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 B.B.C. 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.
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, in his usual way, 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.” It would seem most 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!
Whatever 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 considerable help in clarifying the background history of the original Winnie, the American black bear cub who was the inspiration for Winnie-the-Pooh, A. A. Milne's Bear of Very Little Brain.
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, he had to change trains at White River Bend 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.
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 no longer than two weeks.
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. Realising 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.
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.
There's always serendipity in life — if you allow it — during the late 1950s, I was employed as the Personal Assistant to Harry Arkle, the European Managing Director of Canadian Pacific and was later 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. As there was only one American black bear residing at the Zoo at that time, there is some question still as to the real name of the bear. In Mainland's book there is a photograph captioned "Winifred being fed by her keeper with a spoonful of golden syrup". But history tells us that the cub was named Winnie, after Winnipeg, Lieutenant Colebourn's home town.
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 with 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 lake at Decoy, a thatched cottage near Angmering in Sussex, have known it would be called Pooh? “Of course, when you say good-bye, 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, 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 important to be announced on the BBC 9 o'clock news. 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 Estates Manager, with his workers posing on the bridge the day they finished building it in 1907. The only evidence of Pooh in the late Christopher Milne's house is an enlargement of that photograph in a wood frame lovingly carved by Christopher.
Posingford Bridge — Poohsticks 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
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.
Later that year 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 the unveiling ceremony, Christopher Milne read the conclusion of the last story "In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come To An Enchanted Place and We Leave Them There". After the unveiling of the plaque by Sir George Chisholm, Chairman of the Pooh Trustees, I noticed Christopher Milne standing alone a little way apart from the group. I approached and cheekily introduced myself. Christopher took my hand and standing on one leg said "Oh, I've heard so much about you." My wife, Diane, treasures a snap she took at that very moment, and it 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 to them.
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 story books 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 President Clinton, who, in his recent 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.
For over forty years the original Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Kanga and Eeyore were lovingly cared for by Elliott Graham at the offices of E.P. Dutton in New York. After reading a newspaper article reporting that Dutton had taken possession of the 'stuffed animals', Elliott applied for and was given a job at the publishers, where he quickly became the official guardian to Pooh and his companions. They could not have had a more loving friend. The official residence of the animals is now a shelf in the the Children's Department 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. Roo's absence from this collection is because he lost his way many years ago in the woods near Posingford, Sussex. He has not been seen since!
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 grand-daughter. A. A. Milne's own favourite bear was sold to an anonymous buyer at Bonham's London auction in April, 1995 for £4,600.
A life-size 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.
A replica of the statue celebrating Winnie which was erected in Winnipeg was also placed at the Zoo in June, 1995.
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 never 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."
The Pooh books are favourites with old and young alike and have been translated into almost every known language. In 1993 the Walt Disney Company acknowledged that Pooh Bear is second only to Mickey Mouse in their portfolio of the most loved and trusted characters known to millions of people all the world over and by 1996 the Bear of Very Little Brain had proved to be more popular than any other Disney character. In 1990, 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 so perfectly 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."