would give these poor children an education, coupled with that sort of instruction which I am here to advocate. But have the gentlemen who put forward this proposal fully considered the scope of their own plan? Have they made up their minds that the whole of the Roman Catholic children in Manchester shall be taught their religion at the expense of the ratepayers of Manchester? Have they made up their minds, when they talk of enforcing the reading of the Bible — have they made up their minds what version of the Bible they mean in all this ? Has that subject been discussed among them, — has it been settled ? Do they mean that the Douay version of the Bible shall be taught in these Roman Catholic schools? Because if they do not mean that, when they make the Bible the condition of receiving any schooling, it is at once shutting the door most effectually to the instruction of the great mass of the Roman Catholic children in this town. Do not let any one suppose I am interposing these objections as my objections. They are what I have encountered here for the last fifteen years. I remember so long ago as 1836, when Mr. Wyse, himself a Roman Catholic, and Mr. Simpson, of Edinburgh, and others, came down here to enlighten us on the subject of education — I remember having in my counting-house in Mosley Street, the ministers of religion of every denomination, and trying to bring them to some sort of agreement on the system of education we were then anxious to advocate. I believe the insuperable difficulties that then existed have even increased now, and have not been in the slightest degree modified; and I believe those gentlemen who, with the best intentions, have brought forward this plan now, will find, before they have pursued it to one-twentieth part of the time and trouble gentlemen here have given to the Education question, that they have attempted an impossibility, and will be compelled to turn aside from what they are attempting to do. And if they view education at all as of that paramount importance I trust they do, the effect of this well-meant effort will be to bring many of those gentlemen to our ranks, if, as I sincerely hope and trust will be the case, we do nothing in the meantime to repel them from joining us.

The difficulties I spoke of have been encountered in two other countries, the most resembling us in the state of their civilisation and religion — the United States and Holland. They have both gone through the very same ordeal. In the United States, the education was once religious. When the Pilgrim Fathers landed in New England, the system of education then commenced embraced religious teaching; everybody was taught the Catechism, and there was no objection made to it. But when the number of sects multiplied, this religious education became a bone of contention; a great struggle ensued, and the Americans have had to go through the same difficulty that we have now; and it has ended, as it will end in this case, in the fundamental principle laid down in the Massachusetts statute for erecting common schools, which says that no book shall be admitted in the schools, and nothing taught, which favours the peculiar doctrines of any particular religious sect. In Holland, they have come to precisely the same conclusion. There they have adopted a system of secular education, because they have found it impracticable to unite the religious bodies in any system of combined religious instruction.

Well, now, if ever there was. a time when it was desirable, more than another, to try and separate religious from secular instruction, it is the present time. And why? Because we have arrived at that period when all the world is agreed that secular instruction is a good thing for society. There are no dissentients now, or, if there be, they dare not avow them selves. We are agreed that it is good that English boys and girls shall be taught to read, and write, and spell, and should get as much grammar and geography as they can possibly imbibe There is no difference of opinion about putting the elements of knowledge into the minds of every child in the land, if it can be done. But while we are all united on that, can any one who moves in society conceal from himself that we are also arrived at a time when we have probably more religious discord impending over us than at any period of our history? I do not allude to the dissensions between Roman Catholics and Protestants; I do not allude to them, excepting so far as they may lead to schisms and controversies in the internal state of other religious bodies. But I think there is at the present moment looming in the distance and not in the very remote distance, a schism of the Church of England itself. I think you have two parties, one probably more strong than the other in numbers, but the other far more strong in intellect and logic, which are going to divide the Church. I see the Wesleyan body torn asunder by a schism, which, I think, the most sanguine can hardly hope to see healed ; and I think there are several other religious bodies, not perfectly tranquil in their religious or ganization.

Now, while we have the prospect of these great internal dissensions in religious bodies, — while we are all agreed that secular education is a good thing, — is it desirable, if it can be avoided— would it be desirable, if it were practicable, which it is not, I think, — that our national education should be one which is united and bound up with the religious organisations, when schisms may prevail in the churches, and must be necessarily transferred with increased virulence to the schools? For bear in mind that what you see now pervading the churches in Scotland, where you have an irreconcilable dispute with regard to the appointment of the masters of the parochial schools — a dispute between the Old Kirk and the Free Church — recollect, if what I say be correct, that you have an impending schism in the Anglican Church, that then you will have precisely the same difficulty in the appointment of masters in the national schools. You will have High and Low Church contending for the appointment of masters; in one parish, High Church predominating, the masters will be dwelling on the necessity of the old forms of the Church, and enforcing the ritual and observances prescribed by the Liturgy and Canons; and in another you will have the Low Church, on the other hand, dwelling on what they regard as the more vital essence of religion, and discountenancing those forms which the High Church regard; and you will have the same dis cords pervading your schools; and the consequence will be, decreased efficiency of the masters, and, in some cases, a divided school, a disruption of the school along with the congregation; and you will have to fight the battle again, to reconcile the different bodies; and in the end, I believe in my conscience, it will come as in America and Holland to this, — you will be obliged, after a great waste of time, to return to the secular system which they have adopted, and which we are met here to advocate.

Since I addressed you here last, I have been visiting many places — Birmingham, Leeds, Huddersfield, Bolton, and else where, — and I have sought private interviews with numerous bodies of gentlemen interested in the question. I have especially sought private interviews with those who have been supposed to differ from us, but have been thought usually as ardent advocates of education as our selves, — those connected with the dissenting bodies in different parts of the kingdom. I have endeavoured to meet them privately, and to have a full and free discussion of the question, because I thought that such a cause would be more likely to put them in possession of the real objects of this association, which have been so much misunderstood. I thought it better to do so in a private conference, rather than to enter on an antagonistic discussion with them in the public arena, where they might be committed to views which I hope and trust, when they have fully considered our plan, they may be induced to modify and even to change. One of the objections made to our plan has been alluded to by my friend Mr. Schwabe; and it is that we propose by our plan to supersede all existing schools, and render all existing school-rooms valueless. Now, it seems to me, that the plan put forward by the Church party here, seems rather to insinuate that they have caught us tripping, when they offer to avail themselves of school-rooms already in existence, and assume that we contemplate doing no thing of the kind. I have mentioned a dozen times, it is my firm belief, if a system of education such as we propose were adopted, you would have no difficulty in getting an Act of Parliament for a local rate in Manchester, and in doing what your Corporation does with the water-works, taking power to use, either by purchase or renting, existing school rooms. I do not conceal the fact from our friends, that I believe, if we have a system of rating for free schools, the effect will be to supersede all other schools, which are now partly supported upon the eleemosynary principle, that is, by charitable contributions. I do not conceal from others, — I cannot conceal from myself, — that if you establish free schools in every parish, you will ultimately close all those schools that now call upon the poor children to pay 3d. or 4d. a week, and in which the difference of expense is now made up by the contributions of the congregations. If they did not have this effect, they would be unworthy of the name of national schools. But I have never considered that the school-rooms in connection with existing places of worship, or otherwise, would be rendered useless, for I have always considered they might be rented or purchased in precisely the same way as Mr. Schwabe has suggested; they might be rented for the week-time, and left on the Sunday in the hands of the congregations. This is merely a matter of detail; but we should be taking a rash leap if we had contemplated closing all existing schools, and wasting the vast capital invested in bricks and mortar for the erection of them.

Another strong objection which I have heard from our dissenting friends has been, that the secular system of education is adverse to religious teaching. I can not tell how to account for it, but there seems to be a pertinacious resolution to maintain that the teaching the people reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, grammar, and the rest, is inimical to religion. Now, I have found the most curious refutation of this doctrine, where I have been, in the practice of the very parties who have objected to us. I remember at Birmingham, I found there a preparatory school built by a joint-stock association, by men of every religious denomination — I heard of a clergyman sending his son to that school. No religion is taught there— the building would never have been erected, unless by a compromise, which agreed that no religion should be taught in that school; and yet, the very parties that object to us for not proposing to give religion with secular education, send their sons to schools where secular education is separated, avowedly, from religious teaching. Again, in Yorkshire, I was present at a meeting where a gentleman stoutly maintained it was impossible to separate religious from secular instruction. It was in Huddersfield. And another gentleman said, 'How can you possibly maintain that doctrine? You know the Huddersfield College here could not exist a day, unless we consented alto gether and totally to separate religious from secular teaching; and you know you send your son to the college, and that he never received any religious instruction there!' I must say that gentleman was silent for the rest of the evening. But I also found that at Huddersfield they have, in connection with their Mechanics' Institution, a very excellent school for young children (not for adults), where they may go and enjoy the benefits of this institution for a week, by subscribing 3½d. They give the smallest doses of instruction, because they see the ginshops and such places offer to their customers a twopenny or threepenny taste; and so they let the children come in for a week for 3½d. in hopes that they will be tempted to repeat the dose, — I think a very wise regulation. I find there are hundreds of the children in this admirable school; but that excludes all religious teaching. I do not know whether the Bible exists in the institution library; but they never touch it in the schools, and never use it as a school-book for teaching religion. And this applies to the schools generally connected with the mechanics' institutions in Yorkshire, of the union of which my friend, Mr. Baines, is president; in those schools there is no religion taught or professed to be taught. And, therefore, in my travels, I have found that gentlemen offered in their own practice the best example of the success of our principle, and the best refutation of their own theories.

I have heard it said, the voluntary principle is succeeding very well, and that has been said by men for whose judgment in other matters I have great respect; but I am glad, among the other advantages afforded by our friends, the Church Society in this town, that we have got a corroboration of the doctrine with which we started, that the existing system of schooling is very defective. The Church party tell us, what we were aware of before, that we have a multitude of school-houses, but they are badly attended, and the instruction is not sufficiently good to attract children. The great fallacy we have hitherto had in the statistics of education is this, — we have taken school-houses for schooling, and mistaken bricks and mortar for good masters. I never doubted we have had vast efforts made in building schools; nothing is so easy as to galvanise an effort in a congregation or a district for raising a school, or to persuade men that when they have done that they have provided for education. What do bricks and mortar do for education? The gentlemen of this Church system have told us— these schools are in many cases standing idle, and the children do not come to them, I have heard mentioned, wherever I have been, that you have plenty of schools, and the people will not attend the schools until you adopt some system of compulsion, some coercive system, and compel people to send their children to school; it is of no use building schools, for the children will not attend them. I have heard this compulsory system of attendance at schools advocated in private meetings, in friends' houses, wherever I have been — where gentlemen have spoken, probably, with less reserve than they would in public; and I have found, to my astonishment, everywhere a strong opinion in favour of a compulsory attendance in schools.

Now, I beg my friends will understand that I did not bring that principle with me to Manchester. We have stopped short of that yet; and we say, before you call on us to do that you must show us first that people will not send their children to school. You have two things to do: firstly, to establish free schools in Manchester, to receive all the children of those who may choose to send them there; and, in the next place, to have good schoolmasters. I am firmly convinced, as I have told my friends everywhere, that if you set up good schools, and have good schoolmasters, you will have no difficulty in filling your schools. I have never yet found a good schoolmaster that did not fill his school, even when the children had to pay 2d. or 3d. a week for the schooling. And if, after you had established a free school, and given every one the opportunity of attending gratis, and given them good masters, you find the people will not send their children to the schools, but bring them up in idleness and ignorance, I don't know that, under such circumstances, I should see that it would be any great infringement of the liberty of the subject, if you did adopt some plan; first, perhaps, to seduce or bribe them to send their children to school, and, if that would not do, to try a little compulsion. I don't see any objection in principle to that; but I say to our friends, before you do that, try every inducement to make them come; and I should not be squeamish about any outcry there might be of the liberty of the subject, and so on; — there is just as much liberty in Switzerland as in England, and in Switzerland they do punish parents who do not send their children to the free school, unless they can show they are giving them an education elsewhere. These are some of the objections I have heard our friends of the dissenting bodies urge to this plan in the last few weeks. They have objected, on the ground of principle, that they cannot separate the secular from the religious education. Well, I must say we have endeavoured to be very accommodating to these gentlemen, and have found it very difficult to please them. When the attempt was for many years to have an education combined with religion, then these same gentlemen told us it was contrary to their consciences, either to receive or pay money raised by taxation, for teaching religion. When we offer to separate it, we are told by these same gentlemen, that it is contrary to their conscientious convictions to separate religious from secular teaching. I do think such a course, if persevered in, will go very far to alienate the feelings of the great mass of the working community, who, I am very much afraid (speaking of the surrounding district), are not in communion with either Dissent or Church; it will do very much, I fear, to alienate the great mass of the people from those who take an impracticable course, which stops the avenues of education to the working classes, by setting up obstacles which it is impossible for any rational man either to obviate or remove. Now, have those gentlemen a due appreciation of the value of the education which they are opposing, apart from religious instruction? I believe they must have an adequate idea of the value of secular knowledge. I put it to them, do they not value it in their own cases and in their own families? I put it to a gentleman I met with, one of my strongest opponents, — a minister of religion, — and he told me, in a party of religious men, that 'he valued secular knowledge so much, he would not give his secular knowledge, apart from all religion, in exchange for all the world.' Well, and if he would not put himself on a par with the unenlightened peasant for the whole world, is he carrying out the Christian principle of doing to others as he would be done by, if he lightly interposes obstacles to the acquisition of some portion of that knowledge which he values so highly, by the great mass of his poorer fellow-countrymen? I want to ask the gentlemen, who interpose at all times the question of religion as an obstacle to secular teaching, do they or do they not consider that knowledge is in itself a good? I will say, apart from religion altogether, do they consider that Seneca or Cicero were better for their knowledge than the common gladiator or peasant of their day ? But even as a matter of religious import, I would ask those gentlemen, do they not think they will have a better chance of gaining over the mass of the people of this country to some kind of religious influence, if they begin by offering to their children, and tempting their children to acquire, some kind of secular knowledge? It seems to me, that to argue otherwise would contend for this, — that ignorance and barbarism, and vice, drunkenness, and misery, are conducive to Christianity, and the opposite qualities contrary to it. I feel we are in danger ot alienating the great mass of the people in these manufacturing districts from every religious communion, and even estranging their minds from every principle of Christianity, if we allow this unseemly exhibition to go on — of men squabbling for their distinctive tenets of religion, and making that a bone of contention, and a means of depriving the great mass of the people of the know ledge that is necessary for them to gain their daily bread, or to preserve them selves in respectability. Why, what a spectacle do we present to the world? Where is our boasted common sense, which we think enables us to steer our way through social and political difficul ties, when we vaunt ourselves with our superiority to Frenchmen, Germans, Danes, and Italians? Where is our boasted superiority, when the American Minister can come to our Town Hall here, and taunt us with the ignorance of our people, and when nobody dares to rise up and say, we have done as much for education as they have in America? Is it not true (as Mr. Lawrence properly said), that we can show a great accumulation of wealth, that we are exporting more largely than any other nation, but there is something more wanted; and I agree with him, there is danger so long as it is wanted and that there is no time to be lost — not a day, not an hour to be lost. I do not boast of the country we live in, so long as the mass of the people are uneducated and ignorant. Our friend, our worthy president (Mr. A. Henry, M.P.), whom I met at Leeds — and who, allow me to say, most man fully maintains your principles wherever he goes — told them at the Mechanics' Institution meeting at Leeds: — ' They say we are a great nation— that is true, we are a great nation, if paying an enormous taxation, and keeping up an enormous navy, and exporting a large amount of goods, constitute greatness, we are a mighty nation; but so long as we have an ignorant people, we have not much reason to boast of our greatness.

I have nothing more to say than to exhort you, now you have encouraging symptoms of progress, to continue and agitate in the same way you have hitherto done. I have seen nothing since I joined your ranks to make me doubt you have got hold of the right principle. I don't think any other can possibly succeed in this country, that is, provided what I have heard from religious bodies for the last fifteen years be truth, — if they have been shamming, and telling us they have qualms of conscience while they have none at all, — if they have been telling us they are voluntaries, when they are looking and sighing for endowment, — then, I say, the parties who have taken up another principle may succeed, and we may fail, and I can only say I am sorry they allowed me to lose time in trying to make them take up with this. But I do not think it possible that any plan of this kind can succeed. I want you to base it on the American experience; they have gone through this ordeal, and adopted the very plan we want. I call for the American system. I do not want to have my Bible read in the schools; because, if so, the children of 60,000 people here must go uneducated. I am neither an advocate for the Bible as a school-book, nor for its exclusion as a school-book; I am for the American system precisely as it stands. And I say, now is the time for you to continue the agitation of this question, and more actively than ever. The very fact of the attention paid to what is going on in Manchester by the press of the whole kingdom shows to what a degree the whole kingdom looks to Manchester to solve this great and difficult question. You have had the honour of commenc ing this agitation; you are now met with another agitation, which is far from being an enemy or a rival, and will ultimately be an assistant. I will say, — go on — quarrel with nobody — invite their con currence. If you will appoint me to the Conference, I shall be happy and proud to be one of a deputation to their body, to seek an interview, and ask a private and confidential conversation with the gentlemen taking the lead in this scheme. I say, don't go in opposition to anybody, but keep your own course. I believe you have got the right principle, and, if you have — I know you of old — I believe you are the right men to succeed in it. [589-97]

Related Materials


Cobden, Richard. Speeches on Questions of Public Policy. Ed. John Bright and James E. Thorold Rogers. London: Macmillan, 1880. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 14 June 2020.

Last modified 14 June 2020