Commemorating WWI’s Most Heartfelt Story of Animal Love

Get Leashed pays tribute to Captain Harry Colebourn and his bear, Winnie

By Jon Nelson


Generations of children have grown up with the comfort of a bear named Winnie-the-Pooh. His charm lies in his silliness, his fuzzy brain moving with slow, steady, sweet, rational yet dimwitted logic. For almost a century, children celebrating a sixth birthday likely received a copy of A.A. Milne’s Now We Are Six. This book of children’s verses, published in 1927 and still in print, is one of the first where Winnie-the-Pooh first began to appear under A.A. Milne’s pen. Those early stories turned the bear into an International sensation and happily for us; Winnie-the-Pooh is still going strong, getting into the same entertaining mischief for today’s children. His world is bigger and brighter than ever, his adventures more elaborate. But his easy-going, comforting cuddliness is still present. He is a teddy bear, after all. winnie-the-pooh-classic-pictures-pooh1_1489609c

As many know, the teddy bear was based on a real bear, Winnie, named after Winnipeg, the hometown of Henry Colebourn, a Canadian soldier and veterinarian who bought her for $20 in 1914. The true story that led to the imagining of the storybook luminary is a touching one, especially when the timing of its conception is realized. World War I was a devastating period, one we remember today with great gratitude and respect for the men and women that fought for our freedom. To find a true story based solely around the love of an animal within so many stories of hardship and loss is truly a special thing.

Lindsay Mattick is the great granddaughter of Harry Colebourn. It was in 1914 that Colebourn made a pit stop at the train station in White River, Ontario where he bought a bear cub from a local trapper and named her ‘Winnie’.  Mattick’s been spending a great deal of time retracing her great grandfather’s journey through his journals and diaries, setting the story straight for legions of fans and history buffs while celebrating her family’s relation to Winnie-the-Pooh. She finds a powerful sense of history in the sparsely written diaries and we join her in commemorating her great grandfather’s bravery and the skills he utilized looking after wartime horses.

page040For Colebourn, the bear became a mascot and well-loved edition to his regiment, bringing comfort to the men shipped overseas while accompanying them across the Atlantic. When the time came to go to the front lines in France, Colebourn donated Winnie to the London Zoo in England, where she became the inspiration for author A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh.

To celebrate 100 years of the beloved bear, an Exhibition titled Remembering the Real Winnie is taking place from Nov 5 – Dec 7 at Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto. Diaries, letters, and photographs from the Colebourn family archive will be on display alongside other original artifacts. An interactive website also takes viewers through stories and interviews.

As pet lovers, we pay a great homage to Lindsay’s great grandfather for the service he provided during the war. We also thank her for helping to shed light on the real history behind a bear that has made animal lovers out of children for generations.

Beyond the exhibition, the history of Harry and Winnie will also be explored in an upcoming children’s book (to be released in 2015 by Little Brown in the U.S., Harper Collins in Canada) by Lindsay Mattick. Here she is, a true animal lover with her cat Cado (for the love of Avocados).