Winnie the Pooh: Named After a Real Bear… and Maybe a Swan

 

01 Winnie and gang in boat 02

I’ve just seen the film “Christopher Robin,” so that beloved little bear from the Hundred Acre Wood has been on my mind. And I began to wonder about his name. Where did A. A. Milne come up with a name like “Winnie the Pooh”? Let’s find out…

In the early 1920s, A. A. Milne was writing children’s poems and books populated by characters based on his son’s stuffed, toy animal collection. But the bear in these early stories was known as Mr. Edward Bear (he must have been a very formal bear, indeed).

WINNIE THE BEAR

Then one day in 1924, Mr. Milne took his four-year-old son, Christopher Robin, to the London Zoo. There they met a friendly, outgoing, real live, female bear called Winnie. She was so tame that the zookeepers allowed people to go into her enclosure – and they even let children ride on her back.

Christopher Robin fell in love with the gregarious gal and immediately changed his toy bear’s name from Mr. Edward Bear to Winnie. The bear in his father’s stories also became Winnie. Neither of them cared that Winnie, the real bear, was female and the stuffed bear (and the one in the stories) was male.

02 Winnie and Christopher Robin
Christopher Robin gets up close and personal with Winnie at the zoo

 Winnie the Canadian

Winnie had been living at the London Zoo for about ten years when she met the Milnes, but her story began in a faraway land. Canada. That’s where she met Harry Colebourn.

In 1914 Harry was a twenty-seven-year-old veterinarian from Winnipeg on his way to a military training camp near Quebec. He was traveling the 1,500 miles by train to join the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps.

At one of the stops along the way, Harry saw a man with a bear cub. Of course, this caught the young vet’s attention. After a short discussion, Harry was $20 poorer, but he was the proud owner of a female, black bear cub. He called her Winne after his hometown of Winnipeg.

Winnie the Soldier

Winnie climbed aboard the train with Harry and they made their way to the Army camp. Once there, she charmed the corporal and the other soldiers. They wanted her to stay, and she became a sort of company mascot. She was a clever, entertaining bear, and just like Winnie the Pooh, she was always hungry. She would drink the soldiers’ bottles of condensed milk then roll onto her back and hum in contentment.

When Harry’s regiment boarded the ship bound for England’s shores, Winnie went along too. The troops were stationed near Salisbury for more training until they were called to the font line. When Harry’s turn came to ship out, he drove Winnie to London and left her at the London Zoo. He promised to come back for her after the war.

03 Winnie and Harry 01
Winnie and Harry

 Winnie in the Zoo

Like everyone else, Harry was expecting the war to be a very short one, but, of course, it lasted four years. When it was finally over, Harry made his way back to the zoo to reclaim his bear. But Winnie had settled into life there, and she seemed to enjoy her role as a star attraction. He couldn’t uproot her. So Harry headed back to Winnipeg alone, and Winnie never saw the city she was named after.

Winnie was still at the zoo in 1924 when she met Milne and Christopher Robin. Her good nature and charisma must have inspired Mr. Milne who went on to write stories about an easy-going and lovable bear called Winnie the Pooh. Winnie the Bear continued to live at the London Zoo until her death in 1934.

The story of Harry and Winnie was passed down through the Colebourn family, but they didn’t know that Winnie the Pooh was the namesake of “their Winnie” until around 1947. Now, Lindsay Mattick, Harry’s great-granddaughter, is determined to keep the family story alive. In 2015 she published a book called “Finding Winnie” which tells the tale of the real bear bought by her great grandfather in 1914.

04 Milne Christopher Winnie the Pooh
A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin with his toy bear, Winnie the Pooh

WINNIE THE POOH

So now we know how the little bear got the name Winnie. But what about the Pooh part? You have to admit that’s an odd name. It seems that the second part of the bear’s name might have come from… a swan… or possibly a fly.

In 1924 (two years before the first Winnie the Pooh story was published) A. A. Milne’s published a book of poems entitled “When We Were Very Young.” In this book, there was a long poem about a bear called Mr. Edward Bear and a short poem about a nameless swan.

Pooh the Swan

However, in a note at the beginning of the book, Milne explains that “Christopher Robin, who feeds this swan in the mornings, has given him the name of “Pooh.” This is a very fine name for a swan, because, if you call him and he doesn’t come (which is a thing swans are good at), then you can pretend that you were just saying “Pooh!” to show how little you wanted him.”

Another Pooh Explanation

However, in the first Winnie the Pooh book, Milne tried to explain the name like this: “His arms were so stiff … they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think—but I am not sure—that that is why he is always called Pooh.”

So, the second part of Winnie’s name came either from a swan named Pooh or from the sound a bear makes when trying to blow a fly off his nose. If Milne himself couldn’t be sure, then we can’t either. But the name worked and people all over the world know just who you mean when you mention Winnie the Pooh.

05 Winnie the Pooh and friends in library
The real stuffed animals that inspired the Winnie the Pooh stories are now at the New York Public Library

A. A. Milne wrote many stories, plays, and books, but his books about Winnie the Pooh, the bear with the funny name, outsold them all. They were instant bestsellers and the rights have since been acquired by Disney. The famous Hundred Acre Wood, where the animals had their adventures, was actually the Five Hundred Acre Wood in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England.

*****

Winnie the Pooh book

Amazon.COM  /  Amazon.CO.UK

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*Image Sources: Image 1, Image 2, Images 3-4, Image 5

Winnie the Pooh was named after a real bear... and maybe a swan
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Margo Lestz

I am a perpetual student who enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

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10 comments

  1. Gosh! I had no idea that the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh came from Winnipeg! Very interesting read as always, Margo! LOVE your stories – 🙂

    1. Yes, she was named after Winnipeg, but she never actually got there. Her destiny lay in another direction. 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoy my stories! Thanks for reading!

  2. Wonderful Margo. You tell it so well. And so nice it has a happy ending. I gather not quite so for the people – I saw the film(movie) ‘Christopher Robin’; excellent, but so sad.
    On another subject, I saw the film about the life of JD Salinger (Rebel in the Rye) on a plane between Melbourne and Perth and am now getting the book (JD Salinger: A Life Raised High) for more detail. ‘A Catcher in the Rye’ was on the English Literature Syllabus for Matriculation in the mid 60s in Australia – in those days Education was seen as preparation for life, not like today!
    Best Wishes
    Paula

    1. Hi Paula, I saw the other film too. It really was sad. I knew this one would be happier because it was by Disney. 🙂
      I haven’t heard about “Rebel in the Rye, though.” It sounds interesting and I’ll have to look out for it. Thanks!
      All the Best, -Margo

  3. Thank you, Margo, for bringing this delightful story to the attention of more people. The bear cub and Lieutenant Harry Colebourn first encountered one another at White River, Ontario (on the north shore of Lake Superior). For details of the event and the town’s annual Winnie celebration, see http://www.whiteriver.ca then search for the “History of Winnie the Pooh”. If it’s available in your part of the world, you can view “A Bear Named Winnie,” the heart-warming 2004 Canadian TV movie that stars Michael Fassbender, Gil Bellows, David Suchet and Steven Fry. (Of course everyone knows that the most charming bear cub/adult bear ever is the real star.) In North America, photos from the film are available online, and a series of 9-minute segments is posted on YouTube. The entire film streams at Amazon Prime. (I’m unfamiliar with broadcast restrictions that may apply in other parts of the world.)

    1. Wow! Thanks for all that information. Wouldn’t it be fun to go to a Winnie celebration? I’ve never heard of the Canadian movie, but I’ll check it out and see if it’s available here. Thanks again for the extra info.
      Best -Margo

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