Social Studies: On the real Winnie-the-Pooh

Like plenty of kids, Lindsay Mattick knew of A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories. But it wasn't until the '80s that she realized her connection to the sweet anthropomorphous bear hit pretty close to home. 


That's when her grandfather stumbled upon an newspaper article reporting that the bear upon whom Milne's stories are based originally belonged to an Edmonton-based regiment. That wasn't true, he told the family. It was a Winnipeg regiment. In fact, it was his father—Lindsay's great grandfather—Harry Colebourn who had purchased the black bear cub on a train station platform in White River, Ont. from a trapper for $20, named her Winnie, after his hometown of Winnipeg, and brought the bear with him to England to join his regiment at the onset of World War I. 


"At that point," Mattick told me recently, "we dug up all the diaries his father had kept to prove it was true. [Harry] kept all these diaries, literally making notations of when he bought the bear. And then it became a huge international story because nobody had known there was a Canadian connection to the bear. And then it became like, 'Wow!' We're really related to Winnie-the-Pooh! It was pretty wild." 


In celebration of that day on the platform 100 years ago, Ryerson University has created Remembering the Real Winnie: The World’s Most Famous Bear Turns 100, an exhibition opening Nov. 5 featuring photographs from the Colebourn family archive along with diaries, letters and newspaper clippings, that have never before been shared with the public. What's more, explains Mattick, is that the entire archive has been digitized. 


"The diaries are really powerful," Mattick says. "They're fairly sparsely written but [my great grandfather] says things like he was on the ship crossing over from Canada to England and talk about being sick, being in sick bay and about how muddy and wet the conditions were. He makes reference to being gassed. He makes references to particular battles, like Ypres, where several thousands were killed. He was there. He was at Somme," one of the bloodiest battles in human history that saw about 60,000 British casualties on the first day—including 650 Newfoundlanders (a tragedy that Canadian writer Michael Winter chronicles in his new book, Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead. "He wouldn't have been right on the front line because he was a Veterinarian and was there to look after the horses. But he would have been pretty close."


When Colebourn and his unit headed to the front lines of France, Winnie, who had become the unofficial mascot of the regiment, was donated to the London Zoo, where she became quite the attraction. So popular, in fact, that A.A. Milne's son Christopher Robin named his teddy bear Winnie. The rest is children's literature history. 


The Ryerson exhibit also includes a remarkable interactive website that walks viewers through the stories and interviews, including one with a professor at the University of Guelph who details the role of horses in WWI, and another with someone from the Toronto Zoo who talks about what would have been involved with training a bear. 


The website has already come in handy for Mattick herself during a tour of the UK with the National Arts Centre to commemorate WWI at the end of October. "I was on the Salisbury Plain and I was on the website looking through the diaries to see when exactly [my great grandfather] arrived here," she says. "Sure enough, he arrived on Oct. 18 and I was there almost 100 years to the day." 


Mattick also had the opportunity to meet Prince Charles, under whose patronage she was on tour. That's when she presented him with a painting of her great grandfather and Winnie for his grandson, Prince George. "Hopefully it makes it into the nursery," Mattick says. "I had the chance to explain to [Prince Charles] the story and what the painting represented. He was so genuine, warm, engaged and interested. I had a couple of minutes to speak with him, longer than I thought I would have. It was a great moment."


And the moments kept on coming during Mattick's UK tour: Because no one in her family had ever met A.A. Milne, who served as a British Officer in WWI, the BBC arranged for her to meet the late author's nephew and the cousin of Christopher Robin, Derek. "We got to have a conversation about how this bear, a fictional bear on his side and a real bear on my side, has effected our lives," said Mattick, whose book on her family's history and connection to Winnie is not only being published next year but may also be made into a movie. 


Harry Colebourn survived the war, which 600,000 Canadians participated in—10 per cent of the country's total population at the time—and eventually came back to Winnipeg where he met Mattick's great grandmother and raised her grandfather. "I'm really lucky that he came back because so many people didn't," says Mattick. "I think it's a powerful thing to explore history but through the eyes of your own relatives it becomes real for you in a way that numbers, stats and maps can't tell you what it's like. But when you look at your own great grandfather's notations about being gassed or thousands of people dying in a particular battle, it's so real." 



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