dust: the Cottingley fairies
In 1983, Elsie Wright
and Frances Griffiths stated that back in 1917, they had perpetrated
a majestic hoax. Their world famous photographs, showing the girls in
the company of fairies dancing around them, were paper cut-outs, supported
by hatpins. It had fooled both sceptics and believers.
famous Cottingley fairies were “photographed” by two girls
Elsie Wright, 15, and her cousin Frances Griffiths, 10, in the last
days of the First World War. The case got its international acclaim
through Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes, who was fascinated
by the account and published an article in the Strand Magazine in December
1920. With the world’s attention focused on them, the girls had
little option but to stick to their story. A juvenile prank had grown
into a mass media circus.
this day, the suburban area of Cottingley continues to get visitors
and the official retraction, even though more than 20 years ago, is
still not as a well-known as the hoax itself. This may be partly due
to the fact that the story was put to film in 1997 under the title Photographing
Fairies. Locals are asked where the Fairy Glen is, even though the site
along the small river is off limits, due to the danger of erosion.
The story begins with Elsie borrowing her father’s camera one
Saturday afternoon in July 1917, in order to take Frances’s photo,
to cheer her up. She had fallen in the beck and been scolded for wetting
her clothes. The girls were away for about half an hour and when Elsie’s
father developed the plate later in the afternoon, he was surprised
to see strange white shapes coming up. He believed these were birds,
then sandwich paper, but it was Elsie who told him these were fairies.
Apparently, in order to prove that fairies really did exist, Elsie had
taken the picture, showing Frances with a troop of sprites dancing in
front of her.
In August, the roles were reversed and Frances took a photograph of
Elsie with a gnome. The print was under-exposed and unclear, as might
be expected when taken by a ten year old. The plate was again developed
by Elsie’s father, who suspected that the girls had been playing
tricks and refused to lend his camera to them any more. Elsie’s
parents searched the girls’ bedroom and waste-paper basket for
any scraps of pictures or cut-outs, and also went down to the beck to
search for evidence of fakery. They found nothing, and the girls stuck
to their story: they had seen fairies and photographed them.
event was spoken of between friends and family, but that was all. Frances
Griffiths sent a letter to a friend in South Africa, where she had lived
most of her life. Dated November 9, 1918, she included a photograph
of the fairies, and wrote: “I am sending two photos, both of me,
one of me in a bathing costume in our back yard, Uncle Arthur took that,
while the other is me with some fairies up the beck, Elsie took that
one.” The letter continued, matter of factly: “Rosebud is
as fat as ever and I have made her some new clothes. How are Teddy and
dolly?” On the back of photograph, it read: “Elsie and I
are very friendly with the beck Fairies. It is funny I never used to
see them in Africa. It must be too hot for them there.”
The case’s first publicity occurred in the summer of 1919, when
Polly Wright, Elsie’s mother, went to a meeting of the Theosophical
Society in nearby Bradford. She was interested in the occult, having
had some experiences of astral projection and memories of past lives.
Theosophy, founded by Helena Blavatsky, was the main engine that drove
this interest across Britain.
The lecture was on fairy life and Polly mentioned that her daughter
and a niece had taken some photographs of fairy. It would be sensational
evidence, if only because another dimensional entity had been able to
be caught on camera; it is on par with the photographic evidence of
a UFOs or alien beings. But whereas the latter have seldom if ever lived
up to the stringent methods that would constitute scientific proof,
two girls, decades earlier, had apparently succeeded where most adults
The two rough prints moved their way through Theosophical circles and
came to the notice of Theosophists at a Harrogate conference in the
autumn, and eventually arrived with a leading Theosophist, Edward Gardner,
by early 1920.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, as well as a
Freemason and a Spiritualist, had been commissioned by the Strand Magazine
to write an article on fairies for their Christmas 1920 issue. He was
preparing this in June, when he heard of the two fairy prints. He contacted
Gardner and borrowed the copies. Still, contrary to what is often reported,
Conan Doyle was on his guard. He showed the prints to Sir Oliver Lodge,
a pioneer psychical researcher, who thought them fakes, perhaps involving
a troupe of dancers masquerading as fairies. One fairy authority told
him that the hairstyles of the sprites were too ‘Parisienne’
for his liking. Intriguingly, no-one apparently wanted to examine the
original photographs; only the prints were analysed and the two prints,
in an enhanced version, would appear in the magazine.
Conan Doyle sent Gardner to Cottingley in July. He reported that the
whole Wright family seemed honest and totally respectable. In August,
he returned with cameras and 20 photographic plates, leaving them with
Elsie and Frances, hoping to persuade them to take more photographs.
Meanwhile, the Strand article was completed, featuring the two sharpened
prints, and Conan Doyle sailed for Australia and a lecture tour.
issue of the Strand sold out within days of publication and it was largely
due to the photographic evidence that fairies existed. It caused major
controversy and reactions from all involved – and those feeling
they had to comment. Most were sceptical, including Major Hall-Edwards,
a radium expert. He declared: “On the evidence I have no hesitation
in saying that these photographs could have been ‘faked’.”
With the plates left by Gardner, Elsie and Frances took three more fairy
photographs. The fifth picture in the entire series, the Fairy Sunbath,
was created with a simple frame and knicker elastic construction pushed
into the long grass. With a pull of the elastic, the fairies would fall
backwards from their slots in the frame, thus providing a sense of “fading”
when the camera caught the motion; they were “dancing”.
Her father returned the plates to London, wrapped in cotton wool. Arthur
Wright was greatly puzzled. He understood the photographs were faked,
irrespective of him and his wife not finding incriminating evidence
that showed their daughter had done it. Still, he could not understand
that other grown men had been fooled. Furthermore, his daughter was
now the centre of a nationwide, if not international, sensation. As
Conan Doyle had used pseudonyms, the children were fairly safe from
public scrutiny, but Arthur Wright began to have a lower estimation
of Conan Doyle. He found it hard to believe that such an intelligent
man could be bamboozled “by our Elsie, and her at the bottom of
on the controversy, a last expedition was made to Cottingley in August
1921. The clairvoyant Geoffrey Hodson had been asked to verify any fairy
sightings. The fairies refused to be photographed, though both by Hodson
and Elsie stated they had seen them. Elsie and Frances later admitted
they had deceived him, pointing out faeries were none were seen by them.
The “clairvoyant” nevertheless saw them; or perhaps he felt
he had to substantiate Elsie claim; could he deny seeing anything?
the knowledge that the photographs were hoaxed, it is intriguing to
analyze how the controversy originated. The children’s parents
were largely sceptical, though Polly seems to have used the photographs
to promote the belief in faeries. Conan Doyle may have done the same,
or may merely have used them to boost his article and the sales of the
magazine. In general, there was a willingness to believe: how could
children fool their parents?
The children themselves – truthfully or not – stated they
had seen faeries in the beck. Even if they are lying, there is a multitude
of people who believe in faeries and have “seen” them. The
girls differed in the fact that they had been able to photograph them.
The belief in faeries was there – it was widespread and those
who believed, but had no evidence, used the photographs to substantiate
their own beliefs and try to convince the more sceptical of mind of
the validity of the fairy realm. We all know what sprinkling fairy dust
means, and it seems that it was fervently thrown about…
There were many
who did not believe in faeries. They pointed out that no third party
was ever present when the five photographs were taken. They pointed
out – correctly – that Elsie painted and drew well, that
she had always seemed immersed in drawing fairies, that she was quite
knowledgeable about photography and had worked at a photographer’s.
The latter only made her quite an able photographer, though some asked
whether the photographs – the plates – had been tampered
with. We now know this was not the case; “animated drawings”
were used instead.
In general, the sceptics were unable to prove the photographs were faked.
As late as 1978, James Randi and a team from New Scientists studied
the photographs and thought they could see strings attached to some
figures. There were none… hatpins were used. But the believers
did not fare better. The point of a pin in the gnome’s midriff
was, according to Conan Doyle, an umbilicus and therefore proof that
birth in the fairy kingdom might be a similar process to human birth.
The gnome photograph was taken by Frances, a less expert photographer
than Elsie. The elongated hand in the picture is due to camera slant,
though believers have attributed it to “psychic elongation”.
1981 and 1982, Joe Cooper interviewed Frances and Elsie for an article
in The Unexplained. Elsie admitted that all five of the photographs
had been faked. Frances had a copy of Princess Mary’s Gift Book
and the girls had used a series of illustrations by Arthur Shepperson
as a model from which Elsie constructed the fairy figures. Frances also
admitted the hoax, claimed that the first four photographs had been
faked, but the fifth was real. Both ladies contended they had indeed
seen real fairies near the beck.
The admission was not totally out of the blue. In 1971, Elsie, interviewed
for BBC TV, was asked: “Are they trick photographs? Could you
swear on the Bible about that?” Elsie (after a pause): “I’d
rather leave that open if you don’t mind… but my father
had nothing to do with it I can promise you that…”
The attitude of Elsie and Frances to the whole question of the fairy
photographs had been a typical Yorkshire one: to tell a tall story with
a deadpan delivery and let those who will believe it do so. Indeed,
Elsie has often said as much: “I would rather we were thought
of as solemn faced comediennes.” But the carrot they dangled was
just so nice that many decided to eat it…
1983, when Geoffrey Hodson was 96 and living in New Zealand, he heard
the true confessions and thus became the only surviving member of Gardner’s
team to know the truth. As to the man who had made them famous: Conan
Doyle published “The Coming of the Fairies” in 1922. The
book was not solely based on events in Cottingley but was a collection
of fairy stories and sightings all over the world. On July 8, 1930,
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died, apparently still believing in fairies.
In 1966, almost 50 years after the story was hatched, Gardner released
“Pictures of Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs”, which
would begin a series of accounts which would take almost a further 20
years before the then grandparents admitted the hoax.
The Cottlingley fairies are primary evidence that it does not take faeries
to sprinkle fairy dust; humans are perfectly able to do that themselves.