In 1914 when the Canadian army arrived to support Great Britain in her war with Germany, a young black female bear cub came too. She had been spotted sitting with an animal trapper on a railway station platform in Canada by a young army vet called Harry. Harry was on his way to France to look after the army horses. Seeing the young bear cub, he felt he could not leave her there to an uncertain fate, so he decided he would take her with him. He offered 20 dollars to the trapper for the cub and the trapper quickly agreed.
When the Canadians landed in England they headed by rail to Salisbury Plain where they were to do their battle training prior to going off to war in France. West Down at Tilshead was the destination for the young bear cub and her owner.
Harry with Winnie the Bear at West Down, Tilshead 1914
The young bear cub was very popular with the troops, but the time soon came when it was time to head to war in France. What was Harry to do with the cub whom he named “Winnie” after the city of Winnipeg where he came from? He couldn’t take her with him as the Western Front was no place for a bear cub! Harry contacted Regents Park Zoo in London and they agreed to look after her while the war lasted. Every time Harry had leave he went to the zoo to see his cub.
When the war ended Harry decided that the cub would be better off staying at the Zoo than coming home with him, so sadly he left her behind as he sailed for Canada.
At the zoo Winnie was a very popular attraction and one man and his son built up a special relationship with her. In fact, the son was able to go into the Winnie’s pen and play with her. The black bear was a very affectionate bear. The boy named his own teddy bear after her. His father then started to make up stories about the teddy bear’s adventures. These adventures were published in short books which made the bear the most famous bear in the world. The writer was AA Milne; the books featured Winnie the Pooh.
As our village is clearly connected with Winnie’s story, it seemed to me that as we move into the final year of commemoration of the First World War it would be appropriate to link the story with those who lost their lives and find a way of preserving this special connection. An event in 2018 which remembers the lives of the British and Canadian soldiers who trained in Tilshead before heading to France, together with some form of permanent memorial might be a way forward.
I have been chairman of the Market Lavington First World War Commemoration Committee for the past four years; I would be happy to lead a project forward for Tilshead if there were others who would support me.
Please contact me if you are interested.
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