Winnie the Pooh – A Winnipeg Namesake

Today I took my friend and former Hong Kong teaching colleague Rebekah to visit Assiniboine Park. We stopped to look at this statue of an army officer and a bear cub. The cub was the inspiration for the literary character Winnie the Pooh. I thought everyone knew that Winnie the Pooh had a connection to Winnipeg but Rebekah, who is from Minneapolis wasn’t sure she did; so I decided a blog post about it might be a good idea.

Harry Coleburn was born in England in 1887 and immigrated to Canada at age 18. After graduating as a veterinarian from a Ontario college he moved to Winnipeg. He joined the army during World War I and on his way to a training camp in Quebec he bought a bear cub. The train had made a stop at White River, Ontario and there Harry met a hunter who sold him a female bear cub for $20. The hunter had killed its mother. Harry named the bear Winnie after his adopted home city of Winnipeg. Harry was posted to England and took Winnie with him where she quickly became the mascot of Harry’s regiment, The Fort Garry Horse. Harry was the regiment’s veterinarian. When Harry was sent to France for three years he put Winnie in the London Zoo. 

When author A. A. Milne visited the London Zoo with his son Christopher, the young boy immediately fell in love with Winnie the bear cub and named his teddy bear after Winnie.  That teddy bear would become the main character in a series of stories his father would write about Winnie the Pooh. 

After the war Major Harry Coleburn decided to leave Winnie in the London Zoo and went back to Winnipeg where he practiced veterinary medicine till just a couple of years prior to his death in 1947.

A. A. Milne’s books about Winnie the Pooh became beloved pieces of children’s literature read around the world. Later Walt Disney turned the stories into a movie and television series.  

This statue just outside the Children’s Nature Playground at Assiniboine Park recognizes the connection between Winnipeg and the literary character Winnie the Pooh. A plaque nearby explains the story of Harry Coleburn. His impetuous decision to purchase a bear cub  and name it after Winnipeg had consequences that reached far beyond anything he might have imagined. 

Categories: Literature, Parks, Statues | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Winnie the Pooh – A Winnipeg Namesake

  1. I’ve shared this story in far corners of the world… many, many people have wondered about the name “Winnie.” (Disney’s commercial appropriation of this wonderful historic/cultural narrative is the only dark side to your story, in my opinion…).

    • Dear Robert, I did find another dark side to the story when I was researching it. Apparently Christopher Milne and his author father had a troubled relationship and as an adult Christopher cut off almost all contact with his parents. He felt his father had just used him and his childhood experiences for material gain and invested little time or effort in building a relationship with him. One article I read said Christopher Milne’s lawyer/agent is suing Disney for millions of dollars, since they have earned billions from their Winnie the Pooh products. MaryLou

  2. Kayla Hiebert

    Love it! Thanks for the extra detail on this awesome bit of Canadian history 🙂

    • Thanks Kayla. Congratulations on your marriage. I had both you and Toni as students so I read about your wedding on Facebook with great interest. Best wishes!

  3. I too have shared this story everywhere but it is nice to see it here on a site with the name Destination Winnipeg. Although I must admit I blushed a little when I read “Winnipeg is a world class destination” Ilooked around to make sure no one saw that little overstatement. : )
    Disney did not appear to be a dark side to my little family when the kids were growing up. Although we delighted in the origninal Pooh stories we loved the Disney ones which are actually quite true to all the delightful personalities found in the Pooh stories. We nodded in recognition when reading or watching the Disney-fied versions. Good for you for sharing this little piece of Winnipeg to a wider audience.

    • Dear Lori,
      As someone who has traveled quite a bit I think I am not exaggerating overly when I say that Winnipeg is a world class destination. It has so much to offer when it comes to culture and dining. We will soon have a Human Rights Museum the likes of which can be found in few other places in the world. There are no cities save Edinburgh perhaps that can hold a candle to our Fringe Festival and when we took well traveled Australian guests to Fort Whyte to spend a day learning about Manitoba bison they said they’d rate the tour as one of the best they’d been on. Thanks for reading my blog so faithfully.

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