Alan Alexander Milne, or A. A. Milne as he is known, is a household name today, thanks to a silly old humming bear and his furry friends, but he was also a successful novelist, screenwriter, humourist and playwright. Born and bred in London, Milne spent the bulk of his creative years in Chelsea, using his country home in Ashdown Forest as the inspiration for the enchanted location where Winnie-the-Pooh and his playmates would buzz and bounce in search of sticks and hunny.
A. A. Milne
Milne was born in Kilburn, London on 18 January 1882. He grew up at 67 Mortimer Road (now Crescent) where his father ran a school which Milne attended as a boy. H.G. Wells was one of the teachers. Milne went on to study at Westminster School before heading off to Cambridge where he read Mathematics and edited the student magazine.
He became Assistant Editor of Punch by 1906. In 1913, he married Daphne de Sélincourt, and in 1919, they moved into 13 Mallord Street. This pretty Chelsea street has no fewer than nine blue plaques (Stephen Ward committed suicide at No 21). Christopher Robin was born there in 1920.
Mallord Street would become the family’s base until 1940, and A. A. Milne spent many productive years here. Over the course of his lifetime, he would write 34 plays, seven novels, five nonfiction books and the quartet for which he would become so famous.
He fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and like so many others on the front, returned to London with PTSD.
In 1952, he retired to Cotchford Farm in Ashdown Forest after suffering from a stroke. He died on 31 January 1956, aged 74.
Fun fact: Milne was a cricket lover, playing with the likes of P.G. Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle and J.M. Barrie.
Winnie the Pooh
The inspiration for the tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff came from a Farnell toy bear that Daphne purchased from Harrods’s Toy Department in 1921 for her son. Pooh would be joined by the famous five: Tigger, Kanga, Roo, Piglet and Eeyore.
Milne and family spent weekends and summers in their Ashdown Forest farm in 1925. This bucolic setting would become the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood.
Milne collaborated with the talented Ernest H. Shepard, an artist whose prints were regularly featured in Punch. You can see some of his Winnie-the-Pooh works in the Prints and Drawings Study Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Milne would write When We Were Very Young, the first of the Pooh books, in Mallord Street. Winnie-the-Pooh, Now we are Six and The House at Pooh Corner followed. The children’s works amounted to a mere 70,000 collective words, but they became the classics for which he is remembered. The Pooh books have never been out of print, and 20 million copies have been sold in 50 languages. Winnie ille Pu became the only Latin book ever to be featured on The New York Times Bestseller list. The Winnie-the-Pooh rights were left to family, the Royal Literary Fund, Westminster School as well as the Garrick Club (of which Milne was a member).
Sadly, father and son would go on to resent each other and the bear that made them both so famous. Christopher would be bullied at school due to his celebrity status and fictional namesake. Of his father, he would say that he “had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.”
The real Winnie
Winnie-the-Pooh was inspired by a real bear called Winnie who had become a London Zoo celebrity. A Canadian Lieutenant called Colebourn (from Winnipeg) rescued a bear cub in 1914. He travelled to London with her prior to his departure for the Western Front, but not before handing her over to London Zoo. Winnie quickly became a big hit.
A London Zoo regular, Christopher Robin was enchanted by Winnie who was tame enough to feed and on which to ride. He renamed his Harrods bear Winnie-the-Pooh, a combination of the Canadian cub’s name and the nickname he gave to a swan he used to feed.
Winnie died in 1934, aged 20, but you can see her statue in London Zoo next to her beloved Colebourn.