“Winnipeg” the Bear

a.k.a. “Winnie the Pooh”

Winnie the Real Live Bear

Winnie with owner Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, 1915
Winnie with owner Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, 1915

Long before author A.A. Milne first created his beloved character, there was a real live bear by the name of Winnie who had already won the hearts of Londoners. This black bear hailed from the wilderness of the Canadian forests, and had been on a long journey before finally coming to the London Zoo where it would first meet a young Christopher Robin Milne.

Over eighty years ago, the community of White River, Ontario, Canada, bid farewell to a little black bear cub.  This bear would become the inspiration of author A.A. Milne and subsequently became one of the most loved bears in the world. This is her story.There was a little black bear cub that became an orphan when a hunter killed her mother. She was found by a trapper who brought her into White River, which was a fairly common thing to do in 1914. Several people had bears then. Some have photos showing pet bears leashed and posing with family members.

 Lieutenant Harry Colebourn

White River, which was founded by the Canadian Pacific Railway back in 1885, was an important stop for all trains.  Here they would take on coal and water as well as doing some train housekeeping jobs, such as cleaning out the cinders. During the First World War, most trains carrying troops also carried horses, since they were used in the war. Trains would stop here from four to six hours. The horses were taken off the train to be watered and exercised.  Troops were drilled along Winnipeg Street where the Train Station was located.  It was here at the Train Station, that the trapper sold the bear cub to a soldier during a stopover. The soldier was Lieutenant Harry Colebourn. An entry in his journal reads, “August 24, 1914 Left Port Arthur 7AM. In train all day. Bought bear $20”. A later notation identifies the town as White River.

Harry Colebourn, was attached to both the Fort Garry Horse Regiment and the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. He was in charge of the horses on the troop train. He was headed for Val Carteir, Quebec and then on to England. Harry was born in England and came to Toronto, Ontario, Canada when he was 18.  He later moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Harry decided to name the little cub “Winnipeg” after his hometown. This little bear, known as “Winnie” became a pet for the soldiers, sleeping under the cot of her master even after they reached the Salisbury Plains in England. As Winnie got bigger, she loved to climb the centre pole in the soldier’s tent and give it a shake. It was becoming a concern that the tent might collapse during the night, so she was tethered to a pole outside the tent.

 The London Zoo

Winnie with Christopher Robin Milne, London Zoo
Winnie with Christopher Robin Milne, London Zoo

Harry Colebourn was now a Captain. In 1914 he received the news that he would soon be shipped to France. He knew that Winnie would not be able to accompany him, so he made arrangements to keep her in the London Zoo until he returned. Winnie soon became a favorite attraction. People would knock on her door and she would open it and come out. She would allow children to ride on her back and she would eat from their hands. The attendants who cared for her stated that Winnie was completely trustworthy. Other bears were not allowed to have such a close relationship with the visiting public.

Captain Colebourn visited Winnie at the Zoo whenever he was on leave. He always recorded his visits in his diary.  When Harry saw how popular she was with the children and adults, he decided he would not take her back to Canada as he had planned. She was officially donated to the Zoo on December 1, 1918.

 A.A. Milne and Christopher Robin

This little bear captured the hearts of many visitors to the Zoo, among them A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin Milne. They became frequent visitors and it was Christopher who added “Pooh” to Winnie’s name. He got the name from his pet swan named Pooh. Christopher had a bear given to him on his first birthday on August 21, 1921 which he first called Edward Bear, but soon changed to “Winnie-the-Pooh” after the playful Winnie at the London Zoo.

The original stuffed "Pooh Bear" with "Tigger,"  "Eor," etc.
The original stuffed “Pooh Bear” with “Tigger,” “Eor,” etc.

A.A. Milne started to write stories about a loveable bear in his children’s books based on that bear in the Zoo. In his first edition in 1926, he mentioned that these stories were about this bear and his son and his son’s stuffed animals. We have been told that Christopher Robin had a birthday party at the Zoo that included some of his friends and “Winnie-the-Pooh” as well, since it was held in Winnie’s den.

Winnie lived a long, full life in the zoo, occasionally not wanting to take her pills for arthritis, but otherwise very content. She died on May 12, 1934 when she was 20 years old. She was so loved by all that the London Newspaper ran her obituary. Harry Colebourn was kept up to date on Winnie over the years and was informed about her death by the Zoo Officials.

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