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‘Keep Calm and Carry On’: Manchester bombing rouses British stiff upper lip

An unidentified woman knits on a bench in the underground train system, London, England, 1939. (Photo: Carl Mydans/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the deadliest terrorist attack on Northern England, Britons invoked a popular World War II-era expression of resilience and purpose: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

The phrase comes from a morale-boosting poster created by the British government in 1939 for war against the Nazis. Though not officially used at the time, the inspirational poster took on a new life in the 21st century for people yearning for self-assurance and inner peace in the face of adversity.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing in the entrance hall to the Manchester Arena, which occurred around 10:30 p.m. local time Monday, as crowds of children and teenagers were leaving a concert by American pop singer Ariana Grande. The terrorist attack, which killed at least 22 and hospitalized 59, was the deadliest on British soil since the coordinated bombings on the London Underground on July 7, 2005.

For older Manchester residents, the bombing may bring back painful memories of the Irish Republican Army’s 1996 truck bombing, which injured more than 200, toward the end of the Northern Ireland conflict known as the Troubles.

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a statement outside Number 10 Downing Street in London on May 23, 2017. (Photo: Kate Green/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

While addressing her country following the attack, British Prime Minister Theresa May exhibited hints of the Victorian stoicism and “stiff upper lip” that’s traditionally been attributed to the British people during times of hardship. With calm and steady diction, she noted that this is not the first time terrorism has shaken Manchester.

“We struggle to understand the warped and twisted mind that sees a room packed with young children not as a scene to cherish but as an opportunity for carnage,” May said outside 10 Downing Street. “But we can continue to resolve to thwart such attacks in the future, to take on and defeat the ideology that often fuels this violence.”

Meanwhile, many of her countrymen garnered strength from their forebears who collectively kept their composure and sense of purpose amid nightly bombardments from Nazi Germany.

Citizens of the United Kingdom and well-wishers abroad started sharing messages of unity, using the quintessentially British expression from the mid-20th century on a fundamentally 21st century platform — Twitter.

In late 1939, the British government tasked the Ministry of Information, which was responsible for propaganda and publicity, to create motivational posters to be displayed across the United Kingdom for the impending dark days of World War II.

This led to the creation and display of two posters, reading “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” and “Freedom Is in Peril, Defend It With All Your Might.” Over 2 ½ million copies of a third poster, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” had been created for use if the Germans ever sent ground troops into Britain — which never happened.

More than 50 years after World War II ended, Stuart Manley, a bookseller for Barter Books in northeastern England, found a copy of the largely forgotten “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster amid a pile of old books purchased at an auction. His wife, Mary Manley, liked the poster so much that she had it framed and hung it in their shop near the cash register.

The poster attracted so much attention from customers that they started to sell copies. Other companies started to produce their own copies of the wartime poster, and it became a world-famous image, inspiring countless imitations and parodies.

A poster on a London street gives encouragement in September 1939. (Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images)

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