The Real Winnie the Pooh

From real bear to storybook character

Long before author A.A. Milne first created his character, there was a real 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.

In the summer of 1914 Canada was in mobilization in World War I. On one August day a train full of Canadian soldiers pulled into the station in White River, Ontario. One of the soldiers on board was a young Captain by the name of Harold Colebourn. Colebourn was a veterinarian hailing from Winnipeg, Manitoba. While stopped in White River, Captain Colebourn came across a black bear cub. He purchased the cub for a sum of $20 and brought the animal along with him on the train ride east. The name ‘Winnipeg’ came in homage to his hometown, although the name was quickly shortened to the more familiar ‘Winnie’.

Winnie soon became very popular and became a mascot for his regiment, the 34th Fort Gary Horse of Winnipeg, Canadian Infantry Brigade. The bear travelled with them all the way to England. Colebourn left the bear with the London Zoo for safekeeping before crossing the English Channel to fight on the mainland of Europe. The regimental mascot became a major attraction for the zoo. Everyone was in love with the bear, and in its 20 years at the zoo it would remain one of its primary attractions. One of the people to fall in love with the bear was a little boy by the name of Christopher Robin Milne. It was from Winnie, the black bear cub from White River, Ontario that much of the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh would come.

But the bear at the London Zoo was not the only inspiration behind Winnie the Pooh. What of his friends Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and all the rest of the residents of the 100-Acre Wood? These all began with young Christopher Robin and his collection of stuffed animals: a teddy bear (the stuffed bear was named Edward), a donkey (with no tail), a tiger, a pig and a baby kangaroo.

Christopher Robin and his interactions with his toys, along with his love affair with Winnie at the London Zoo were the inspirations for Milne’s incredibly successful stories. After first publishing ‘The Wrong Sort of Bees’, Milne published Winnie the Pooh, the first Winnie the Pooh book in 1926. The stories involved the adventures of a fictionalized Christopher Robin and his playtime with Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and the rest in the 100 Acre Wood. The 100 Acre Wood was inspired by Ashdown Forest, the area surrounding the Milne family home in Sussex, Crotchford Farm.

Christopher Robin’s childhood toys that served such important inspiration have become celebrities themselves. Although unfortunately the original Roo (Christopher’s young baby kangaroo toy) was lost in an apple orchard during the 1930’s, the rest of the toys exist today and are in display in the Children’s Room of the New York Public Library.