Winnie Was A Real Bear: A. A. Milne's Inspirations
Winnipeg the bear with Lt. Harry Colebourn. (CBSnews.com)
Winnie the Pooh is one of the most beloved children’s literary characters in history. Along with his pals Piglet, Tigger, Owl, Eeyore, and Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh has been featured in books, movies, and television shows to the delight of children across the world. You may think that the tubby, honey-loving bear was the product of the imagination of British author and playwright Alan Alexander Milne, better known as A.A. Milne, but you would only be partially right. Milne, who was born on this day in 1882, based his best-known character on a real bear with a long, interesting, and tragic past.
Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne's son, Christopher Robin, sitting at home with his teddy bear. (Getty Images)
In August 1914, a British-born Canadian soldier named Lieutenant Harry Colebourn caught sight of something that would change his life. At a train station in White River, Ontario stood a trapper with a small bear cub on a leash. The trapper explained that he had killed its mother but didn't have the heart to kill the baby or leave it to die alone in the wilderness, so he brought the cub with him to the train station hoping to find someone willing to buy the bear. Colebourn was just that person.
As a veterinarian, Colebourn was knowledgeable about animals. (bbc.com)
Who Was Lieutenant Harry Colebourn?
At the time that he purchased the little bear cub from the trapper for $20, Harry Colebourn was a 27-year-old veterinarian. Although he was born in Birmingham, England, he moved to Canada when he was just 18 years old to study veterinary science and surgery at the Ontario Veterinary College. When he graduated in 1911, he accepted a position with the Canadian Department of Agriculture and moved to Winnipeg, but after World War I broke out, Colebourn enlisted and left for training at the Fort Garry Horse regiment's training camp in Valcartier, Quebec. It was on his way there that he encountered the young bear that he named Winnipeg.
Look closely and you will see Winnipeg the bear with Colebourn in the front row. (thecanadianencyclopedia.ca)
Winnipeg, The Regimental Mascot
Colebourn took Winnipeg (or "Winnie" for short) with him to the training camp, where he doubtlessly got a lot of questions upon arrival. Nevertheless, the young veterinarian trained the cub to be a gentle companion, sleeping under Colebourn's bed and climbing the tent poles. The entire regiment fell in love with the comical little bear, posing for photographs with Winnie and declaring her the regiment's unofficial mascot.
Winnie with Colebourn on Salisbury Plain in England. (thediscoverblog. com)
Colebourn And Winnie Go To England
When Lieutenant Colebourn received orders to sail to England for additional training, Winnie naturally went with him. Winnie frolicked on the Salisbury Plain for seven weeks while Colebourn attended training, but the young veterinary officer was soon called to the Western Front, where he was needed to care for the horses mired in battle. As much as Colebourn loved Winnie, he knew that the Western Front was no place for her. Alternative arrangements would have to be made for Winnie's care.
This grainy old photograph from about 1915 shows a child playing with Winnie at the London Zoo. (bbc.com)
The London Zoo
Fortunately for Colebourn and Winnie, the London Zoo had just completed construction of a new bear habitat with a realistic mountain landscape. It was a tearful farewell for Colebourn as he left Winnie at her new home on December 9, 1914, promising that he would return as soon as possible to take her back to her native Canada.
Colebourn was a member of the Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corp (nam.ac. uk)
Months Stretched To Years
As Winnie settled into zoo life, Colebourn was experiencing the horrors of war. As a member of the Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corp, he was tasked with treating military horses on the front lines, which was a dangerous place to be. Although Colebourn had hoped the war would last only a few months, it soon became clear that he and Winnie would be apart much longer.
Winnie was the star attraction at the London Zoo. (cnn.com)
Life At The Zoo
With her gentle face and cuddly nature, Winnie became the star of the London Zoo. She was so tame and well-behaved that zookeepers opened the gate to her habitat and allowed children to hand-feed her, hug her, and even ride on her back. During the uncertainty of wartime, Winnie was a welcomed reprieve for worried children as well as their parents. Winnie even got occasional visits from Lieutenant Colebourn, who returned to London every time he was granted leave. It warmed Colebourn's heart to see how the children of London loved Winnie.
A.A. Milne made frequent trips to the London Zoo with his son, Christopher Robin. (npg.org.uk)
A Broken Promise
Finally, in November 1918, nearly four years after Colebourn left Winnie at the London Zoo, the war was over. In those four years, Winnie had grown from a small cub to full-size bear. She learned to perform tricks for her guests and even seemed to recognize frequent visitors, like a young boy named Christopher Robin Milne. When Harry Colebourn realized how happy Winnie was at the zoo, he knew that, despite his earlier promise, he couldn't take Winnie away from it. With a sad goodbye, Colebourn returned to his home in Winnipeg, and Winnie remained in London.
Christopher Robin and his stuffed bear. (allthatsinteresting.com)
Many of London's youngsters bonded with Winnie, but arguably the most important one was the young son of prominent poet, playwright, and author A.A. Milne. Little Christopher Robin Milne often begged his parents to take him to see Winnie at the zoo, where he loved to feed the bear spoonfuls of condensed milk, scratch her ears, and give her bear hugs. Christopher Robin even named his stuffed toy bear "Winnie the Pooh" after his favorite bear and a swan at the zoo he called Pooh.
One of the original Winnie the Pooh illustrations. (gregcookland.com)
The Rest Of The Gang
The stuffed bear had a lot of company in Christopher Robin's bedroom. Proving that Winnie was his only real stride in creative naming, the boy also owned a donkey named Eeyore, a striped tiger named Tigger, a piglet named Piglet, and a rabbit named Rabbit. To amuse his young son, A.A. Milne wrote a book of children's poems in which he brought the toys to life and gave them distinct personalities. The book was published in 1924 under the title When We Were Very Young, and its sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, followed four years later. Milne set his stories in the Hundred Acre Wood, which was based on the Five Hundred Acre Wood of Ashford Forest in England's East Sussex.
The adventures of Winnie the Pooh were told in "The House at Pooh Corner." (caseantiques.com)
Winnie The Pooh Overshadowed The Rest Of Milne's Work
Milne was already an established and successful writer by the time he released his Winnie the Pooh stories, but much of his writing has been obscured by the shadow cast by Winnie the Pooh. Today, Milne's name is forever remembered for bringing Winnie the Pooh and his friends to life.
A statue of Lieutenant Colebourn and Winnipeg the bear still stands at the London Zoo. (zoochat.com)
Long Live Winnie
After the release of Milne's books, Winnie's popularity only increased. When she died in 1934 at the age of 20, her passing was mourned around the world. The London Zoo as well as Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo have prominent statues of the friendly bear holding hands with Lieutenant Colebourn. Somewhat less heartwarmingly, her skull was put on display in 2015 at London's Royal College of Surgeons Hunterian Museum, if that's something you're into. We're not here to judge.