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Honey of an occasion

Ontario exhibit marks Winnie the bear's adoption by Winnipeg soldier 100 years ago

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Oh, bother — Winnie the bear, later known as Winnie the Pooh, turns 100 years old Sunday.

While it's not the Canadian black bear cub's actual birthday -- nobody was there for that event — Aug. 24 is the day 100 years ago when a Canadian soldier, on his way from Winnipeg to serve in the First World War, was persuaded to buy a cub from a trapper for $20 during a stop in White River, Ont.

Lt. Harry Colebourn named the cub Winnie, after the city he called home, and took the animal overseas where it became the mascot for the Fort Garry Horse Regiment. Colebourn was serving as a veterinary officer with the regiment.

Winnie would become a star attraction at the London Zoo during the war years and through the 1920s and '30s until the bear died in 1934. British author A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin, saw Winnie at the zoo, and the bear inspired a series of books and poems.

Now, to mark the occasion of the origin of the silly old bear, Colebourn's great-granddaughter, Lindsay Mattick, with the help of Ryerson University, has put together an exhibit with her family's memorabilia titled Remembering the Real Winnie: The World's Most Famous Bear Turns 100.

Mattick said Winnie has played an important role in many people's childhoods, and the family is excited to share the items that bring to life the real tale of the famous bear.

The exhibit, to be displayed from Nov. 6 to Dec. 7 at the Toronto university, will display photographs, letters, diaries and Colebourn's full veterinary kit.

When the war was over, Colebourn stayed and did post-graduate work at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in London, England.

Colebourn kept the bear with him and his regiment while they trained in England, but when they were shipped to France he left the animal at the London Zoo.

Mattick said her great-grandfather intended to bring Winnie back to Winnipeg when he came back in 1920, but when he saw how much the bear was loved by children, he decided to donate him to the zoo.

Back then, the family could not have imagined the future Pooh phenomenon.

"As a kid, it wasn't a large deal in our family," Mattick said. "He (Colebourn) was just really humble.

"Now, because of our mass-media world, it would be a bigger thing."

Interestingly, while Library and Archives Canada now has posted online all 88 pages of Colebourn's entire First World War file, there is not a single mention that he smuggled a bear cub all the way from northern Ontario to Quebec and then to England.

And while the Winnipeg Free Press wrote a story marking Colebourn's death in Sept. 24, 1947, the headline was simply Veterinarian Dies, Aged 62 with the story making no mention of the bear or the famous series of children's books.

"The books came out in 1926, but while they became popular, they wouldn't have had that much traction then," Mattick said.

"I'm pretty sure he knew about the books, but he didn't know the extent it was something of significance."

Brenda Maycher, Colebourn's granddaughter, provided most of the memorabilia for the exhibit.

"Sitting in boxes in the basement is not the best place to store things," Maycher said, with a laugh.

And she's still finding items for what might become part of the exhibit in the future."I found a new photo of Harry and Winnie after World War 1 in the last month," she said. "I've never seen this picture before. It was in an old photo album -- there's nothing written on it. "He's in a nice civilian suit, and he's holding the bear's front paw. He's either donating the bear or he's saying goodbye to her.

"It's almost like the last line of The House at Pooh Corner: somewhere a 'boy and his Bear will always be playing.' "

Trevor Clearwater, the Assiniboine Park Conservancy's director of visitor services, said Winnipeggers and tourists can see Winnie the Bear memorabilia at the park's Pavilion Gallery, including a signed copy of the book Now We Are Six from 1927 by author A. A. Milne.

Clearwater said the Pooh Gallery on the pavilion's second floor details the story of the bear and Colebourn, as well as displaying the only Ernest H. Shepard painting of the bear. His artistic work was in the first four original Pooh books.

"It's called Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Pot," Clearwater said, adding it's the only time the museum can use the word Pooh and not get in trouble with the Disney Corporation over rights.

"That's what the artist called the painting so we can say it."

Mattick, who has also written a children's book about her great-grandfather's story with the bear, said she hopes the exhibit can come to Winnipeg someday.

Clearwater said they also hope to speak to Mattick about the possibility of hosting the exhibit in future.

"The door is still open."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2014 A13

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