I am sure that most of you reading this are familiar with Winnie the Pooh; whether from the original books or the Disney re-invention of him. But did you know that this fictional bear is actually based on a real bear? If not, read on.
During WWI, there was a large group of Canadian troops being transported from Winnipeg to eastern Canada, on their way to a deployment in Europe. The train stopped at White River, Ontario where the soldiers met a hunter who had a bear cub with him.
One of the company troops, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, offered to purchase the extremely tame bear cub for twenty dollars. He named it Winnie – short for Winnipeg – and made it their company mascot.
When the soldiers finally deployed to France, Winnie was left in the care of London Zoo, and it was there that A.A. Milne’s young son, Christopher Robin first met her. (Although the “real live” Winnie did not like honey, she did indeed have a sweet tooth – her favorite treat being condensed milk – even preferring it to raw meat.)
Forgive me as we backtrack a little.
Writer Alan Alexander Milne had already achieved success as a humorist for Punch Magazine and as a playwright and mystery author. He might never have written for children and become one of the most famous writers in history, had it not been for the birth of his son Christopher Robin Milne.
When Christopher was a young boy, his mother gave him a small stuffed bear purchased from Harrods department store. Originally, the bear was called Edward, and sometimes Big Bear or Teddy Bear, but eventually was named Winnie, after the bear Christopher had met at London Zoo.
Inspired by both the stuffed and real bear, A.A Milne began to write. Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger, Kanga and Roo were all stuffed animals belonging to young Christopher, while Rabbit and Owl were real life creatures that lived near them. (The name “Pooh” came from a swan the family had met while on holiday.)
The first collected stories of the adventures in ‘Hundred Acre Wood’, entitled ‘Winnie the Pooh’, were published in 1926 and were an instant hit. It was followed by the verse ‘Now We are Six,’ in 1927 and ‘The House at Pooh Corner’, in 1928. The delightful illustrations provided by E. H. Shepherd brought these stories to life and can be credited with adding to the charm and success of the books.
The stories about Pooh became a favorite of Walt Disney’s daughters as well, so Disney, who trusted his daughters’ tastes in books, decide to purchase the rights to the stories and turn them into animated films. The first film featuring Pooh, was released in 1966 and quickly made Pooh the most popular Disney character of all time.
Disney’s creators gave Pooh a makeover, which is whimsical and endearing in its own right, but I always prefer the classic illustrations from the original books. The cuddly toys that inspired the stories also have become iconic, and Christopher Robin’s bear is currently on display at the main branch of the New York Public Library, in New York City.
Translated into almost every known language, the Pooh books were, and still are loved by young and old alike. I can imagine parents and children for many more decades to come rejoicing in these iconic tales.
So what are your favorite memories of ‘Winnie the Pooh’?
Paul Gifford is an English born full time writer who has called California home for many years. He writes under the name P.S. Gifford. He has had several dozen stories published in print and on-line magazine, been included in anthologies and has several collections of his works available at all good on-line book sellers.