The History of Winnie the Pooh
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
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.
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.
In Memory of Winnie The Pooh
A bronze statue of Winnie now stands at the London Zoo in her memory. It was unveiled in 1981. Part of the inscription reads “She gave her name to “Winnie-the-Pooh” and A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard gave “Winnie-the-Pooh” to the rest of the world”. Originally the inscription incorrectly identified her as the mascot of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry Regiment, but in 1999 a group from Manitoba went to the London Zoo to replace the plaque with one that correctly states the she was the mascot for the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade.
The White River Grade Eight Class also went to the London Zoo in 1997 to present another plaque detailing White River’s part in Winnie’s history. A copy of this plaque is on display at the White River Visitor’s Centre. There is also a bronze statue of Captain Colebourn and Winnie in the children’s section at the London Zoo which is a copy of the one in Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg. It was given to the Zoo by the Manitoba Government.
The White River District Historical Society has received touching and sometimes humorous letters from those who knew the Milne family or visited Winnie at the Zoo. A.A. Milne passed away January 31, 1956. Christopher Robin Milne, who passed away April 20, 1996, had previously been in touch with the Historical Society and autographed six books, three books that his father wrote as well as three books he had written. These are on display in the Museum.
Fred Colebourn, the only son of Harry, passed away in May 1998 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. As a young boy growing up, he was aware of his father’s connection to “Winnie-the-Pooh” and was pleased when it was verified in 1987. Fred was the guest of honour at our first festival in 1989 which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the purchase of the bear cub and the meeting of the Captain and Winnie at the train station in White River.
Walt Disney purchased the copyright to “Winnie-the-Pooh” in 1961. The stories have been translated into thirty three languages.
In 1996, the Disney Company commissioned Canada Post to introduce a set of 4 stamps which depict the story of “Winnie-the-Pooh” beginning with the little Canadian Black Bear and Captain Colebourn in White River, then her life at the London Zoo, the meeting of Winnie and Christopher Robin Milne and lastly showing the “Winnie-the-Pooh” character as developed by the Disney Company.
Disney has writers who continue to create stories about the adventures of this famous bear.
White River Commemorates Winnie the Pooh
Winnie has now come home to White River. We hold a festival each year on the 3rd weekend in August. At our 4th festival in 1992 a statue, based on the Disney “Winnie-the-Pooh” was unveiled. It stands in the Park where the Visitor Centre is located. There are beautiful flower beds surrounding the statue which can be viewed and visited from Highway 17. Click here to learn more about the festival.
The White River District Historical Society has received many “Winnie-the-Pooh” memorabilia from fans and friends from far and near. In 1994 a large collection from Saperstone family and from Fargo, North Dakota, U.S.A. was brought to White River and is displayed at the Visitor Centre. In 2003, Lisa Yee, then residing in Orlando Florida, contacted the Society, as she felt the White River Heritage Museum would be a perfect home for her unique, one of a kind “Winnie-the-Pooh” collection. Once inventoried, it will be on display at the White River Heritage Museum.
For more information about “Winnie-the-Pooh” and White River’s connection to this very popular and much loved bear, write to us at:
White River Heritage Museum
P.O. Box 583, White River, ON P0M 3G0
Phone (807) 822-2657
Fax (807) 822-1920
Visit our website at heritagemuseumwhiteriver.ca