When I wrote about the Goodbye Christopher Robin movie and the story behind A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books, I found out that the books were inspired by a real bear. Winnipeg was an American black bear who traveled from Canada to England and ended up living in the London Zoo. Recently I found a few books at the library that tell more of Winnipeg’s story.
The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie the Pooh
Our story starts with Canadian veterinarian, Harry Colebourn. He was commissioned in 1914 as a lieutenant in the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. Harry’s unit traveled by train across Canada. At the White River train station in Ontario, Harry met a man who had a baby black bear with him in the station. The bear, whose mother had been killed, was for sale and as an animal lover, Harry felt called to adopt her. He brought her back onto the train as the soldiers continued their journey east and Winnipeg (named for the unit’s home town) quickly became a beloved mascot.
Harry and Winnie arrived in Valcartier, Quebec, for training. Harry’s job was to care for the horses there. Harry and the other soldiers of the unit enjoyed spending time with Winnie- walking her, taking her picture, and playing her favorite game, hide-and-seek. Winnie was an excellent seeker!
After about 6 weeks in Quebec, it was time to go overseas. Winnie was a beloved and well-behaved unit mascot and was allowed to accompany the unit to England. They set sail on the S.S. Manitou in October 1914 headed for a military camp in Salisbury Plain.
Winnie moves to the London Zoo
In December 1914, Harry’s unit was called to the front in France. Winnipeg was not allowed on the battlefield, nor did Harry want to place her in danger. Instead, Harry took Winnie to the London Zoo who agreed to care for her in his absence.
Winnie charmed the zookeepers and zoo visitors just as she had first charmed Harry and his fellow soldiers. The London zookeepers said that she was the tamest, best-behaved bear they had ever had and they considered her completely trustworthy. They trusted her so much that they sometimes let children ride on her back!
In 1919, after the war, Harry went back to see Winnie one more time. He had originally intended to bring her back home to Canada with him but he knew that she was happy and well cared for at the zoo so decided to leave her living there.
Winnie’s biggest fan
Winnie did indeed have many visitors at the zoo, including a young boy named Christopher Robin Milne and his father. Christopher Robin was very fond of Winnie and even often went into her cage to feed her sweetened, condensed milk which was Winnie’s favorite treat. This special relationship inspired A.A. Milne’s well-known books about Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood.
Watch more about the story behind Winnie the Pooh
More about the books
All three of these books were great. Winnie, The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker, is a more factual account of Winnipeg’s story. Lindsay Mattick, who wrote the other two books, has the advantage of being the great-granddaughter of the main character, Harry Colebourn, and so has a lot more personal stories to add in her books. Finding Winnie, The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear is a picture book and Winnie’s War is a chapter book that goes much deeper. It is written from the bear’s point of view so definitely contains more fictional elements but it’s a wonderful story that I heartily recommend to any other Pooh fans out there.
So, I suggest you start with Winnie by Walker to get the basic facts about Winnipeg’s life then continue on for the more detailed and embellished story of Finding Winnie, by Mattick then read Winnie’s War. I think the story told by Lindsay Mattick is an absolute delight. She includes the personal stories about Harry and Winnie that I’m sure were told in the family as she grew up. I’m thankful that she decided to write these books and tell her family’s story; I loved learning even more about the backstory of a bear named Winnipeg that led to the stories written by A. A. Milne.
You can hear Lindsay talk about the process of developing and writing the story on the 88 Cups of Tea podcast.
I saw a critique of Winnie’s War that didn’t care for the anthropomorphizing of Winnie but I disagree. I loved this approach and I loved the personality and character given to Winnie by the author. Lindsay’s Winnie is exactly the type of bear I would expect my beloved Pooh Bear to be if I were ever to meet him.
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