Keep calm and learn the secret history of wartime slogans

Friday 27 June 2014

It’s hard to believe that a wartime slogan from 1939, which was never seen by the public, has been popularised 75 years later and is being used to sell everything from mugs to flight bags and baby clothes. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was one of three key messages created by Britain’s wartime propaganda department, the Ministry of Information, made famous as the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel, 1984.

The now-ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ phrase was chosen for its message of ‘sober restraint’. 2.45 million posters displaying it were printed, only to be pulped and recycled in 1940 to help the British government deal with a serious paper shortage. It wasn’t until a copy was discovered in a bookshop in Northumberland in 2000, and reproductions of it began to be sold a year later, that its fame was established.

Relatively little was known about the Ministry of Information, which was located in the University of London’s headquarters at Senate House. That is now changing. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the ‘Keep Calm’ slogan on 27 June, the Institute of English Studies, a member institute of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, is undertaking a £782,410 four-year research project to reveal its secret history.

The project, Make Do and Mend: a publishing and communication history of the Ministry of Information, 1939-45, is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It is run in collaboration with the Department of Digital Humanities (DDH) at King’s College London (which provides the co-investigator, Paul Vetch) and the National Archives at Kew.

‘The history of “Keep Calm and Carry On” is peculiar and complicated and, like so many examples of the best history (and the best science), doesn't quite confirm our settled notions or convenient assumptions,’ said Professor Simon Eliot, the project’s principal investigator.

‘Public relations is much about getting the message's tone and timing right, and the poster's immediate fate and its subsequent rediscovery are a vivid confirmation of this fact. The findings of this study prove just how important it is to examine the workings of the Ministry of Information between 1939 and 1945 from the point of view of the history of communication. This is but one example of the rich material being unearthed by our new project.’

Much of the material collected during the investigation will be made available through the project website, which is a combination of online museum and archive, and its Twitter feed (@moidigital). The website is being developed and implemented at DDH, under the leadership of Paul Vetch, to offer users a compelling multimedia experience of the Home Front during the Second World War.

Mark Dunton, contemporary records specialist for The National Archives, said he was ‘delighted’ to be working with SAS on the history of the Ministry of Information project. ‘The resources generated by it will be very useful for anyone interested in the civilian experience of the Second World War and the history of “propaganda”.’

A detailed blog post, entitled ‘Keep Calm and Carry On – the compromise behind the slogan’, has been written to mark the anniversary and will be hosted on The National Archives-administered History of Government blog from 27 June 2014.

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Notes for editors:

1. For further information or to request an interview please contact Dee Burn at the School of Advanced Study, University of London at / 020 7862 8670. Images and a copy of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ blog post available on request.

2. The Institute of English Studies, founded in 1999 out of the Centre for English Studies, is an internationally renowned research centre, dedicated to promoting advanced study and research in English studies in the wider national and international academic community. It provides a centre for excellence in English language, literature, palaeography and the history of the book.  Its activities include facilitating academic discussion and the exchange of ideas through its comprehensive events programme, hosting major collaborative research projects, providing essential research training in book history and palaeography, and facilitating scholarly communities in all areas of English studies. The Institute of English Studies is a member institute of the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

3. Make Do and Mend: a publishing and communication history of the Ministry of Information, 1939-45 is a four-year AHRC-funded project based at the Institute of English Studies, a member institute of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study.  The project began in January 2014, and is led by Professor Simon Eliot of the Institute of English Studies as principal investigator, with Paul Vetch of the Department of Digital Humanities at King's College London as co-principal investigator. Make Do and Mend is in partnership with the National Archives at Kew, and will work closely with the Imperial War Museum, the Mass Observation Archives at Sussex University, and with the BBC archives at Caversham. The project will analyse an extensive array of primary resources and plans to interview as many as possible of those whose lives and opinions were in some way affected by the Ministry’s output. Much of the material collected will be made publicly available in the form of a virtual museum and archive. A public exhibition is also planned. Find out more at or follow the project on Twitter @moidigital

4. The School of Advanced Study, University of London (SAS) is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its 10 member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2012-13, SAS: welcomed 833 research fellows and associates; held 2,231 research dissemination events; received 21.7 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms; and received 194,529 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. Find out more at or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews

5. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) - Each year the AHRC provides approximately £98 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes hundreds of research awards ranging from individual fellowships to major collaborative projects as well as over 1,000 studentship awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

6. The National Archives is a government department and an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). As the official archive of the UK government and England and Wales, we look after and make available to the public a collection of historical records dating back over 1,000 years, including records as diverse as Domesday Book and MI5 files

7. The University of London is a federal University and is one of the oldest, largest and most diverse universities in the UK. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University is recognised globally as a world leader in Higher Education. It consists of 18 self-governing Colleges of outstanding reputation, together with a number of prestigious central academic bodies and activities. Learn more about the University of London at