This week my book choice is a most unusual biography, because although the subject is internationally famous a lot of people don’t know that there is a real Winnie-the-Pooh who was actually owned by Christopher Robin. He has led a very interesting ‘life’ culminating in his retirement along with some of his friends in the Children’s Library in New York and the story is very well told in this entertaining volume. I have to say that I knew some of this story but there was still a lot of material that was new to me. I’ve been a teddy bear collector for over twenty years and a book collector most of my life, now combining both of these interests by occasionally purchasing books signed by A A Milne, E H Shepard, Christopher Robin Milne and even H Fraser-Simson (of which more later).
The bear on the cover is the real Winnie-the-Pooh originally made by probably the finest teddy bear maker in the UK, Farnell, and purchased from Harrods for Christopher Robin’s first birthday in 1921. Over the years he was joined by a cuddly pig named Poglet and later the smaller and easier to carry version named Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga and Roo all arrived too in fairly quick succession. Rabbit and Owl who also appear in the books were additions by A A Milne, they were never actual toys owned by Christopher Robin. Those people who have visited Pooh in his retirement home are often surprised that not only doesn’t he look like the Disney version but he also is very different to the one drawn by E H Shepard. In fact the model for the bear in the books is Shepard’s daughters teddy which was probably a Steiff.
New York Children’s Library has Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet and Kanga, sadly Roo was lost at the family home of Cotchford Farm well before the toys made their crossing to America in 1947, originally for a short visit which turned into a permanent stay. They were originally held at the offices of Milne’s USA publishers E P Dutton but transferred to the library in 1987. During their time at Dutton they travelled all over America and Pooh even came back to England for three brief visits, including once flying on Concorde when Pooh was invited onto the flight deck to meet the Captain, he really was an international celebrity.
The rear of the book has some of the lovely photos selected to illustrate the story, several of which I hadn’t seen before including top left Christopher Robin starting school alongside his childhood friend Anne and below that an eight or nine year old Christopher Robin with some of the toys, Pooh and Eeyore are on the floor with Tigger under his left arm and Poglet in his right. Piglet is only three inches (7½cm) tall so this is definitely Poglet. In the middle is the original Winnie Bear with his owner Lieutenant Colebourn before he was donated to London Zoo early in WWI, which is where Christopher Robin met him and the then four year old Edward Bear was renamed Winnie in his honour. To the right of that image is the bridge in Ashdown forest where the game Pooh-sticks was played and named. At the bottom of the page is Christopher Robin’s first school bag from when he went to boarding school at the age of nine and marks the end of his time with Pooh as his constant companion. The fact that his father had used his real name in the books led to Christopher Robin being bullied at school and he built up a resentment to the books that he held for a large part of his adult life, only becoming reconciled with the characters and his and their ever growing fame much later on.
The book not only follows Winnie-the-Pooh on his journeys but also summarises the lives of the Milne family including the somewhat surprising decision by the naturally reclusive Christopher Robin to open The Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth, although he did keep a fairly low profile about his links to the toy animals of his childhood and the books they led to. I do have a complete set of the paperbacks signed by him though which presumably originally came from his bookshop.
Above is Winnie-the-Pooh as drawn by E H Shepard for comparison with the actual cuddly teddy bear show on the front cover.
Winnie-the-Pooh continues to have massive fame around the world, considerably helped by the Disney version which with films and merchandising generates billions of pounds every year, A A Milne in his will left money to his family but also to set up The Milne Trust which uses his royalties from the characters for charitable causes and Disney, to be fair, also donates significant sums to charities. The book ends with a summary of the main beneficiaries. As for H Fraser-Simson, he was a composer who lived near the Milne’s London home and it was he that set several of the poems from ‘When We Were Very Young’ and ‘Now We Are Six’ to music with the tunes that I learnt as a child. At 102 years old Winnie-the-Pooh has now outlived all his compatriots and looks to just becoming more famous as the years go on and this tribute to a much loved bear was a really good read.