In the summer of 1917, two cousins living in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley returned home triumphantly claiming they had photographed fairies. Elsie Wright was sixteen and Frances Griffiths, born 4 September 1907, was almost ten. When the photographic plate was developed by Elsie’s father, Arthur, it showed Frances looking towards the camera with four fairy figures dancing on the bank in front of her.
Arthur thought the girls had been making mischief, but their mothers believed the photo was genuine. To back up their story, Elsie and Frances took another photo, this time depicting Elsie reaching out to a gnome. Three more ‘Cottingley Fairies’ photographs were taken in 1920, following the involvement of the Theosophical Society and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For over six decades these images provoked controversy and intrigue around the world, until Professor Joe Cooper revealed in 1983 that Frances, now in her seventies, had confessed that four of the photographs had been faked.
The First World War formed the backdrop against which Frances and her mother Annie came to Cottingley in early 1917. They had lived in South Africa for several years but with Arthur Griffiths now serving in the British Army, he left Cape Town to join his family in England. Annie’s sister Polly offered them a home, where Elsie immediately took her young cousin under her wing.
A beck flowed behind the village and the two girls often spent time together by the picturesque water. Frances (pictured here in 1920) also went to the beck alone when Elsie was at work and frequently returned to the family home with soaking wet shoes. After being reproached several times, her mother questioning what attraction the beck held for a young girl, Frances eventually cried out in frustration, ‘I go to see the fairies!’
Whilst the adults gently teased Frances, Elsie supported her young cousin and stated that she too had seen fairies by the beck. This subsequently led to the girls borrowing Arthur’s camera and taking the first two photographs. Although circulated with interest around family acquaintances, the fairy pictures were largely ignored until Polly took them to a lecture given by the Theosophical Society in 1919.
The Fairies Phenomenon
The Bradford members of the Theosophical Society pounced on the photographs as proof of fairy life and the supernatural. They were showcased as part of an exhibition in Harrogate, where they caught the eye of one Edward Gardner, a prominent theosophist. Gardner had the images examined by a photography expert in London, who declared that they had not been faked.
Interest in the fairy photos escalated as Gardner showcased prints at numerous lectures. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (pictured), the famed creator of Sherlock Holmes, was already writing an article on fairies for Strand magazine when he learned of the Cottingley photographs. He immediately sought further information, eventually leading to the purchase of two cameras for Elsie and Frances and a request for further pictures.
Gardner took the new cameras to Cottingley in the summer of 1920 and accompanied the cousins to the beck. No photos were taken in his presence, as Elsie and Frances claimed that the fairies would not come out for strangers. The photographic plates given to the girls had secretly been marked, however, and it was on three of these that the final Cottingley photos were taken: Frances and a ‘leaping fairy’, Elsie being offered harebells by a fairy and a final, less clearly defined image in which figures appeared to be emerging within a grassy cocoon.
Conan Doyle was ecstatic with the images and all five photographs appeared in two articles for the Strand in December 1920 and March 1921. Although Elsie and Frances were given false names in his work, their true identity was soon revealed and both girls gained minor celebrity status in the wake of publication. (Conan Doyle later wrote a book on the subject, The Coming of the Fairies).
Many readers delighted in the photos, believing the camera could not lie and thus the existence of fairies was confirmed, but others were sceptical, commenting on the Parisian hairstyles of the fairy figures and the unnatural angle of the leg in the leaping fairy picture. Gardner visited Cottingley again in 1921, but no further photographs were taken. Frances, in particular, disliked the attention she received and increasingly declined publicity.
A Hoax with Hatpins
Interest in the Cottingley Fairies waned after 1921, but revived in the 1960s and 1970s when a journalist tracked down Elsie. Just as before, the photos had their champions as well as their critics and Elsie cast further doubt on the matter by asserting that they were ‘photos of figments of our imaginations’. It was not until Joe Cooper’s revelation in The Unexplained that the fairies were finally debunked.
Partly to stop Frances getting into trouble for her wet feet and partly as a practical joke against their elders, Elsie had suggested making paper cut-outs of figures copied from Princess Mary’s Gift Book. She was a talented artist and once her paper fairies were painted, she attached them to long hat pins which were then stuck into the bank by the beck, with Frances posing behind. The same method was employed with the three subsequent photos. What started as a practical joke with paper cut-outs and hatpins became a sensational story that fooled the world for over six decades. Elsie readily confessed to the deception once the story was out and expressed amazement that so many people had been taken in.
The Fifth Photo
The 1983 revelation was not quite the end of the story, however. Although she freely admitted that the first four photographs had been faked, Frances maintained that the fifth photo, the grassy cocoon, was genuine and that she had regularly observed fairy life and ‘little men’ at Cottingley as a child. ‘The Fairy Bower’, as the fifth photograph is known, is easily distinguishable from the other Cottingley pictures for the simple reason that neither Elsie nor Frances features in it. Photographic experts have judged it to be a double exposure, but for many this image epitomises the human desire to believe in the supernatural and still represents the possibility of fairy life. Until her death in 1986, Frances championed the existence of fairies and claimed that this was the only photograph ever taken to depict the little people.