Winnie-the-Bear

Harry Colebourn with Winnie on Salisbury Plain. © Library and Archives Canada
Harry Colebourn and Winnie on Salisbury Plain in 1914. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Colebourn, D. Harry Collection, No. N10467

For the Week of August 19, 2019.

On August 24, 1914, Captain Harry Colebourn of the Royal Canadian Veterinary Corps bought a black bear cub on the platform of the White River Railway Station in Ontario. Named “Winnipeg” or “Winnie” after Colebourn’s hometown, that bear cub would inspire a beloved series of children’s books by English author A. A. Milne.

Born in Birmingham, England, in 1887, Colebourn moved to Canada in 1905. He studied at the University of Toronto’s veterinary college, graduating as a surgeon in 1911. He then moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he worked for the provincial Department of Agriculture. In 1913, he joined the Canadian Militia as a lieutenant and veterinary officer.

When Britain declared war on Germany and its allies on August 4, 1914, Canada was automatically at war and the Canadian Expeditionary Force was soon created. Colebourn joined this force on September 25, 1914, with the rank of captain. Most Canadian units raised for the First World War trained at Valcartier, Québec, before crossing the Atlantic. This was true of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, of which Colebourn was a part. His train stopped at White River to feed and exercise the animals onboard, most of them horses destined for the frontlines. There, on the railway station platform, Colebourn bought the bear he named Winnie, which he brought with him to Valcartier and then to England, where he trained on Salisbury Plain.

When his unit moved to the Western Front, Colebourn borrowed a car and drove Winnie to the London Zoo, where she became a popular attraction. After visiting Winnie with his son Christopher Robin, author A. A. Milne was inspired to write the bestselling stories of a fictionalized “Winnie-the-Pooh.” After the war, Colebourn completed post-graduate studies at the Royal Veterinary College of Surgeons in London before returning to Canada. Winnie remained at the London Zoo, which had become her home. When she died in 1934, at the age of 20, several newspapers published obituaries to mark her passing.

The White River Railway Station is a designated heritage railway station.

2019 marks 100 years since the founding of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC). Find out more on the HSMBC website.