One of the world’s best known series of children’s books, the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, were inspired by a teddy bear owned by A.A. Milne’s son Christopher Robin Milne. First published in 1926, what many people don’t know is that the much loved character was based on an actual bear, who had an enthralling journey through the First World War.
Lieutenant Harry Colebourn of the Fort Garry Horse was part of the 3rd Canadian Division. Along with tens of thousands of other young Canadians, Harry Colebourn answered the call to Empire to fight the Germans on the Western Front. Raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Colebourn served as the company veterinarian; he and the fellow members of his regiment were traveling across Canada for embarkation to Europe, when stopping en route in the town of White River, Ontario, Colebourn came across an abandoned female bear cub.
The cub’s mother had been killed by a hunter, from whom Colebourn bought the cub for $20. The tiny cub quickly became the regiment’s unofficial mascot. Like all pets, the cub needed a name, so Colebourn called her Winnipeg, after his home town, or Winnie for short.
The regiment, with bear secretly in tow, made its way to the port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. But rather than leave the cub behind, Winnie was surreptitiously snuck on board and made her way to England. Whilst deployed in France, Winnie was left in the care of London Zoo, and it was there, that Christopher Robin fell in love with her, and decided to name his own toy teddy bear in her honour.
Harry Colebourn survived the war and returned to Winnipeg, where he died in 1947. He donated Winnie to London Zoo where she lived until 1934.
Today, Winnie-the-Pooh is remembered the world over through A.A.Milne’s books and the Walt Disney cartoons and also by visitors to Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Zoo, where a statue marks the chance meeting of a young soldier and his much loved bear cub.