Elsie and Frances

In the summer of 1917, in the small village of Cottingley in Yorkshire, 15 year old Elsie Wright and her 10 year old cousin Frances Griffiths were enjoying a holiday together. Frances had just arrived with her mother from South Africa and was staying with Elsie in Yorkshire while Frances’s father was away fighting the war in France. The two girls spent the summer playing in the woods that ran behind Elsie’s house… and it was in these quiet woods that Elsie and Frances meet the fairies.

photograph of Frances with a fairy band

Elsie’s father, Mr Wright didn’t believe them in spite of their insistence. To prove his point he lent them his camera with one plate in it. “Photograph the fairies,” he said, and much to his amazement they did – a single photograph of Frances with a fairy band.

Although the girls had never told lies before Mr Wright was unconvinced by the photograph. He searched the girls’ room and the woods behind the house for cardboard cut-outs or other signs of trickery. He found nothing. A month later he lent the girls his camera again and this time they returned with a photograph of Elsie with a gnome.

photograph of Elsie with a gnome

The parents wisely decided to forget the matter and it wasn’t until three years later that Mrs Wright mentioned the photographs at a lecture on spiritualism. When the lecturer saw the photographs he was so impressed that he immediately passed them to Edward Gardner, a leader of the Theosophical movement, who in turn asked a photographer, Harold Snelling, to examine them. Snelling declared the photos were “genuine unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, showing movement in all the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures, etc.”

Frances with a leaping fairy

The story might have rested there had not Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, taken an interest. He also thought the photographs were genuine and wrote an article about them for the Christmas edition of “The Strand” magazine. Now everybody knew about the “Cottingley Fairies”.

Elsie with a fairy offering a posy of flowers

In August 1920 Edward Gardner and Conan Doyle gave Elsie and Frances two new cameras with a supply of photographic plates which they had secretly marked to prevent cheating. Although that summer was very wet the two girls, now 13 and 17, managed to produce three more ‘fairy’ photographs with no apparent switching or tampering with the plates:- Frances with a leaping fairy, Elsie with a fairy offering a posy of flowers and a group of fairies playing around a ‘magnetic sun bath’. Once again photographic experts declared these new pictures genuine.

a group of fairies playing around a 'magnetic sun bath'

In the spring of 1975 the children’s TV magazine programme “Magpie”, based at Teddington Studios, decided to review the controversial story of the “Cottingley Fairy” photographs and see if there was any new evidence. The first step was to contact Elsie and Francis and find out what they had to say for themselves. With nearly sixty years passed would they still claim to have seen fairies or would they now own up to a simple childish prank?

Although she did not admit any guilt Elsie did hint in her letter that all was not as it seemed…

“Apart from children and Mr Gardner and Conan Doyle everyone else I have met has never believed our photographs. They have enjoyed and got a hilarious kick out of two kids telling a fairy story and attempting to make it more convincing by producing photographs… My father, the village of Cottingley and I are sure the whole of Yorkshire (not including children) were unanimous in looking upon Frances and myself as two solemn faced comediennes.”

Her younger cousin, Frances, was more circumspect. She told the “Magpie” researcher that she had seen many strange things on her arrival in Yorkshire in 1917 – snow on the ground, fires in hearths and water, a precious commodity in South Africa, running to waste down the gutters. She simply assumed that fairies were commonplace in England. She added that Mr Gardner thought she was mediumistic with “loosely knit ectoplasmic material in her body” and the fairies took their substance from that. With no clear evidence of trickery, on 11th July 1975, Jenny Hanley, a presenter on “Magpie” closed the “Cottingley Fairy” item with these words…

“…the two young girls, who are both now grown women, still say that they saw and photographed fairies in the little village of Cottingley. Perhaps there really are fairies at the bottom of the garden. Have you ever seen any?”

Princess Mary's gift book

The ‘Cottingley Fairy’ story refused to lie down and in the early 1980’s a photographic scientist, Geoffrey Crawley, managed to acquire two of the cameras used by Frances and Elsie – a quarter-plate Cameo folding camera and a Midg box camera. Using these original cameras and modern technical analysis he was able to prove beyond a doubt that the Cottingley Fairy photographs were fabricated. In 1981, Elsie and Frances finally admitted in an interview that the photographs were taken using cut-out drawings that Elsie had made inspired by pictures in ‘Princess Mary’s Gift Book’ published in 1915. Incidentally Elsie, who had a talent for art, was working as a ‘spotter’ retouching negatives in a local photographic studio at the time the photographs were taken. Frances said that they were too embarrassed to admit the truth after fooling the author of Sherlock Holmes…

Geoffrey Crawley

“Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle, well, we could only keep quiet. 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.”

Personally I go along with the photographic scientist, Geoffrey Crawley, who uncovered the hoax. He said “Of course there are fairies, just as there is Father Christmas.” …and he’s right. We may not believe in fairies or Father Christmas ourselves but can we deny others that conviction and particularly the young?

“Children know such a lot now, they soon don’t believe in fairies, and every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”

J.M. Barrie, ‘PETER PAN

— from Martyn Day