The real-life Canadian story of Winnie-the-PoohJanuary 17, 2022 | Last Updated August 29, 2022
Did you know there’s a Canadian connection to the honey-loving character brought to life by A. A. Milne? Winnie-the-Pooh was based on a real-life bear who lived in the London Zoo. He got there thanks to a Canadian soldier and veterinarian named Harry Colebourn.
When Harry met Winnie
It all started in White River, Ontario. Harry was at a train station where he bought a little bear cub for $20. That would be about $429 in today’s dollars! He named the cub “Winnipeg Bear” after the town he grew up in. That’s where the name “Winnie” comes from, it’s actually a nickname!
Harry was on his way to Quebec to join fellow soldiers heading overseas for World War I. And the bear went with him. When Harry and his troop left for England, Winnie was right there with him on the ship.
Winnie takes a trip
Winnie became the mascot for Harry’s troop, which was called the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade. Winnie was a popular member of the team. The brigade played with her whenever they had downtime. That’s right, Winnie was a “her”!
When the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade received word they were going to France, it came with the order that Harry could not bring Winnie. But the silver lining was that Winnie would be loaned to the London Zoo. That move would later become permanent. That is, once Harry realized how loved she was by all the zoo-goers.
The London Zoo and Winnie-the-Pooh
Winnie wasn’t just beloved, she was one of the most popular animals in the London Zoo at the time. Thanks to Harry and the other soldiers, Winnie was very tame. So children who visited her at the zoo could ride on her back! Zoo-goers could also feed Winnie. But it wasn’t a pot of honey — this bear’s preferred sweet treat was a mix of corn syrup and condensed milk.
Can you guess who Winnie’s most frequent visitors were? None other than Christopher Robin and his father, A. A. Milne. Christopher Robin named his teddy bear after Winnie. Then combined it with the name of a friend’s pet swan, called “Pooh,” to create Winnie-the-Pooh.
Winnie-the-Pooh and friends
Inspired by his son’s teddy bear, A. A. Milne published Winnie-the-Pooh on October 14, 1926. The very first book about the silly old bear included Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Owl and Rabbit. Toys in the book were based on stuffed animals that belonged to Christopher Robin.
It wasn’t until the second book, The House at Pooh Corner, that Tigger was introduced. He was also based on one of Christopher Robin’s stuffed animals.
Winnie-the-Pooh became a published character, and the rest is history. Everyone fell in love with the stuffed bear from the books. Just as they did with Winnie in the London Zoo. Only this little bear could reach all parts of the world! In fact, Winnie-the-Pooh was even translated into Latin. And it became the very first foreign-language book to make the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Today, the bear that started it all has a statue at the London Zoo. Harry and Winnie's story lives on through a plaque donated by White River, Ontario — the town that brought a soldier and a bear cub together.