“What day is it?”
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
One of the cuddliest holidays has to be Winnie the Pooh Day, celebrated on the birthday of author A. A. Milne. It’s one special anniversary fans just can’t bear to miss!
It may surprise you to know that the lovable bear, Winnie the Pooh, is based on a real bear. A Canadian bear actually, with a direct link to World War I.
Harry Colebourn is the man who we ultimately have to thank for introducing the writer A. A. Milne, the author of the famous Winnie the Pooh books, to a bear called Winnie. That introduction occurred via a very indirect route and was a result of empire, sense of duty, and World War I.
Harry was born in England in 1887. He immigrated to Canada when he was 18 where he attended the Ontario Veterinary College, receiving his degree in veterinary surgery, before moving out west to Winnipeg, Manitoba.
When war broke out between Britain and Germany he volunteered. As a veterinary surgeon he would have been in high demand with armies in the field at this time, still relying upon animals to bear the brunt of much of the transport and supply.
It was while Harry was heading across Canada by train to the training camp at Valcartier in Quebec that he came across a hunter in White River, Ontario who had a female black bear cub for sale, having killed the cub’s mother. Colebourn felt sorry for the orphaned cub and purchased her for $20. He named her “Winnie” after his adopted hometown.
When it came time to depart for overseas service Harry somehow persuaded the military authorities to let him take Winnie with him. For it was a newly commissioned Lieutenant Colebourn that turned up for duty on Salisbury Plain in southern England complete with black bear in tow. Winnie soon became the unofficial mascot of the Fort Garry Horse, a militia cavalry regiment to which Harry had been assigned as a veterinarian.
When the time came to leave for France, he left his beloved Winnie at London Zoo for safekeeping. Harry served for three years in France, attaining the rank of Major. He planned to take her home with him but instead, at the end of the war he donated Winnie to London Zoo, in recognition for the care she had received over the previous war years.
It was at the London Zoo that A. A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin encountered Winnie. Christopher was so taken with her that he named his teddy bear after her, which became the inspiration for Milne’s fictional character in the books Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928). Milne also included several poems about Winnie-the-Pooh in his children’s poetry books When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. A little-known fact is that the original name A. A. Milne gave to Winnie's fictional counterpart was Edward Bear.
Winnie remained at the zoo until her death in 1934.