Andrew Stephen has been working on a book of villagers’ stories about family members who served in the Great War but there’s one character he hasn’t mentioned who, for generations of children became part of their family, also played a part in WW1. I spent my youth living close to Ashdown Forest, an unspoilt sandy ridge stretching between the North and South Downs of Kent and Sussex, from whence stories of my hero originated. Yes, you’ve guessed – its Winnie the Pooh, first written about by A A Milne in 1926 and brought to life by E H Shepard and Disney! On the edge of Ashdown Forest, in the village of Hartfield, there is a Pooh Bear shop which attracts people, young and old, from around the world. Pooh’s books have been translated into 33 languages including Latin! In 2002 the bear, described as having ‘little brain’ and addicted to ‘hunny’, became Japan’s best-selling character supposedly helping the Japanese to learn English (not sure about helping with the spelling though!)
Winnie began life in Canada. An English born Canadian soldier was being transported by train across the country for training in preparation to serve in WW1. The train stopped briefly at the small town of White River, Ontario. The soldier’s name was Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, a qualified veterinary officer. While taking the opportunity to stretch his legs he noticed a fur trapper trying to sell an orphaned six month old black bear cub. Colebourn proved to be a willing customer, purchased the female cub for $20 and promptly named her ‘Winnie’ after his home town of Winnipeg. So it was that the bear accompanied him during several months of training, the trip by sea across to England followed by several more weeks training on Salisbury Plain. Eventually, in 1915, Colebourn was summoned to fight on the Western Front. He reluctantly accepted it was impossible to take Winnie with him so he left her in the care of London Zoo. Whenever he returned to England on leave he visited Winnie in her new home.
She was described as being the tamest and best behaved bear the zoo had ever had and children were allowed to ride on her back. When the war finally ended in November 1918 Colebourn realised there was no way he could take the fully grown bear back to Canada. Besides, his pet no longer belonged to him; she belonged to the people of London with whom she’d become so popular. It was a huge wrench for him to leave her behind when he returned home. A A Milne frequently took his young son Cristopher Robin to London Zoo where he fell in love with Winnie and named his own toy bear, originally called Edward, after her which then became the subject for so many delightful stories. In them the name of a swan called Pooh was added. I’m not sure though when Winnie turned yellow or the reason he acquired his red shirt in 1932. Colebourn’s Winnie died in 1934.