• Linda Borromeo

How One Act of Compassion Changed the Literary Landscape for Children

The answer? They are all connected with one small black bear cub.

How it All Began

The story of the world's most popular bear starts with a young veterinary surgeon with $20.00 in his pocket.

On his way to a training camp at the beginning of World War I, young Harry Colebourn got off the train to stretch his legs in White River, Canada. As he walked along the platform, his gaze focused on a man sitting with a black bear cub.

Harry debated with himself and then approached the pair. He asked how much it would cost to buy the cub.

When the reply came, Harry made his decision. He handed over $20.00 and gathered the cub into his arms.

Did he notice something that concerned him about how the cub was being treated? Or, did he just feel an instant connection with the little cub? Harry didn't say. He only jotted this note in his diary:

“August 24, 1914 Left Port Arthur 7AM. In train all day. Bought bear $20.”

He had just spent about $416.00 in today's Canadian money.

Going to War

Harry Colebourn named the little bear cub Winnipeg, after the place where the young soldier had lived before the outbreak of war. Born in England, Harry had immigrated to Canada and attended Ontario Veterinary College. With his new degree in hand, he had moved to Winnipeg to live and work.

At age 27, he enlisted on September 25, 1914, serving with the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. Now in charge of the horses needed for the war effort, Harry worked to help and save the lives of the animals that were in as much danger as the men.

The bear cub, now nicknamed "Winnie," accompanied Harry across the ocean to England. She became the pet and mascot of all the soldiers and a great friend and morale booster. Almost all the soldiers had their picture taken with Winnie and spent much time and thought to provide food, play time and shelter for her.

The London Zoo

The day came, however, when the Corps was to be deployed to France. Winnie could not go with them. Harry made arrangements for her care at the London Zoo, always intending to return for her and take her with him to Canada after the war.

Serving just behind the front lines in many of the battles, Harry continued to care for the horses in his charge. He visited Winnie at the zoo whenever he could get leave.

The Author and His Son

At the London Zoo, the keepers marveled at Winnie's sweet disposition and trustworthiness. They even let children come into her enclosure to visit. Winnie remembered and always greeted her favorite people. And among these favorites was young Christopher Robin Milne.

His father, Alan Milne, watched carefully while Christopher Robin petted Winnie and gave her a most-desired treat: spoonfuls of sweet condensed milk (not honey).

Winnie and Christopher Robin Milne

Alan Milne, writing as A. A. Milne, took his impressions of Winnie home from the zoo, and with his son's animal toys to inspire him, wrote a classic of children's literature, Winnie-the-Pooh, in 1926. It was followed by The House at Pooh Corner in 1928.

In common with Winnie's friend and rescuer, Harry Colebourn, Alan Milne served in World War I. When illness made him unfit for the front lines, he became a writer for a propaganda unit. He did his duty in both WWI and WWII, even though he came to loathe and despise war.

Although overshadowed now by his "Winnie" stories, he was a very successful playwright and the author of one detective story, The Red House Mystery (1922).

Ashdown Forest

The Milne family kept a country home in Ashdown Forest, an ancient site used for hunting in Norman times. The real Christopher Robin spent much of his childhood playing and having adventures in this beautiful area.

According to the Ashdown Forest website, it is part of the "High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and has national and international protection because of its wildlife. Nearly two thirds of its 6500 acres (2500 hectares) are heathland, amounting to 2.5% of the UK's extent of this rare habitat."

Although (understandably), the adult Christopher Milne had difficulty with forever being famous as a five-year-old, he worked to help protect and preserve this legacy from his childhood days.

Father and Daughter Illustrators

E.H. Shepard immortalized the woodlands of Ashdown Forest in his evocative illustrations for Milne's "Pooh" books, capturing the wonder and imagination of playtime in the outdoors.

The first American edition of Winnie-the-Pooh

P.L. Travers, author of the "Mary Poppins" series, very much wanted Shepard to be the illustrator for her books. He was too busy to agree, but she later noticed an original drawing for a Christmas card resting on a friend's fireplace mantle. Its style pleased her, and she asked who had drawn it.

The author discovered that it had been done by Shepard's 23-year-old daughter, Mary. Newly graduated from art school, Mary went on to illustrate the Mary Poppins books from 1934 to 1988.

Coming Home

After the war, Harry Colebourn stayed on in England for more education. On visits to Winnie at the London Zoo, he realized how much she had come to mean to the children there. He could not take her away from the home she had come to know. He formally allowed Winnie to stay at the zoo in 1919.

Harry returned to Canada in 1920. Suffering from ill health much of the time, he nevertheless continued to work as a veterinarian. The London Zoo always kept him updated about how Winnie was doing.

In later years, Harry maintained a little clinic behind his home to help animals, whether or not he received any pay for his efforts.

Harry Colebourn passed away at his home on September 24, 1947 at the age of 60.

Winnie died at the London Zoo on May 12, 1934.

Two Ways to Remember Winnie

1. Celebrate Winnie-the-Pooh Day on January 18th, held on the birthday of A. A. Milne (born on January 18, 1882).

2. Read Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear.

Finding Winnie is written by Lindsay Mattick, the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourn. In the book, she tells the story of Winnie to her son, named Cole after Harry Colebourn. It is a delightful and beautifully-written account, and can be enjoyed by all ages.

The illustrations by Sophie Blackall just won the Caldecott Medal for the year's "most distinguished American picture book for children." To see the announcement, and an excellent graphic of Winnie and Harry's story, please click here.

Please click below for an interview with author Lindsay Mattick:

Special thanks go to my good friend, Lynne, for letting me know about Harry and Winnie's story.

In my stories, you'll find islands, mystery, friendship and danger. 

My novel, Mystery Shores, is set on a lighthouse island filled with secrets. 

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