Five photographs form the basis of one of the best known hoaxes of the 20th Century. In the first a child watches a dancing fairy ring, and in the second an older girl extends a hand to a 12 inch high winged creature. Three years later there are three more photographs: a group of fairies taking a “sunbath”, a tiny, slim creature offering a harebell to a lovely young woman and finally a fairy apparently leaping or in flight toward a younger girl. These are the Cottingley Fairies.
Sixteen year old Elsie Wright and ten year old Frances Griffiths were cousins. In 1917 Frances and her mother, newly arrived in England from South Africa, were staying with the Wright family in Cottingley in West Yorkshire. The girls, who got on surprisingly well, given their age difference, used to play together in near the beck (stream), and sometimes came back with stories of seeing fairies, which led, unsurprisingly, to teasing.
Elsie was an artistic girl and had done some work in a photographic studio, so when she asked her father, Arthur, a keen amateur photographer who maintained his own darkroom, if she could borrow his Midg quarter plate camera, he was happy to lend it to her, with some basic instruction. He was less impressed when they developed the photograph of Frances and the fairy ring, however, considering the “bits of paper” to be a childish prank, and when he again loaned the girls the camera later in the year and the resultant photograph showed Elsie and the gnome, he became exasperated and refused to loan the girls the camera again. The photographs were put away, and life moved on.
Three years later, however, Polly Wright – Elsie’s mother and a Theosophist, whose faith made her less sceptical than her husband (she firmly believed in the authenticity of the pictures) – was at a talk about folklore at the Theosophical Society. She showed the photos to the speaker, who arranged to have them shown at the Society’s conference, where they came to the attention of Edward Gardner, a leading society member, who wanted to use them to illustrate a series of lectures about humanity’s evolution toward perfection. Anxious to ensure their veracity first, however, he sent them to Harold Snelling, an expert in photography. Snelling’s verdict was : "the two negatives are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs ... with no trace whatsoever of studio work involving card or paper models ... these are straight forward photographs of whatever was in front of the camera at the time" (note, he does NOT say they are photographs of fairies!). Having improved the negatives, Snelling printed copies, which Gardner sold at his lectures.
The photos then came to the attention of author Arthur Conan Doyle who, as a well-known spiritualist had been commissioned to write an article on fairies for Strand magazine. He wrote to Arthur Wright for permission to use the photographs, and this was granted, though Wright refused payment. Conan Doyle sent the photos off for further identification to photographic companies Kodak and Ilford, Kodak finding no evidence of fakery, but refusing nonetheless to issue a certificate of authenticity, as they weren’t prepared to call the pictures conclusive evidence of the existence of fairies, and Ilford claiming to find evidence of faking. Conan Doyle chose to interpret these results as two experts in favour of authenticity and one against – possibly because he wanted to believe.
More troublesome in terms of establishing the authenticity of the photographs was that along with physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, to whom Conan Doyle also showed the photographs Elsie’s father believed them to be faked. Nonetheless, Edward Gardner visited the Wrights in 1920 as Conan Doyle prepared for a lecture tour of Australia. He considered the family honest, but to put the authenticity of the “sightings” beyond all doubt, he provided the girls with cameras and specially marked plates to take more photos if possible. The final three photos were the result, although they were all taken by the girls alone – they claimed that the fairies would not show themselves to anyone else.
The photos, using false names for the girls, were published in The Strand along with Conan Doyle’s article (he hoped that authentic pictures of fairies would convince the public of the existence of other psychic and spiritual phenomena) to mixed response. Opinion was about evenly split as to whether the photos were genuine or not. A while later, Gardner visited Cottingley again with more plates and a clairvoyant Geoffrey Hodson. No more photographs were taken, but Hodson claimed to see fairies everywhere.
Over time, the public, and the girls, lost interest in the fairies. Both girls married and that was the end of the affair until 1966, when a journalist traced Elsie and took the story up again. This time, Elsie admitted that the photographs were of “figments of their imagination” but seemed to imply that she had photographed their thoughts. The business was investigated over a period of years, until, finally in 1983, in an interview with The Unexplained they confirmed that the faries had been fakes – cutouts copied from a book and secured with hatpins. Both women, however, continued to declare that they had seen real fairies, until their death. Asked why they hadn’t confessed earlier, they explained that having fooled a brilliant man like the author of Sherlock Holmes it would have been just too embarrassing for everyone.
Two films Fairy Tale: A True Story, and Photographing Fairies, both made in 1997, are based on the story of the Cottingley Fairies.
Krupa, M (n.d.) The Cottingley Fairies. retrieved 28/11/2010 from http://www.cottingleyconnect.org.uk/fairies.htm
Smith, Paul (1997), "The Cottingley Fairies: The End of a Legend", in Narváez, Peter, The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, The University Press of Kentucky, pp. 371–405.