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Winnie-the-Pooh’s Canadian connection

The Story


It was a most auspicious start for "a bear of very little brain." On Christmas Eve, 1925, the London Evening News published a short story by writer A.A. Milne. Among its characters was a bear named Winnie-the-Pooh. But it wasn't until the 1980s that the story behind the inspiration for the bear came to light. Winnipegger Fred Colebourn explains Winnie's background to CBC's Midday. The "silly old bear" was not pure invention; he was inspired by a real-life bear in the London Zoo. The bear, named "Winnie" (short for Winnipeg), was a donation from Fred Colebourn's father, Harry, a Canadian Army veterinarian in the First World War. Before becoming a star attraction at the zoo, Winnie was the mascot of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade.

Medium: Television
Program: Midday
Broadcast Date: June 3, 1987
Guest: Fred Colebourn
Host: Peter Downie, Valerie Pringle
Duration: 4:07
Photo: Provincial Archives of Manitoba

Did You know?


• Captain Harry Colebourn was born in 1887 in Birmingham, England and moved to Canada in 1905. He trained at the Ontario Veterinary College in Toronto, graduating with a Bachelor of Veterinary Science in 1911.
• After graduation Colebourn took a job with the Manitoba Department of Agriculture in Winnipeg. He trained with the militia in his spare time and became a provisional lieutenant in the Veterinary Corps.

• With the start of the First World War in August 1914, Colebourn became a member of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. The Corps' duty was to care for the thousands of horses the army used to transport artillery, supplies, and the bodies of the dead and wounded.
• On August 23, 1914, Colebourn boarded a troop train that would take him from Winnipeg to a military staging area in Valcartier, Quebec. From there, Canadian servicemen would be sent overseas.

• The following day Colebourn's train stopped in White River, Ontario, a small town between Port Arthur (later Thunder Bay) and Sault Ste. Marie.
• At the train station he met a hunter with an orphaned female bear cub. The hunter had shot and killed the cub's mother, without whom the cub was almost certain to die.
• Colebourn offered the hunter $20 (about $424 in 2015 dollars) for the cub. The hunter gladly made the trade.

• Colebourn commemorated his adopted home town by naming the cub "Winnipeg Bear." Her name quickly became "Winnie" for short.
• Winnie accompanied Colebourn on the train and stayed with him in the encampment at Valcartier. She was on Colebourn's troopship when it set sail for England on Oct. 3, 1914.
• In England, the Canadians lived in an encampment and training ground on the Salisbury Plain. The soldiers played with Winnie in their off hours.

• In December 1914 Colebourn's unit, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, got word they were about to leave for the war zone in France. Colebourn was ordered to remove Winnie, so he decided to loan her to the London Zoo.
• The zoo, located in the city's Regent Park, was the home of the Royal Zoological Society of London. It had a habitat for bears called the Mappin Terraces.

• Harry Colebourn's donation to the zoo was intended to be temporary. He visited Winnie every time he was on leave in London.
• By the end of the war in 1918, Winnie had many admirers and was one of the zoo's most popular animals. Colebourn decided to leave her in the zoo's care and, in a ceremony on Dec. 1, 1919, he officially handed her over to the zoo.

• Winnie was so tame that parents would place their children on her back for a ride.
• Another favourite activity for children was to feed Winnie a mixture of condensed milk and corn syrup.
• Two of Winnie's frequent visitors in the 1920s were a young boy named Christopher Robin and his father, writer A.A. Milne.

• Christopher Robin had a teddy bear, originally called Edward, that he renamed Winnie-the-Pooh. "Winnie" came from the bear in the zoo, and "Pooh" was apparently drawn from a pet swan of the Milnes' acquaintance.
• A.A. Milne wrote for the humour magazine Punch. He also wrote a detective novel and many plays, essays and short stories.

• In 1926 Milne published a book called Winnie-the-Pooh. It was illustrated by a friend and fellow Punch contributor, Ernest H. Shepard.
• Milne's The House at Pooh Corner followed in 1928. He also produced two classics of children's verse: When We Were Very Young in 1924 and Now We Are Six in 1927.
• Winnie lived at the zoo until her death. In the last two years of her life she had cataracts and arthritis and suffered a stroke that partly paralyzed her. She was euthanized on May 12, 1934.


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