Wearside Echoes: Rare relics of war revealed

Wartime posters in the basement of Jessops Camera Shop in Fawcett Street, Sunderland.
Wartime posters in the basement of Jessops Camera Shop in Fawcett Street, Sunderland.
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ATTEMPTS to trademark the wartime phrase Keep Calm and Carry On have hit the headlines recently.

The Ministry of Information produced 2.5million posters featuring the morale-boosting slogan in the months before the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. Most, however, never saw the light of day.

Indeed, had it not been for a chance find at a Northumberland shop in 2000, when one of the posters was discovered in a box of old books, it would probably have remained forgotten.

Only two examples of the original 72-year-old poster were known to exist outside government archives – until now.

In the vaults of an old bank in Sunderland, four of the rarest relics of the war can be found. Battered and torn they might be, but a quartet of Keep Calm posters still adorns the walls.

“I am minded to believe they are originals, as I took photographs of them back in the 1990s – well before the poster was ‘rediscovered’ in Northumberland,” said local historian Kevin Brady.

“They really are extremely rare. Very, very few of the original posters have survived the years since the war, and most of these are now in museum collections – except the ones in Sunderland.”

Kevin, a photographer at the Sunderland Echo, first heard about Wearside’s collection of Keep Calm posters while researching stories for his best-selling war book Sunderland’s Blitz.

“I’ve been told that the basement was used as an air raid shelter during the war, which would make sense,” said Kevin. “Most Sunderland stores and businesses had to provide shelters for customers.

“There is an old air raid shelter poster on the wall too, detailing the rules and regulations people had to abide by, which adds weight to the theory that the posters are originals.”

Keep Calm was the third in a series of three motivational posters produced by the Ministry of Information, intended to strengthen morale in the event of a German invasion or air attack.

The first two posters – “Freedom Is In Peril. Defend It With All Your Might” and “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” – brought a mixed reaction from the public.

“They actually proved rather controversial,” said historian Terry Charman, of the Imperial War Museum in London. “People felt they were rather condescending and didn’t like them on the whole.

“Perhaps because of this adverse reaction, or because there was no immediate invasion or attack early in the war, only a few Keep Calm posters were sent out. Other posters were designed instead.”

Indeed, Terry can find just one published contemporary record of a very limited Keep Calm distribution – when a few bundles were sent off to Cardiff on May 28, 1940.

Terry, an expert on posters of the Second World War, believes the battered remains of the Keep Calm ones in the basement of Jessops are probably genuine – although further evidence is needed.

Rare, or not, the posters will continue to be offered a safe home in the basement of Jessops.

“I started here in July 1988, at the age of 17, and the posters have been stuck to the walls of the basement for as long as I can remember,” said manager Robin Hunter.

“We have no plans to try and remove the posters. We’ll just leave them there, as they are a bit of history.”

* Do you have memories of the posters before 1988, or did you ever use the Jessops air raid shelter? Write to Sarah Stoner, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER.