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Keep Calm and Carry On

Updated: May 3, 2020

Keep calm and carry on was a motivational poster which was designed and produced in 1939 by the British Government at the beginning of World War II. The poster made up part of a series of three motivational posters, intended to raise moral of the British public who were threatened with mass air attacks on cities throughout the country. Whilst the other two posters were distributed and displayed as soon as they were printed, the ‘keep calm and carry on’ poster was held back with the intention of being used after serious air raids. However, the public reaction to the other two posters was disappointing at best, and by the time the blitz started it was decided that the poster had the wrong type of message and so the poster was hardly used despite around 2.5 million copies being printed.

The three motivational posters produced by the British government at the beginning of WW2.

The keep calm and carry on poster was rediscovered in 2000 when Stuart and Mary Manley, the owners of a second-hand bookshop discovered one of the original posters in a delivery of old books. The couple framed it and hung it up by the cash register; it attracted so much interest that the couple began to produce and sell copies.

The poster has since risen in popularity with variations being printed on to an endless list of products including keyrings, mugs and t-shirts. It has become a symbol of British stoicism: the "stiff upper lip", self-discipline, fortitude and remaining calm in adversity.

It seems rather ironic that in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the British public have ignored the message of the poster, despite its rise in popularity. The country has been inundated with panic buying, stockpiling and profiteering (by some). Where is the great British spirit that kept us going during World War II?

At the beginning of the Second World War the population of Britain was around 50 million people. Britain imported around 20 millions tons of food per year in order to feed everyone. This included about 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits, about 70% of cereals and fats, 50% of its meat, and Britain also relied on imported feed to support its domestic meat production.

One of the ways that Nazi Germany tried to defeat Britain was by bombing the ships that were bring food and supplies to the country. The idea was that Britain would begin to starve and would then be more easily defeated or more likely to submit to Nazi rule. To combat this the British Government introduced rationing. Rationing meant that all people would be able to get their fair share of food every week. Everyone was given a ration book and had to register with a chosen shop for the items. Shopkeepers would be given enough food for all the people registered with them. Purchasers had to take ration books with them when shopping, so the relevant coupon or coupons could be crossed out.

Rationing began on 8th January 1940 when bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. By 1942 many other items of food, including meat, milk, cheese, eggs and cooking fat were also rationed.

This is a typical weekly food ration for an adult:

· Bacon & Ham         4 oz (around 3 slices of modern thick cut bacon)

· Other meat            value of 1 shilling and 2 pence (equivalent to 2 chops)

· Butter                      2 oz

· Cheese                     2 oz

· Margarine              4 oz

· Cooking fat            4 oz

· Milk                       3 pints

· Sugar                    8 oz

· Preserves            1 lb every 2 months (one standard jar)

· Tea                        2 oz

· Eggs                     1 fresh egg (plus allowance of dried egg)

· Sweets                  12 oz every 4 weeks

People were also given point coupons that they could spend on other items such as rice, sultanas, baked beans and biscuits. The number of points these items cost depended on how easily they could be obtained.

Fresh fruit and vegetables were not rationed but were not always available to buy in the shops. In October 1939 the government launched the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, encouraging people to grow their own fruit and vegetables in the gardens. The campaign was a huge success with many people growing their own food. Some people also started keeping chickens, or other animals. Pigs were quite popular as they could be fed on kitchen waste. Wartime rationing did not completely end in Britain until 1954, nine years after the end of the war.

Whilst rationing was not popular with the British public, it had, for the most part been a success. It may not have been an enjoyable experience, but it did succeed in keeping the population fed. As rationing affected everyone, it brought people together, giving them a sense of camaraderie as ‘we’re all in it together’. This is an idea that perhaps, has value in today’s crisis.

The second world war ended in 1945, claiming around 75 million lives worldwide. Like world war II, the COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end and, also like the war, there will be casualties. However, this does not give us reason to panic. Obviously we do not wish serious illness or death onto anyone, but the truth is that most people will be fine in the end. As a nation we would benefit to learn some lessons from our own history, to tap into the British fortitude that famously got us through the harshness of war and can get us through this crisis. By implementing our own voluntary rationing, buying only what we need and leaving enough for others then we can reduce the strain on supermarkets and food producers. If we work together and show each other compassion we will become stronger as a nation, can reignite our British spirit and Keep Calm and Carry On.

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