The Story Behind Keep Calm and Carry On

by JoHarrington

It's quirky and so frightfully British! All that can be said of a stiff, upper lip is in this war-time slogan. But it was never seen at the time.

The slogan is everywhere. Often changed to fit a certain circumstance, but still there. Everyone knows what it's supposed to say. It implies chaos and dark days, and that's as fitting a statement about the present day as when it was made.

Keep Calm and Carry on.

It's graced a thousand offices, canteens and bedroom walls; and that's just in Britain last year. Now the poster has gone international. Even countries that wouldn't otherwise dream of displaying the crown of the British throne will let this one through.

But how many of you know what it originally meant?  And did you realize that the slogan was one of three? More to the point, did you know that it was never actually put up on public walls? If it had been, then the fight would have been on our doorsteps.

Buy a Keep Calm and Carry On Poster

Generating Some of That Good Ol' Blitz Spirit

Oops-a-daisy! Another bomb! Oh well, never mind, I'll just put the kettle on. Lawks! That was close! Won't we laugh about this in the morning?

There is a myth, believed mostly by the British, that during World War Two everyone kept cheerful and calm. 

Homes were reduced to rubble.  Work-places, roads and hospitals disappeared into craters in a moment's fierce explosion.  Death waited on every street corner and took people violently in their beds.

But the British went on singing and telling jokes in the depths of their Anderson shelters. Then, when the bombing stopped, we stepped out and went about our business like a nation of Mary Poppins and Dick van Dyke clones.

It was called Blitz Spirit and this is precisely what was depicted in the Pathe news-reels. Newspapers, magazines and the word on the street underscored the message. It was somehow not British to allow oneself to feel emotion.  We went on.

Of course, it wasn't like that at all.  People screamed, panicked, lived on their nerves and committed suicide in the relentless terror of war. They lost everything and would have given anything just to make it stop.  Some went mad and others snapped in other ways, straying onto the wrong side of the law, or simply becoming so hard that they lost all compassion and mercy.

But most people did nothing so dramatic. They endured, but they didn't do it with the stolid grace and cheeriness shown in the news-reels. Unless, of course, they were the actors and actresses hired to star in said 'news'. That was propaganda too. Couldn't let the enemy know that they were winning.

It's against this backdrop of stark reality that most people today imagine that morale was raised with the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters. It makes sense and it plays into that whole Blitz Spirit ethos.

Unfortunately that is a myth too.

Buy Keep Calm and Carry On Gifts

I'm actually really tempted by the mug. Just the thing for a nice cup of tea, while I'm busy keeping calm. As a Briton, drinking tea does count as carrying on.

Creating the Famous War-Time Posters

The Ministry of Information had to boost morale somehow, when another terrible and total war was breaking.

The 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters were printed by a government department in August 1939. Britain didn't declare war on Germany until September 3rd 1939. It was a long time before the Blitz was even accidentally started.

Let's reverse the context a little here back to April 1939. This was when officials from the Ministry of Information realized that war was going to be thrust upon an unwilling public. Morale would be at an all time low; and the greatest danger to the outcome of the war might be on the domestic front.

How would you feel?  World War One had been a massive slaughter. Barely a family made it through without losing a father, brother or son. It was supposed to bring about peace and prosperity, but it had led only into Austerity.

Now the generation who survived it had their own children. They were being asked to send their own sons into that very same carnage.

The British government had to convince people that this war was worth it.  With a mixture of highlighting the fear, underscoring the threat and empathetic sentiments, the Ministry of Information set about their propaganda.

The trio of morale boosting posters were billed as if they were directives from King George VI. The original idea was to place his photograph at the top, but that got changed into a crown.  It just looked better in the design.

The posters were printed, distributed and ready in towns and cities everywhere before war was even deemed inevitable.

Freedom is in Peril, Defend it With All Your Might

This was the first in the trilogy of morale boosting posters for the war-time British public.

Three Slogans From the Ministry of Information

With bombs coming down, the government had to say something. These posters were all over the streets, as messages to a war-torn British population.

The three posters were to be pasted in public places all over Britain. They started to appear on the very day that the news broke that the country was at war.

But only the first two ever went up.

The first was fighting talk with a stark message.  'Freedom is in peril,' it warned, 'Defend it with all your might.' 

The implication was very real. If the Nazi forces took Britain, then democracy would be over. The people would be enslaved and our culture would be eroded, along with our lives.

It didn't take much imagination to picture it. Stories of atrocities committed in the rest of Occupied Europe were in our newspapers.  The full enormity of the horrors within the concentration camps was yet to be widely known, but there was enough information to make educated guesses.

Even if the average Briton wasn't up on current events abroad, then it was hard to ignore the Blitz. If anyone needed a hint of life under Hitler's rule, then the destruction of British cities said it all.

'Freedom is in peril' was designed to trigger every fear and channel it into bitter fighting. This wasn't necessarily just on the front line, but in the home, workplace and community. Get angry. Defend Britain in any way that presents itself to you was the moral of that poster.

The second was more consolatory. It seemed to acknowledge that people were afraid, distressed and ready to give up.  It explained why all of these things were not helping. 'Your courage, Your cheerfulness, Your Resolution, will bring us victory,' it maintained.

The emphasis on 'your' was important. It made it personal and hit straight at that sense of helplessness. There was something that ordinary people could do. By simply staying positive, they were going to ensure that this was one day over.

It's those which the people alive then remember now. 400,000 copies of the 'Freedom' and 800,000 copies of the 'Courage' posters were plastered over everything from buses to bill-boards. In their very ubiquity, these slogans were hard to miss.

The British people never saw the famous 'Keep Calm' slogan on a poster, but with very, very good reason. The circumstance in which it would have been put up never happened.

Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring us Victory

The second poster printed by the government to display to the population of Britain.

Keep Calm and Carry On

The secret, third poster was printed in the millions, then bundled away unseen in attics and storerooms.

Many more copies of the third poster were printed. According to war office records, 2,500,000 of them were sent to local authority storerooms all over the country. Then they were hidden away.

After the end of the Second World War, in 1945, the majority were quietly destroyed. Some remained in governmental archives.

In 2000, two were found in a house in Northumberland; and fifteen were kept by an ex-serviceman in Scotland. The rest, as far as we know, were shredded and burnt by those entrusted with their possession.

They absolutely were not pasted onto the walls of Britain, thus any movie or other reconstruction which says they were is inaccurate.

'Keep Calm and Carry On' would have appeared en masse in the public view on the day that Britain fell to the Third Reich.  It would have been the last advice to Occupied Britain from its defeated (and possibly fled, dead or captured) monarch.

Across the North Sea and the Channel, the continental Western Europe was all under German command, while Britain defended her shores. The poster never went up.

Now Panic and Freak Out

Buy this poster to display what really would have happened!

More Spoof Versions!

Fellow Wizzley author Katiem2 has some hilarious parodies of this slogan in her article.
The keep calm and carry on saying is taking on a whole new meaning, in fact hundreds, as everyone seems to be adapting the theme to meet their own unique message, see the many now

An Ironic Coda, or How Europe Finally Ruled

A poster, which was designed to only be used when Germany invaded, is now being legally taken down by a European Union judgement.

In 2000, Stuart and Mary Manley received a collection of books to sell in their shop in Alnwick, Northumberland. Amongst the literary treasures in the boxes were two of the original 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters.

It seemed charming. The slogan and design played into that quirky British sentiment, and so they instantly became popular in reproductions everywhere. 

Fifty-five years after the end of World War Two, the government had no problem with this. The Imperial War Museum confirmed that there was no copyright restriction on replicas being made. The couple went for it.

Very soon the slogan appeared in shops and on market stalls all over the country. It tapped into the public mood much better in the recession hit 2000s than it ever did when it was designed.

In many ways, it was like our mythical Blitz Spirit generation passing on the baton. If they could be brave, then so could we. It handed back a bit of pride, an absolution.

Until Mark Coop slapped a copyright notice on it.  Who's he then?  A businessman from Surrey, who created a web-based company bearing the same slogan, in order to reproduce items with it on.  He claimed it as his trademark in 2007 and was instantly laughed out of a British courtroom.

Coop took his case to the European Union, which over-rode the British decision and gave him the slogan as his personal property.  He immediately started serving notices on all other vendors to get their versions taken off the virtual and real world shelves.

The judgement is being contested legally in the European Courts by Trade Mark Direct.  It's being contested morally, I should imagine, by just about everyone else on the planet.

The best advice I can give to readers learning about this for the first time is: keep calm and carry on, and how about that cup of tea?

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More Articles about Britain and the British

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The Union Jack, as it's commonly known, was meant to represent the United Kingdom. It says more about England as a superpower.
Feeling a little Welsh today? Check out these ideas for outfits which invoke the national pride of Wales.
The story behind 'Land of my Fathers' ('Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau') is one of poetry, bardic awen and the refusal to lay down and play dead.
Updated: 07/19/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 11/25/2012

The message is so quintessentially British, even if it was never used. I'm quite amused by it, while also recognizing the original, very serious intent.

UnnamedHarald on 11/25/2012

Very enjoyable read. The back history was fascinating. I see this many places here in Cedar Rapids. Good thing they were never posted for their original purpose-- but the message seems to resonate today under different circumstances.

JoHarrington on 09/06/2012

I'm a mine of useless information! :D Glad that you both enjoyed it, and thank you for reading. <3

katiem2 on 09/06/2012

Oh so that's how it all got started :)K

Ragtimelil on 09/06/2012

O thank you. I had no idea where that slogan came from. How do I miss all these great articles for so long?

JoHarrington on 08/05/2012

I'm glad to have informed you!

I do love Whittards too though. Back when I was earning a proper wage, I used to enjoy walking around there with a basket. I tried out so many different teas and coffees. Caramel coffee beans are still a favorite. I just haven't got any in the house anymore.

Mira on 08/05/2012

Oh Jo, this was a fabulous article! I read it with bated breath. I, too, saw a mug with Keep Calm and Carry On here at Whittard's. It did sound rather strange; I couldn't make head or tail of it. I imagined it was meant to sound funny, and yet it managed to sound so ominous. Now I know why.

JoHarrington on 07/31/2012

From what I've gathered from Twitter, it's getting one! But I did read earlier that the delayed showing of the games was working in terms of viewers. The main races etc are going out during prime time, which means that more people can enjoy them in your timezone.

Just as long as you avoid the internet and all news sources first, so that the results aren't spoiled!

Spirit_0f_RS on 07/31/2012

<3 I know you are joking.

NBC needs a solid 'facepalm' moment from us Americans, no doubt about it. =P

JoHarrington on 07/31/2012

I keep hearing the name of NBC at the moment. I hadn't heard of them before, then their Olympic coverage is making headlines here. Didn't show the 7/7 memorial; didn't know who Sir Tim Berners-Lee is; and now, apparently, got the history of this poster wrong too.

Who are these people and why are you Americans letting them run a television channel over there?

LOL I'm glad that you enjoyed reading this. And I am joking with you above. <3

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