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, and he got there thanks to a Canadian soldier and veterinarian named Harry Colebourn.
It all started in White River, Ontario. Harry was at a train station where he bought a little bear cub for $20, which 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! Since Harry was on his way to Quebec, to join fellow soldiers heading overseas for World War I, the bear went with him. When Harry and his troop left for England, Winnie was right there with him on the ship.
Winnie the bear with Harry Colebourn. (Lindsay Mattick via AP/Canadian Press)
In England, Winnie became the mascot for Harry’s troop, which was called the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade. Winnie was a popular member of the team, and 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 — a move that would later become permanent once Harry realized how loved she was by all the zoo-goers.
The 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade with Winnie in the front row. (Lindsay Mattick via AP/Canadian Press)
Winnie wasn’t just beloved, but 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 two of 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, combined with the name of a friend’s pet swan, “Pooh,” to create Winnie-the-Pooh.
The real-life Christopher Robin with Winnie; if you look closely you can see it’s signed with the location, “The Zoo.” (ZSL London Zoo via AP/Canadian Press)
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 also included Piglet, Eeyore and Kanga — all toys in the book as they were based on other real-life toys of Christopher Robin’s — and Owl and Rabbit. It wasn’t until the second book, The House at Pooh Corner, that Tigger was introduced, and he was also based on one of Christopher Robin’s stuffed animals.
Once Winnie-the-Pooh became a published character, 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 became the very first foreign-language book to make the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Today, the bear that started it all is commemorated at the London Zoo with a statue, and the story of Harry and Winnie lives on through a plaque donated by White River, Ontario — the town that brought a soldier and a bear cub together.