Why do so many people still believe in the Cottingley Fairies?
17 JULY 2017 • 6:27AM
One hundred years after the photographs were taken, why is one community still transfixed by the hoax? By David Barnett
At the bottom of Luke Horsman’s garden, there are fairies. Or at least, there were, a century ago, when two young girls unwittingly created a modern fable that brought together two worlds; the relatively new one of photography and the ages-old sphere of spirituality and folklore, entrancing as redoubtable a figure as Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle.
Mr Horsman, 35, lives in Main Street, a narrow road of terraced houses, in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire, with his partner Ruth. He’s an illustrator and is working on a graphic novel called, with perhaps a nod to the idyllic outlook from his end-of-terrace house, Edengate. But, despite the sometimes fantastical nature of his own work, he had no idea when he and Ruth purchased the property in November 2015 that he was buying a slice of the history of the famous Cottingley Fairies.
“It wasn’t mentioned to us at all,” says Mr Horsman, leading me to the kitchen, which overlooks the garden behind the house. “It was only when we moved in and one of the neighbours said to us, ‘Ah, you’re the ones who’ve bought the fairy house’ that we had any inkling. I had no idea what they were talking about at first.” Mr Horsman takes me through the garden, along slate paths to an arbour that perches on the edge of a brook that cascades down past the backs of the homes in Main Street. This is Cottingley Beck, a narrow stream that separates the row of gardens from a lush, thick dell, dappled in sunlight.
It is here, precisely here, where Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths crossed the stepping stones from this very garden to that very dell in July 1917, bearing Elsie’s father’s cherished camera, and came back with a series of photographs that would capture imaginations across the world.
Back then, the house in Main Street was occupied by Arthur and Polly Wright and their only daughter, Elsie. Arthur was an electrical engineer and keen amateur photographer, the proud owner of a Midg quarter-plate camera, an expensive piece of kit for the time. Also living with them, temporarily, were Polly’s sister Annie Griffiths and her daughter Frances, who had made the perilous wartime sea journey from South Africa.
By 1917, Elsie was 15 and Frances nine, but, despite the age gap, the girls became firm friends and played together in the dell, often coming home soaking wet and covered in mud.
It was Elsie who first started blaming fairies for their dishevelled appearance, and an amused Arthur indulged them with the loan of his precious camera to allow them to “prove” the Little Folk were real.
The girls duly obliged and returned the Midg with two glass plates ready for developing in the darkroom Arthur had built for himself in the cellar. He was somewhat taken aback to see the images slowly emerging of Frances, wearing a string of flowers in her hair, watching a quartet of dancing, winged fairies on a tree stump in front of her, and another showing Elsie sitting in the grass, greeting what the girls said was a gnome.
Arthur’s Midg camera resides in the National Science and Media Museum in nearby Bradford. The museum’s head of collections, Michael Terwey, reverently holds it up, explaining how it held a magazine of glass plates covered with photographic emulsion.
“People wanted to believe in the photographs,” says Terwey. “The very idea that these beings had apparently been captured by a camera gave an air of scientific credibility. There were constant references made to the trustworthiness of the family, the fact they hadn’t done it for money, so why would they make it up?”
Looking at the photographs now, with a sophisticated 21st-century eye, it seems incredible that anyone was taken in. It’s obvious the fairies are what they were indeed later revealed to be: drawings by Elsie cut out and stuck in the ground with hatpins.
But perhaps the horrors of the First World War meant people were desperate to embrace something more positive, more spiritual. Terwey says “spirit photography”, and the belief that cameras could capture what the human eye could not see, experienced a great boom in the years surrounding the end of the Great War, as desperate families clung on to some slim hope that those they had lost in the conflict could be contacted on “the other side”.
Still, the first two photographs weren’t taken wholly seriously by the Wrights and might have remained a family joke but for Elsie’s mother, Polly, who attended a meeting in Bradford of the Theosophical Society, the organisation set up in the 19th century to discuss and debate matters spiritual, religious and unexplained.
The talk was on fairies, and Polly showed the speaker the photographs Elsie and Frances had taken. The Theosophical Society was instantly captivated, and displayed the pictures some months later at the society’s annual meeting.
From there, to use modern parlance, they went viral, earning the clear stamp of approval from photography experts who declared them genuine, and eventually coming to the attention of Conan Doyle, who had been commissioned to write a feature on fairy lore for The Strand magazine.
Conan Doyle secured permission from the Wrights to use the two photographs, and made a gift to the girls of a Kodak Cameo camera to obtain further “evidence”, which they duly did, producing three more images of Frances smiling at a leaping fairy, a fairy offering a posy of harebells to Elsie, and another captioned “The Fairies and Their Sun-Bath”, all of which were published in 1920.
In a 1983 letter to Geoffrey Crawley, a journalist who had written extensively about the Cottingley Fairies, Elsie finally admitted how she and Frances had taken the pictures, and said they persisted with the story for so many years because they didn’t want to embarrass all the people who had believed them, Conan Doyle especially, and waited until everyone had died before admitting the hoax.
Arthur Wright was always uncomfortable with the attention the photographs brought on his family. He died in 1926, still frustrated that Elsie and Frances had never owned up.
The very idea that these beings had been captured by a camera gave an air of scientific credibility
Polly, who was really responsible for the photographs reaching so wide an audience, lived until 1955. Elsie, who emigrated to America to escape all the attention, went on to live in India, where she spent the Second World War with the Women's Voluntary Service, before returning to the UK after Indian Independence. She died in 1988, aged 87.
Frances died in 1986 and her memoirs, completed by her daughter Christine Lynch, were published under the title Reflections of the Cottingley Fairies. Frances maintained until her death that she had always seen fairies, and after publication of the interviews with Elsie claiming it was all just a hoax, relations between the two grew strained.
The late Joe Cooper, who wrote a book about Elsie and Frances (which informed the 1997 film Fairy Tale: A True Story, starring Paul McGann, Peter O'Toole and Bill Nighy) also believed the girls had really seen fairies, and had faked the photographs to help their story.
“He believed that they had genuinely seen fairies,” says his daughter Jane. “In terms of my opinion I don’t think that because at least some of the photos were faked this somehow ‘proves’ that they didn’t experience anything. Joe met many people over the years who said they had seen fairies.
"I believe in the phrase ‘beware certainty’. Joe was certain they were telling the truth and many others are certain that fairies don’t exist – both positions are rather risky. People also fail to make a proper distinction between the question ‘Do fairies exist?’ and the question ‘Do people see fairies?’.”
Fairies are still evident in Cottingley today. They haunt the village, in the cut-out fairies that adorn the gates of the Nuffield gym; in the housing estate where streets are named after fairies and other characters from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Titania Close, Oberon Way, Lysander Way. Every year there is a Cottingley Fairy Fest, which this year will mark the centenary of the photographs.
But, do people really see fairies?
Perhaps Mr Horsman is best placed to answer the question. “It’s a great old Yorkshire tale, and it’s fantastic to live in the house where it all happened,” he tells me. “Have I ever seen fairies at the bottom of my garden? No.”
And in the cool, dim bowels of the rooms at the Science and Media Museum in Bradford, where the artefacts linked to this fascinating, enduring tale are stored, Michael Terwey takes a similarly pragmatic view. “You have to remember that Elsie wasn’t a child at the time, he says. “She actually had a job, working for a photographic studio in Bradford, where she touched up photographs.
“She had some technical knowledge, and here we have drawings she did of fairies that show she was a pretty good artist.”
He pauses, considering the camera in his hands, given by Conan Doyle to Elsie and Frances in an attempt to marry science with the mysteries of the unexplained. “But Frances always maintained there actually were fairies. Just because these pictures are staged, that doesn’t mean they’re not there…”
The Cottingley Fairies appear in a series of five photographs taken by Elsie Wright (1901–1988) and Frances Griffiths (1907–1986), two young cousins who lived in Cottingley, near Bradford in England. In 1917, when the first two photographs were taken, Elsie was 16 years old and Frances was 9. The pictures came to the attention of writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who used them to illustrate an article on fairies he had been commissioned to write for the Christmas 1920 edition of The Strand Magazine. Doyle, as a spiritualist, was enthusiastic about the photographs, and interpreted them as clear and visible evidence of psychic phenomena. Public reaction was mixed; some accepted the images as genuine, others believed that they had been faked.
Interest in the Cottingley Fairies gradually declined after 1921. Both girls married and lived abroad for a time after they grew up, yet the photographs continued to hold the public imagination. In 1966 a reporter from the Daily Express newspaper traced Elsie, who had by then returned to the UK. Elsie left open the possibility that she believed she had photographed her thoughts, and the media once again became interested in the story.
In the early 1980s Elsie and Frances admitted that the photographs were faked, using cardboard cutouts of fairies copied from a popular children's book of the time, but Frances maintained that the fifth and final photograph was genuine. The photographs and two of the cameras used are on display in the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England.
In mid-1917 nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her mother—both newly arrived in the UK from South Africa—were staying with Frances' aunt, Elsie Wright's mother, in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire; Elsie was then 16 years old. The two girls often played together beside the beck (stream) at the bottom of the garden, much to their mothers' annoyance, because they frequently came back with wet feet and clothes. Frances and Elsie said they only went to the beck to see the fairies, and to prove it, Elsie borrowed her father's camera, a Midg quarter-plate. The girls returned about 30 minutes later, "triumphant".
Elsie's father, Arthur, was a keen amateur photographer, and had set up his own darkroom. The picture on the photographic plate he developed showed Frances behind a bush in the foreground, on which four fairies appeared to be dancing. Knowing his daughter's artistic ability, and that she had spent some time working in a photographer's studio, he dismissed the figures as cardboard cutouts. Two months later the girls borrowed his camera again, and this time returned with a photograph of Elsie sitting on the lawn holding out her hand to a 1-foot-tall (30 cm) gnome. Exasperated by what he believed to be "nothing but a prank", and convinced that the girls must have tampered with his camera in some way, Arthur Wright refused to lend it to them again. His wife Polly, however, believed the photographs to be authentic.
I am learning French, Geometry, Cookery and Algebra at school now. Dad came home from France the other week after being there ten months, and we all think the war will be over in a few days ... I am sending two photos, both of me, one of me in a bathing costume in our back yard, while the other is me with some fairies. Elsie took that one.
Towards the end of 1918, Frances sent a letter to Johanna Parvin, a friend in Cape Town, South Africa, where Frances had lived for most of her life, enclosing the photograph of herself with the fairies. On the back she wrote "It is funny, I never used to see them in Africa. It must be too hot for them there."
The photographs became public in mid-1919, after Elsie's mother attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford. The lecture that evening was on "fairy life", and at the end of the meeting Polly Wright showed the two fairy photographs taken by her daughter and niece to the speaker. As a result, the photographs were displayed at the society's annual conference in Harrogate, held a few months later. There they came to the attention of a leading member of the society, Edward Gardner. One of the central beliefs of theosophy is that humanity is undergoing a cycle of evolution, towards increasing "perfection", and Gardner recognised the potential significance of the photographs for the movement:
... the fact that two young girls had not only been able to see fairies, which others had done, but had actually for the first time ever been able to materialise them at a density sufficient for their images to be recorded on a photographic plate, meant that it was possible that the next cycle of evolution was underway.
Gardner sent the prints along with the original glass-plate negatives to Harold Snelling, a photography expert. Snelling's opinion was that "the two negatives are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs ... [with] no trace whatsoever of studio work involving card or paper models". He did not go so far as to say that the photographs showed fairies, stating only that "these are straight forward photographs of whatever was in front of the camera at the time". Gardner had the prints "clarified" by Snelling, and new negatives produced, "more conducive to printing", for use in the illustrated lectures he gave around the UK. Snelling supplied the photographic prints which were available for sale at Gardner's lectures.
Author and prominent spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle learned of the photographs from the editor of the spiritualist publication Light. Doyle had been commissioned by The Strand Magazine to write an article on fairies for their Christmas issue, and the fairy photographs "must have seemed like a godsend" according to broadcaster and historian Magnus Magnusson. Doyle contacted Gardner in June 1920 to determine the background to the photographs, and wrote to Elsie and her father to request permission from the latter to use the prints in his article. Arthur Wright was "obviously impressed" that Doyle was involved, and gave his permission for publication, but he refused payment on the grounds that, if genuine, the images should not be "soiled" by money.
Gardner and Doyle sought a second expert opinion from the photographic company Kodak. Several of the company's technicians examined the enhanced prints, and although they agreed with Snelling that the pictures "showed no signs of being faked", they concluded that "this could not be taken as conclusive evidence ... that they were authentic photographs of fairies". Kodak declined to issue a certificate of authenticity. Gardner believed that the Kodak technicians might not have examined the photographs entirely objectively, observing that one had commented "after all, as fairies couldn't be true, the photographs must have been faked somehow".The prints were also examined by another photographic company, Ilford, who reported unequivocally that there was "some evidence of faking". Gardner and Doyle, perhaps rather optimistically, interpreted the results of the three expert evaluations as two in favour of the photographs' authenticity and one against.
Doyle also showed the photographs to the physicist and pioneering psychical researcher Sir Oliver Lodge, who believed the photographs to be fake. He suggested that a troupe of dancers had masqueraded as fairies, and expressed doubt as to their "distinctly 'Parisienne'" hairstyles.
Doyle was preoccupied with organising an imminent lecture tour of Australia, and in July 1920, sent Gardner to meet the Wright family. Frances was by then living with her parents in Scarborough, but Elsie's father told Gardner that he had been so certain the photographs were fakes that while the girls were away he searched their bedroom and the area around the beck (stream), looking for scraps of pictures or cutouts, but found nothing "incriminating".
Gardner believed the Wright family to be honest and respectable. To place the matter of the photographs' authenticity beyond doubt, he returned to Cottingley at the end of July with two Kodak Cameo cameras and 24 secretly marked photographic plates. Frances was invited to stay with the Wright family during the school summer holiday so that she and Elsie could take more pictures of the fairies. Gardner described his briefing in his 1945 Fairies: A Book of Real Fairies:
I went off, to Cottingley again, taking the two cameras and plates from London, and met the family and explained to the two girls the simple working of the cameras, giving one each to keep. The cameras were loaded, and my final advice was that they need go up to the glen only on fine days as they had been accustomed to do before and tice the fairies, as they called their way of attracting them, and see what they could get. I suggested only the most obvious and easy precautions about lighting and distance, for I knew it was essential they should feel free and unhampered and have no burden of responsibility. If nothing came of it all, I told them, they were not to mind a bit.
Until 19 August the weather was unsuitable for photography. Because Frances and Elsie insisted that the fairies would not show themselves if others were watching, Elsie's mother was persuaded to visit her sister's for tea, leaving the girls alone. In her absence the girls took several photographs, two of which appeared to show fairies. In the first, Frances and the Leaping Fairy, Frances is shown in profile with a winged fairy close by her nose. The second, Fairy offering Posy of Harebells to Elsie, shows a fairy either hovering or tiptoeing on a branch, and offering Elsie a flower. Two days later the girls took the last picture, Fairies and Their Sun-Bath.
The plates were packed in cotton wool and returned to Gardner in London, who sent an "ecstatic" telegram to Doyle, by then in Melbourne. Doyle wrote back:
My heart was gladdened when out here in far Australia I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance ... We have had continued messages at seances for some time that a visible sign was coming through.
Doyle's article in the December 1920 issue of The Strand contained two higher-resolution prints of the 1917 photographs, and sold out within days of publication. To protect the girls' anonymity, Frances and Elsie were called Alice and Iris respectively, and the Wright family was referred to as the "Carpenters". An enthusiastic and committed spiritualist, Doyle hoped that if the photographs convinced the public of the existence of fairies then they might more readily accept other psychic phenomena. He ended his article with the words:
The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.
Early press coverage was "mixed", generally a combination of "embarrassment and puzzlement".The historical novelist and poet Maurice Hewlett published a series of articles in the literary journal John O' London's Weekly, in which he concluded: "And knowing children, and knowing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has legs, I decide that the Miss Carpenters have pulled one of them." The Sydney newspaper Truth on 5 January 1921 expressed a similar view; "For the true explanation of these fairy photographs what is wanted is not a knowledge of occult phenomena but a knowledge of children." Some public figures were more sympathetic. Margaret McMillan, the educational and social reformer, wrote: "How wonderful that to these dear children such a wonderful gift has been vouchsafed." The novelist Henry De Vere Stacpoole decided to take the fairy photographs and the girls at face value. In a letter to Gardner he wrote: "Look at Alice's [Frances'] face. Look at Iris's [Elsie's] face. There is an extraordinary thing called Truth which has 10 million faces and forms – it is God's currency and the cleverest coiner or forger can't imitate it."
Major John Hall-Edwards, a keen photographer and pioneer of medical X-ray treatments in Britain, was a particularly vigorous critic:
On the evidence I have no hesitation in saying that these photographs could have been "faked". I criticize the attitude of those who declared there is something supernatural in the circumstances attending to the taking of these pictures because, as a medical man, I believe that the inculcation of such absurd ideas into the minds of children will result in later life in manifestations and nervous disorder and mental disturbances.
Doyle used the later photographs in 1921 to illustrate a second article in The Strand, in which he described other accounts of fairy sightings. The article formed the foundation for his 1922 book The Coming of the Fairies. As before, the photographs were received with mixed credulity. Sceptics noted that the fairies "looked suspiciously like the traditional fairies of nursery tales" and that they had "very fashionable hairstyles".
Gardner made a final visit to Cottingley in August 1921. He again brought cameras and photographic plates for Frances and Elsie, but was accompanied by the clairvoyant Geoffrey Hodson. Although neither of the girls claimed to see any fairies, and there were no more photographs, "on the contrary, he [Hodson] saw them [fairies] everywhere" and wrote voluminous notes on his observations.
By now Elsie and Frances were tired of the whole fairy business. Years later Elsie looked at a photograph of herself and Frances taken with Hodson and said: "Look at that, fed up with fairies." Both Elsie and Frances later admitted that they "played along" with Hodson "out of mischief", and that they considered him "a fake".
Public interest in the Cottingley Fairies gradually subsided after 1921. Elsie and Frances eventually married and lived abroad for many years. In 1966, a reporter from the Daily Express newspaper traced Elsie, who was by then back in England. She admitted in an interview given that year that the fairies might have been "figments of my imagination", but left open the possibility she believed that she had somehow managed to photograph her thoughts.The media subsequently became interested in Frances and Elsie's photographs once again. BBC television's Nationwide programme investigated the case in 1971, but Elsie stuck to her story: "I've told you that they're photographs of figments of our imagination, and that's what I'm sticking to".
Elsie and Frances were interviewed by journalist Austin Mitchell in September 1976, for a programme broadcast on Yorkshire Television. When pressed, both women agreed that "a rational person doesn't see fairies", but they denied having fabricated the photographs. In 1978 the magician and scientific sceptic James Randi and a team from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal examined the photographs, using a "computer enhancement process". They concluded that the photographs were fakes, and that strings could be seen supporting the fairies.Geoffrey Crawley, editor of the British Journal of Photography, undertook a "major scientific investigation of the photographs and the events surrounding them", published between 1982 and 1983, "the first major postwar analysis of the affair". He also concluded that the pictures were fakes.
In 1983, the cousins admitted in an article published in the magazine The Unexplained that the photographs had been faked, although both maintained that they really had seen fairies. Elsie had copied illustrations of dancing girls from a popular children's book of the time, Princess Mary's Gift Book, published in 1914, and drew wings on them. They said they had then cut out the cardboard figures and supported them with hatpins, disposing of their props in the beck once the photograph had been taken. But the cousins disagreed about the fifth and final photograph, which Doyle in his The Coming of the Fairies described in this way:
Seated on the upper left hand edge with wing well displayed is an undraped fairy apparently considering whether it is time to get up. An earlier riser of more mature age is seen on the right possessing abundant hair and wonderful wings. Her slightly denser body can be glimpsed within her fairy dress.
Elsie maintained it was a fake, just like all the others, but Frances insisted that it was genuine. In an interview given in the early 1980s Frances said:
It was a wet Saturday afternoon and we were just mooching about with our cameras and Elsie had nothing prepared. I saw these fairies building up in the grasses and just aimed the camera and took a photograph.
Both Frances and Elsie claimed to have taken the fifth photograph.In a letter published in The Times newspaper on 9 April 1983, Geoffrey Crawley explained the discrepancy by suggesting that the photograph was "an unintended double exposure of fairy cutouts in the grass", and thus "both ladies can be quite sincere in believing that they each took it".
In a 1985 interview on Yorkshire Television's Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers, Elsie said that she and Frances were too embarrassed to admit the truth after fooling Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes: "Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet." In the same interview Frances said: "I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can't understand to this day why they were taken in – they wanted to be taken in."
Frances died in 1986, and Elsie in 1988. Prints of their photographs of the fairies, along with a few other items including a first edition of Doyle's book The Coming of the Fairies, were sold at auction in London for £21,620 in 1998. That same year, Geoffrey Crawley sold his Cottingley Fairy material to the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television in Bradford (now the National Science and Media Museum), where it is on display. The collection included prints of the photographs, two of the cameras used by the girls, watercolours of fairies painted by Elsie, and a nine-page letter from Elsie admitting to the hoax. The glass photographic plates were bought for £6,000 by an unnamed buyer at a London auction held in 2001.
Frances' daughter, Christine Lynch, appeared in an episode of the television programme Antiques Roadshow in Belfast, broadcast on BBC One in January 2009, with the photographs and one of the cameras given to the girls by Doyle. Christine told the expert, Paul Atterbury, that she believed, as her mother had done, that the fairies in the fifth photograph were genuine. Atterbury estimated the value of the items at between £25,000 and £30,000. The first edition of Frances' memoirs was published a few months later, under the title Reflections on the Cottingley Fairies. The book contains correspondence, sometimes "bitter", between Elsie and Frances. In one letter, dated 1983, Frances wrote:
I hated those photographs from the age of 16 when Mr Gardner presented me with a bunch of flowers and wanted me to sit on the platform [at a Theosophical Society meeting] with him. I realised what I was in for if I did not keep myself hidden.
The 1997 films FairyTale: A True Story and Photographing Fairies were inspired by the events surrounding the Cottingley Fairies. The photographs were parodied in a 1994 book written by Terry Jones and Brian Froud, Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book.
In 2017 a further two fairy photographs were presented as evidence that the girls' parents were part of the conspiracy. Dating from 1917 and 1918, both photographs are poorly executed copies of two of the original fairy photographs. One was published in 1918 in The Sphere newspaper, which was before the originals had been seen by anyone outside the girls' immediate family.