A surprize package arrived on my desk from Winnipeg this week. In it, an autographed copy of Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear.
Many people who read about Winnie the Pooh are unaware that he is based on a real-life Canadian black bear. Lindsay Mattick tells the tale.
In 1914, Mattick’s great-grandfather, Harry Colebourn, was a veterinarian heading to war. His troop train stopped in White River, ON, where he bought a bear cub from a trapper. He named the bear Winnipeg after his home town (Winnie for short), so his regiment would never feel far from home.
Winnie was a remarkable bear. As mascot for the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade, she learned “to stand up straight and hold her head high and turn this way and that, just so!” But when the order came to leave the training grounds on Salisbury Plain and head to France, Harry knew he could not take Winnie.
The London Zoo became Winnie’s home. There she met Christopher Robin and his father, A.A. Milne. Christopher Robin named his own teddy bear Winnie. A.A. Milne brought his son’s stuffed menagerie to life in Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.
In Finding Winnie, Mattick tells the story of the real Winnie to her own son, Cole. It’s a lovely read-to picture book for ages 3-7, with a family album of photos and ephemera at the end.
Statues of Harry Colebourn and Winnie can be found in Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg and at the London Zoo.
Winnie was not the only Canadian to land in the London Zoo during the war. About a dozen bears in all were brought to England and then left at the zoo when the troops were sent to the front.
A History of Elderslie Township 1851 – 1977 tells of Teddy, a black bear cub presented to the 160th Bruce Battalion.
When the 160th Bruce Battalion left to go overseas they took with them a denizen of the woods of Bruce. In time, he grew to be a full-sized, well developed bear with a fine coat of glossy black hair.
One day in Bramshott, he got out, and being of a roving disposition, took a stroll around the camp. The first place he visited was the staff office, and the employees, never having had the pleasure (or terror) of a visit from a Bruce County bear, immediately vacated the premises and left Teddy master of all he surveyed. He found nothing to his liking there; he ambled out and strolled down the road. Seeing a hut door open, he walked in and caused a greater panic than a German would have done. Seeing that he was not a welcome visitor, he went out, and not finding a suitable tree to climb went up a telegraph pole, where he was captured a little later.
Teddy at the latest report was in the Zoo in London, England, with a number of other bears, having been turned down on account of flat feet. He lived for another three years at the London Zoo. Sgt. David William (Bull) Stephens of Wiarton was the soldier responsible for looking after Teddy.
Gordon Reid, editor, A History of Elderslie Township 1851 – 1977. Published by the Elderslie Historical Society, Chesley, Ontario, 1977, p 213
Thanks to Nick for adding to my library of most important books about the world.