For the one hundredth anniversary of the adoption of Winnie the bear, Lindsay Mattick, the great granddaughter of Harry Colebourn, has lent the Colebourn family collection to Ryerson University. The new exhibition, Remembering the Real Winnie: The World’s Most Famous Bear Turns 100, opened to the public in early November 2014.
Colebourn, a Canadian soldier and veterinarian with the Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, made a quick decision to purchase the bear in order to save its life. Winnie was soon adopted as the unofficial mascot of the Fort Garry Horse, the militia cavalry regiment to which Colebourn belonged. “She was going to be a source of joy for him personally and his fellow soldiers and I think that must have been his motivation,” explains Mattick. It was probably the best twenty dollars he spent.
“He obviously had enough confidence with his skills with animals that he wasn’t worried about training a wild animal,” says Mattick. Colebourn and the entire regiment played a role in Winnie’s training. Her friendly manner was likely a result of the amount of time she spent with the men.
Winnie was with the regiment as its members trained in Valcartier, Quebec, for a month, and then accompanied them in the unfavorable conditions of Salisbury Plain in England for four months. Pictured left, Harry Colebourn and Winnie, Salisbury Plain, 1914.
Mattick explains: “Like a dog or a cat, having a pet would have been a source of love when you are out there on your own, away from your own family and life. Colebourn knew Winnie was good for the regiment, but more importantly he knew that Winnie would be safer at the London Zoo than at the battlefield. In December 1914, Colebourn left Winnie with the zoo as he headed to the front lines.
The story doesn’t end there. During his leaves, Colebourn visited Winnie at the London Zoo. “She probably provided him something to look forward to,” says Mattick. “He was witnessing an awful period of our history and I think for him to know he had this little loving bear and to get to go see her as she grew and thrived at the London Zoo, knowing that [Winnie] became so well known by visitors for her friendly nature, I think she must have been a source of light [for Colebourn] in a really dark period.”
Colebourn had intended to bring Winnie back to Canada after the war. But in the end, he realized the zoo was her home. “So even though he wanted to take her home, he knew that the right thing for her was to leave her there,” Mattick says. “And that is when he donated her permanently.”
It was the hundredth anniversary of her great grandfather buying Winnie that encouraged Mattick to lend Ryerson the family’s collection of photographs, six diaries written by Colebourn, newspaper clippings, letters, and invoices. After its time at Ryerson, Mattick hopes that the exhibit will tour Canada before finding a permanent home.