On 24 August 1914, Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian in the Canadian Army, purchased an orphaned female black bear cub from a trapper in White River, Ontario, for $20. Colebourn purchased the cub at the White River train station while on route to Valcartier, Québec, where the Canadian Army organized its infantry brigades during the First World War. Colebourn named the bear “Winnipeg,” after his hometown in Canada (he was originally from Birmingham, England) and she quickly became the unofficial mascot for Colebourn’s regiment, the Fort Garry Horse, part of the 3rd Canadian Division.
In 1914, Winnipeg (nicknamed “Winnie”) accompanied the regiment overseas, travelling from Valcartier to Salisbury Plain, England, where Canadian soldiers trained for combat. Before shipping off to the front in France, Colebourn decided it was best to leave Winnie in the care of the London Zoo, which he did on 9 December 1914.
Winnie became one of the most popular attractions at the zoo, and it was there that she first caught the eye and the affection of Christopher Robin Milne circa 1926, inspiring the boy’s father, the author A.A. Milne, to write a series of books about a character named Winnie-the-Pooh.
Winnie the bear lived at the London Zoo until her death in 1934. Harry Colebourn survived the First World War and returned home to Winnipeg, where he died on 24 September 1947.
In Popular Culture
Winnie-the-Pooh was first published on 14 October 1926 and was followed by The House at Pooh Corner (1928). Milne also included poems about Winnie in his books When we Were Very Young (1924) and Now We are Six (1927).
In the early 1960s, rights to Milne’s work were licensed by Disney, which has released numerous animated films and television series since.
The story of the bear that inspired the fictional character was explored in the TV movie A Bear Named Winnie (2003), in which Michael Fassbender portrays Harry Colebourn. The movie also stars Canadian actor Gil Bellows as well as well-known British actors David Suchet and Stephen Fry. The story was also the subject of the Children’s book Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear (2015) by Lindsay Mattick, the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourn.
(See also In Conversation with Lindsay Mattick; The Real Winnie-the-Pooh.)