Yes, the “silly old bear” is actually quite old!
If you were a soldier about to leave for war, what would you do? For Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian from Winnipeg, his answer was, “You know what? I’m gonna buy a bear.”
On August 24, 1914, just a day after leaving for training to join the WWI war effort, Colebourn bought a little black bear cub from a hunter who had just killed its mother for $20 ($419 today). He made the purchase when his train, bound for Val Carteir, Quebec, made a stop in White River, Ontario (located up in northwestern Ontario). Colebourn was part of both the Fort Garry Horse Regiment and the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. The female cub was originally named after Coleburn’s adopted hometown, (he was originally from England), but was later shortened to just “Winnie.”
She quickly became the mascot for the regiment as not only did Winnie accompany Colebourn to his training in Val Carteir, but she travelled with him via ship to England. Apparently she slept underneath his cot during the voyage over to Europe and continued to do so even after they reached the Salisbury Plains of Wiltshire, England. As Winnie the cub became Winnie the bear, she enjoyed climbing the main pole in the soldier’s tent and loved to give it a shake. Unfortunately for Winnie, this source of amusement led to her being tethered to a pole outside the tent most of the time from then on.
Colebourn cared for Winnie every day until he received word that his regiment was being shipped off to the battlefields of France. Knowing that Winnie would not be able to join him, Colebourn made arrangements with the London Zoo to keep her there until he returned. While he was gone, Winnie became the star attraction at the zoo because of her friendly nature. Zoo staff described her as “completely trustworthy.” She would eat treats from visitors’ hands and even gave piggyback rides to children. Colebourn visited Winnie every time he went on leave, but when the war ended he decided not to take her back to Canada. Colebourn returned to Winnipeg, opened a successful veterinary practice, and remained there until his death in 1947. Reportedly, the zoo sent him updates on Winnie until she passed away in 1934.
Winnie gathered many fans during her 20 years. Two of them included author Alan Alexander (A.A.) Milne and his son, Christopher Robin. They were frequent visitors, even holding a birthday party in Winnie’s den. Inspired by Winnie and his son’s love for the bear, Milne began to write stories about the two. Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Kango, and Roo were inspired by Christopher Robin’s other stuffed animals. Rabbit and Owl were based off of animals that lived in their area. (Gopher is a Disney creation). Ernest Shepard provided the character drawings.
Anyone remember this old Heritage Minute?
Fun Fact #1: Christopher Robin didn’t come up with Winnie’s full name out of the blue. He had a pet swan named “Pooh” and he decided to rename his teddy bear, “Winnie the Pooh.”
Although Winnie successfully (though briefly) appeared in two of Milne’s earlier works, it was the publication of his novel in 1926, Winnie-the-Pooh, that brought him and Shepard worldwide acclaim. The two men collaborated on two more titles: Now We Are Six and The House At Pooh Corner. These books were favorites of Walt Disney’s daughters and he bought the rights to Winnie the Pooh in 1961.
Fun Fact #2: Winnie is yellow because Shepard based his image off of his own son’s teddy bear named Growler.
The stuffed animals that inspired the stories. Kanga, Piglet, Pooh, Eeyore, and Tigger. Poor Eeyore looks like he’s been through a lot. Seen some things. The Hundred Acre Woods can be a rough place.
If you happen to be in the Toronto area, currently on display at the Ryerson Image Centre is an exhibition called, “Remembering the Real Winnie: The World’s Most Famous Bear turns 100.”
The Fort Garry Horse Regiment and their mascot, Winnie.
Photo Credit: Daniel Rosen
Daniel Rosen, “Winnie at 100: How the bear became Pooh,” Accessed from: http://o.canada.com/news/national/winnie-the-pooh-at-100-how-the-bear-became-pooh
Mark Medley, “Remembering the real Winnie-the-Pooh,” The Globe and Mail, Accessed from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/remembering-the-real-winnie-the-pooh/article21442185/
White River Heritage Museum, “Winnie the Pooh,” Accessed from: http://www.whiteriver.ca/article/winnie-the-pooh-6.asp