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 Christopher Robin & Pooh

A.A. Milne always acknowledged that it was his wife, Daphne, and his young son, Christopher Robin, who inspired him to write the poems and stories – the literary journey began in 1924 when the Very Young Christopher Robin was introduced to an American black bear at the London Zoological Gardens.

My searches for the origins of Pooh have led me along many paths for 'the truth,' as there are various versions of Pooh's beginnings. My very dear friend, the late Sir Basil Bartlett, Bart, formerly married to Mary Malcolm, the first BBC Television Announcer, was, among many other things, that rare breed, a diarist.

His daily journals, recorded over a period of fifty years are fascinating reading. I have read only about twenty years' worth, but well recall an entry dated some time in the nineteen twenties recording a dinner he had attended at the London home of the late Laurence Irving, grandson of Henry Irving, the legendary Victorian actor and the first Knight of the English theatre.

Christopher Robin Milne with Pooh, Cotchford Farm, Sussex, c. 1925
Christopher Robin Milne with Pooh,
Cotchford Farm, Sussex, c. 1925

During the dinner, Irving related to his assembled guests the story of how his neighbour, Alan Milne, had asked him if he would include his son, Christopher, in their next family visit to the London Zoo. Irving agreed, as he felt sure Christopher would enjoy both a day with his children and what would be the young boy's first visit to the Zoo. The expotition took place a few days afterwards. All was fun and excitement for the children, until their arrival at the polar bears' 'house.' At his first sight of the huge white 'monster,' Christopher burst into tears and insisted on being taken home.

The party, led by Irving and followed by one miserable crying child who wanted to leave and two very unhappy crying children who wanted to remain, hurriedly left Regent's Park. Some weeks later, Milne lunching at the Garrick Club with Irving, told him a story of Christopher's first triumphant visit to the Zoo, where he had met and fallen in love with a bear and that this had inspired him to write a poem or two to celebrate the occasion and perhaps even eventually a story honouring the visit!

Basil read this extract from his diary to me on the day Irving had written a letter to the London Times, containing a brief description of the origins of Pooh, which totally conflicted with the story Irving had related to Basil fifty years before.

The following day, I rang Laurence Irving and reminded him of Basil's written record of the event all those years before. He insisted that Basil had romanticised his recollection and he then wrote a letter to me confirming some of the 'facts' printed in the Times. Irving's version relates that he took Christopher on a family outing to the London Zoo with his daughter, Pamela, and the daughter of their mutual friend, John Hastings Turner, and that, after a little trepidation, the young boy decided he liked the huge and friendly bear.

The writer, Enid Blyton, of The Famous Five fame, reported that Alan Milne had told her "the bear hugged Christopher Robin and they had a glorious time together, rolling about and pulling ears and all sorts of things." But, I feel it unlikely that a four-year-old boy could romp about with a ten-year-old American black bear as Milne described, but "You never can tell," says Pooh!

Christopher Robin & WinnieWhatever the real story is, there is no doubt that the young Christopher Robin did befriend Winnie at the London Zoo as is evidenced in the picture of him feeding the bear with condensed milk on one of his visits. If you look closely, you will see Alan Milne behind the bars of the bear's enclosure – was he too frightened to go in?

Irving also told me the story of how the determined Ernest Shepard finally convinced Alan Milne that he was the best illustrator for his forthcoming book of verses. Evidently the young artist had gone down to the Ashdown Forest and made a number of sketches and, afterwards, without making an appointment, called on Milne at his home at Cotchford Farm one Saturday morning with his portfolio of sketches.

Milne, somewhat surprised to see an uninvited guest at his front door, reluctantly asked him in. Inside the entrance hall, Shepard opened his portfolio. Milne was immediately delighted with the drawings and agreed that Shepard should illustrate the poems. The young artist left Cotchford Farm clutching his portfolio a very happy young man. However, two weeks later, Milne began to regret his 'hasty' decision and changed his mind. Fortunately, his older and wiser friends, including F.H. Townsend and E.V. Lucas reassured him – and history was made.

However, there is little doubt about the origins of the bear and I am very grateful to Gordon Crossley, the Regimental Historian of The Fort Garry Horse in Winnipeg, Canada, who generously gave me the background history of the original Winnie, the American black bear cub who was the inspiration for A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, the loveable Bear of Very Little Brain.

Lieutenant Colebourn with Winnie on Salisbury Plain, ≈December, 1914
© Manitoba Archives, Winnipeg
In August, 1914, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, a Veterinary Officer with the 34th Fort Garry Horse of Manitoba, was travelling by train from his home in Winnipeg to enroll in the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps in Valcartier, Quebec.

Travelling by Canadian Pacific Railway, his train made a stop at White River in Ontario, where he noticed a man further along the station platform with an American black bear cub tied to the arm of the bench on which he was seated.

He struck up a conversation and, learning that the man was a trapper who had shot and killed the cub's mother, Colebourn offered him $20 for the young bear -- the trapper eagerly accepted the offer and the cub was taken to Quebec, where she became the mascot of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, as Harry had been assigned to the Headquarters of that formation. One of the units in the 2nd Brigade was the 6th (Fort Garry) Battalion, which had been formed from Harry’s old unit, the 34th Fort Garry Horse.



Winnie with a soldier of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. Salisbury plain, 1914
© Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg

In December 1914, the 2nd Brigade was preparing to move to France in great secrecy. Colebourn decided it was unsafe to take her into battle; so, while passing through London on the way to France on December 9th, 1914, he visited London Zoo and asked them to care for the cub until his return, which he optimistically anticipated would be a short time. Of course, 'that war to end all wars' was not to end so quickly. It was not until 1918 that Colebourn returned safely to London. Seeing that the bear, now known affectionately by her keepers and visitors as Winnie, was happy and content in her new home, he decided to leave her there.

Receipt from London Zoo, recording the arrival there of Winnie on
December 9th, 1914 and her death on 12th May, 1934

 He visited her a number of times during the following years to renew his friendship, and the cub grew up to be a big friendly bear who lived and played happily among many thousands of friends, both animal and human, until she died there peacefully on the of 12th May, 1934. In 1921, Harry Colebourn, now a Major, returned to his old unit, The Fort Garry Horse, and continued to serve the needs of animals in the military and as a civilian veterinarian until his death in 1947.

In 1999 a party of officers and men from The Fort Garry Horse visited London Zoo and unveiled a plaque describing the connection between Harry Colebourn and Winnie. The plaque was mounted at Mappin Terrace, near the enclosure where Winnie lived for so many years. The London Zoo also has a statue of Harry and Winnie, by Manitoba sculptor Bill Epp. This statue, erected in 1993, is a copy of the original that stands in the Winnipeg Zoo


Winnie in London Zoo February 16th, 1916
© Manitoba Archives, Winnipeg
There's always serendipity in life – if you allow it – during the late 1950s, I was employed as Personal Assistant to Harry Arkle, the European Managing Director of Canadian Pacific and was offered the job as Personal Assistant to Neville Crump, the Chairman of the Company in Montreal – I declined the offer because I was in love with a girl in London! – If only I'd known about Winnie-the-Pooh at the time, what other 'bear' adventures might I have experienced?

Interestingly, Leslie G. Mainland, L.G.M. of "The Daily Mail" in his book Secrets Of The Zoo published in 1922, writes of the Zoo's young bear, Winifred. In Mainland's book, the photograph is captioned "Winifred being fed by her keeper with a spoonful of golden syrup."

Milne described Winnie-the-Pooh's daily 'Little Something' as honey, a much more 'singy' food! However, the late Christopher Robin Milne affectionately recalled that, as a five-year-old boy, he regularly fed Winnie condensed milk as she disliked honey! Fortunately for us all, his father immortalized Pooh's love for honey, rather than condensed milk. Imagine Pooh singing as he climbed the oak tree:

Isn't it funny
How a bear likes condensed milk
Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!
I wonder why he does?

Could a Royal Swan swimming serenely on the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens have known it would be called Pooh? "Of course, when you say goodbye, Pooh is a very good name to take with you as, probably, the swan wouldn't want it anymore."

And so, in 1926, with a lifetime of experiences, the five-year-old Christopher Robin went to live at Cotchford Farm in Sussex, England, with a friend named Edward Bear. "Well, when Edward Bear said that he would like an exciting name all to himself, Christopher Robin said at once, without stopping to think, that he was Winnie-the-Pooh. And he was..." For all time.

Interestingly, Milne wrote the original manuscripts of the four books by hand with a fountain pen manufactured by the Swan Pen Company. This may have prompted his creative mind to invent the story of the Royal Swan! Milne bequeathed the manuscripts of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner to the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, where both he and his son Christopher had been undergraduates.

Ashdown Forest is much the same today as when Ernest Shepard first sketched it over seventy years ago. The Pooh places are now so known and loved that when, in the late 1970s, it became obvious that 'Poohsticks Bridge' was urgently in need of repair, the issue was considered of sufficient national importance to be announced on the BBC 9 o'clock news.

Posingford Bridge built in 1907 to carry timber from Posingford to Cotchford Lane on the estate of Mr. Arthur Clough in Hartfield. The Estate Manager, John Charles Osman, is pictured on the left of the photograph with his thirteen workers.
Fully restored, "Poohsticks Bridge" (as it was renamed) was reopened by Christopher Robin Milne in 1979.

Posingford Bridge, as it was originally called, was built in 1907 by John Charles Osman and his team of thirteen workers to carry timber from Posingford to Cotchford Lane on the estate of Arthur Clough in Hartfield, West Sussex.

Sufficient funds were raised and the bridge restored and officially reopened by Christopher Milne in May, 1979. On the day, Christopher was a very unwilling participant in a game of "Poohsticks" and was anxious to escape the hordes of press photographers and journalists. As he walked away from the bridge, a lady unexpectedly pressed a piece of paper into his hand, quickly explaining that it was a photograph of her father, John Charles Osman, the Estate's Manager, with his workers posing on the bridge the day they finished building it in 1907.

The only connection to the history of Pooh in Christopher Milne's house was an enlargement of this photograph in a wood frame lovingly carved by him hanging at the top of the stairs of his home in Devon. After Christopher's death, Lesley Milne presented the picture to Michael Brown, the Chairman of the Pooh Properties and it now hangs 'halfway up' the stairs of his home in Buckinghamshire.

 1979 was Ernest Shepard's centenary year and, in July, a special game of Poohstocks was held on the bridge to celebrate both the centenary and the issue of a GPO stamp featuring Winnie-the-Pooh.

On Thursday, 20th September,1979, a bronze plaque was set into a rock in an obscure pathway near the summit of Gills Lap, the highest point of the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, commemorating the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard.

There are deliberately no signs to show the way, as it was felt that the memorial should be informal and inconspicuous, in keeping with the spirit of the books. Gills Lap is a point which overlooks all the Pooh places and is referred to in the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner as Galleons Lap.

After an address by Sir Henry Chisholm, then Chairman of the Pooh Trustees, the plaque was unveiled by Brigadier L.M. Scott, Chairman of the Conservators of Ashdown Forest. Christopher Milne stood alone some distance from the invited guests. I approached and cheekily introduced myself. Christopher took my hand and, standing on one leg, said "Oh, I've heard so much about you." We treasure a snap Diane took at that very moment, and the occasion was the beginning of a very close friendship with Christopher and his family. The guests then walked back to the village hall for tea, bread and honey and cakes and I read extracts from Milne's Pooh books.

A few years ago, Christopher Milne recruited Pooh to help in the campaign for the survival of Pooh's Ashdown Forest, then being threatened by the proposed ravages of a major exploration by British Petroleum. It was intolerable for Christopher that such wild, wooded English countryside, once the hunting ground of Kings, should come under the threat of so-called 'progress and development.'

Happily, the 100 Aker Wood and Galleons Lap were saved for posterity. It is rather ironic that Dutton eventually made an arrangement with British Petroleum to give away Pooh storybooks as an inducement to encourage customers to buy their petrol at gas stations across America. However, the scheme was not successful and nearly a million copies of the books lay for some time collecting dust in the company's warehouse.

Fortunately, Pooh won through. Hearing that the entire stock was to be shredded and recycled, Christopher Toyne persuaded K-tel International to purchase the books from Dutton and have them packaged with our audio recordings as Read-Alongs for children. That should please former President Clinton who, in a Union Address, stressed the importance of teaching reading to the nation's children. Pooh may be A Bear of Little Brain, but he is certainly doing his bit to achieve this aim.

In 1951, at the request of Pooh’s U.S. publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., A. A. Milne agreed that Pooh and his friends Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and Tigger could visit America on temporary loan to help the publishers sell copies of a new edition of Milne’s books being issued by Dutton. Roo was unable to make the journey as he had lost his way many years before in the woods near Posingford, Sussex. He had not been seen since! The toys were insured for $50,000 and Milne exacted a promise from the publishers that they would not be cleaned and would be returned to him in England as dirty and moth-eaten as they were when they left England.
It was anticipated that the animals would tour America for about three years and then be sent home to England. For reasons unknown, they have not been returned to their rightful home. Some years ago, Gwyneth Dunwoody, the longest serving female Member of Parliament led a failed attempt to have the animals returned to England.

Eeyore, Pooh, Piglet, Kanga and Tigger
in the offices of E. P. Dutton & Co. New York, 1987
Photo courtesy of Elliott Graham

For over forty years, the toys were lovingly cared for by Elliott Graham at Dutton’s New York office. After reading a newspaper article reporting that the publishers had taken possession of the 'stuffed animals', Elliott applied for a job at Dutton. He was quickly appointed the official guardian to Pooh and his friends until his retirement as Head of Public Relations for the company. Pooh and his companions could not have had a more loving friend. Just before Christmas in 1987 I had the pleasure of meeting Elliott and reading Pooh to him and other members of Dutton's staff.

It was a privilege to be photographed with Pooh and Elliott, and these snaps remain cherished memories of our time together at Dutton. Diane and I had first held Pooh in 1976, when he traveled by Concorde with Nancy Winters on a visit to London. Nancy stayed in her usual elegant suite at the Savoy Hotel in the Strand, while Pooh was made as comfortable as possible in the giant steel hotel safe, until he was released for some exciting expotitions and to be photographed with us outside the grand entrance of the Savoy.

The unofficial residence of Christopher Robin's childhood stuffed animals is now a glass cabinet in the Donnell Library Center of the New York Public Library. A party was given there by Dutton on 8th October, 1996 to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the publication of Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926. During our visit to the Donnell in June, 2000, the cabinet was unlocked for Diane and me to hold Pooh. He much enjoyed his release from 'captivity' for a few minutes, taking the opportunity to be photographed with Jan Lamb, a Library assistant and to leaf through a few books on the library's shelves.

  In 2002 I innocently permitted the photograph of me holding Pooh to be published in Brian Sibley’s wonderful book ‘Three Cheers for Pooh’. My innocent error was punished with a $700.00 fine imposed by Anne Hofmann, Chief Librarian of the Donnell Library Center. In a letter to me dated 23rd October 1995, Christopher Milne described me as “Pooh’s Ambassador Extraordinary and no bear has ever had a more devoted friend” — presumably a view not shared by Ms. Hofmann. Fear of possible beheading ensured deletion of the photograph from further editions of the book and, under threat of legal action, I paid up!

In my letter to Christopher dated February 26, 1987, I told him that Dutton had been sold to the New American Library and then bought by Penguin. Elliott had told me that the new owners didn’t want the animals, so Dutton’s previous owner, a 38-year-old American millionaire financier, John Dyson, took them to his office on East Fifty First Street in New York, with the intention of donating them to the New York Public Library. In his reply to me dated March 3 1987, Christopher wrote “Though I’ve lost touch with those creatures and don’t specially wish to be reminded of them, I feel they would be happier in their native country rather than in the office of an American millionaire financier.”

Interestingly, Ernest Shepard's beautiful line drawings of Pooh were not inspired by Christopher Robin's bear, but by Growler, the much-loved bear belonging to the artist's son, Graham. Years later, the tired and worn bear lost a fight with a Scottie dog in a Montreal garden, where he had gone to live with Minette, Shepard's granddaughter. A.A. Milne's own favourite bear was sold to an anonymous buyer at Bonham's London auction in April, 1995 for £4,600.

Lorne McKean in her studio, Hindhead, Surrey, 1980

A lifesize model of Winnie, immortalized in bronze by the sculptor Lorne McKean to celebrate both Winnie and Winnie-the-Pooh, was unveiled by Christopher Milne at the Mappin Terrace in London Zoo in 1981, when I was invited to read Milne's In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump and the poem At The Zoo to celebrate the occasion.

Michael Brown, Christopher Milne and Peter Dennis,
London Zoo, September 1981

Christopher Milne with bronze statue of Winnie, London Zoo, September 1981
For too long, Winnie-the-Pooh has been relegated to children's bookshelves and Disney children's cartoons. But A. A. Milne didn't write the stories and poems for children. He intended them for the child within you – and me – and countless millions of others. Milne rarely read the stories and poems to his son Christopher, preferring rather to amuse him with the works of P.G. Wodehouse. In a letter to me, Christopher wrote, "My father did not write the books for children. He didn't write for any specific market; he knew nothing about marketing. He knew about me, he knew about himself, he knew about the Garrick Club – he was ignorant about anything else. Except, perhaps, about life."
Lorne McKean, Peter Dennis and Christopher Milne with Winnie, London Zoo, September 1981

The Pooh books are favourites with old and young alike and have been translated into almost every known language. In 1996, the Walt Disney Company acknowledged that Pooh Bear, the Bear of Very Little Brain, is the most popular personality in their portfolio of the most-loved and trusted characters known to millions of people the world over. Ann Thwaite's biography A. A. Milne: His Life was published by Methuen. She has since written a biography of Winnie-the-Pooh, entitled The Brilliant Career of Winnie-the-Pooh, published by Methuen in Europe and by Dutton in America. As Milne wrote at the end of In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place and We Leave Them There – "wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the Forest, a little boy and his bear will always be playing."


Information on the Audio Recordings of Peter Dennis

The Complete Works of Winnie-the-Pooh
The Enchanted Places

USA:  1 818 HUM POOH (818 486 7664 )
International: +1 818 486 7664