The Tale of the Real Winnie Bear

On the 14th of October 1926, Alan Alexander Milne’s iconic collection of children’s stories Winnie-the-Pooh was first published by Methuen in London. The story of the actual brown bear which inspired Milne’s cartoon teddy is a lot less known, even though it has been the subject of books, such as  Real Winnie: A One-of-a-kind Bear (2003) by Val Shushkewich, or even Hollywood movies, such as Bear Named Winnie (2005), starring M. Fassbender.

winnie-the-pooh “Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.” 

(From A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh)

In the movie, Fassbender played the role of Captain Harry Colebourn, the real discoverer of Winnie. Colebourn was a veterinary surgeon in the Canadian military, whose war-time diaries recorded the way he came across the bear. Born in Birmingham in 1887, Colebourn first came to Canada at the age of 18, worked in Toronto in the shipping industry to finance his university education and signed up for vet college in Ontario. He was employed by the Department of Agriculture, but when WWI broke out, he enrolled in the army, where he had trained as an officer. According to his journals, on the 24th of August 1914, on his way to meet his regiment, the train stopped at White River, Ontario, where he purchased a small black female bear cub. He bought the bear for the sum of $20 from a hunter who had killed her mother. He named her Winnie after his hometown of Winnipeg. In October, Colebourn took Winnie with him aboard the S.S. Manitou liner to England.

“Winnie was to remain with him and a pet to the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade Headquarters and a Mascot to the C.A.V.C. while he remained in England. Winnie quickly became a pet to many of the soldiers and would follow them around like a tame dog in their off-duty hours at Salisbury Plain. There were numerous photos taken of her with the men and these photos often became a keepsake for them to treasure.” (The Fort Garry Horse Museum and Archives)

However, Harry was soon ordered to remove Winnie from the Brigade Headquarters, as she could not join them on the battlefields of France. So, in December 1914, he handed her over to the London Zoo until the end of the war, intending to actually return with her to Canada!  He even visited Winnie at the Zoo on his leaves from the army. After the end of the war circumstances kept Colebourn in England a year longer, by which time he decided to donate Winnie to the Zoo permanently as a sign of gratitude for their care over the four war years.

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“It was to be noted that Winnie had also become a feature attraction for the many thousands of visitors and especially young children. She was considered to be completely trustworthy by her bear keepers who said that of all the bears they had in the Zoo, Winnie was the only one they could say this about. (…)Two of her admirers of that early period after the war were A.A. Milne, a writer, and his young son Christopher Robin. From 1924, they frequently visited the Zoo where the young Milne boy would always want to go and see Winnie. Christopher was even allowed inside the cage to feed her condensed milk. Captivated by Winnipeg, who gave zoo patrons piggyback rides around the zoo and ate treats from their hands, Christopher Robin urged his father to take her home.” (The Fort Garry Horse Museum and Archives). Seeing as his wish could not be granted, Christopher had named his Harrods birthday bear after Winnie and this is where the inspiration of his father A.A. Milne and his illustrator friend E. H. Shepard came for the beloved fictional character. Winnie the bear lived until 1934, but the story of her namesake lives forever in the storybooks.

 

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