The Case of the Cottingley Fairies
in the first photo.
Nine-year-old Frances Griffiths was in trouble.
She had been playing down near the stream called Cottingley beck
and had slipped on wet stepping stones, falling into the water
soaking her shoes and stockings. Her mother would not be pleased.
Especially since her mother had told Frances to stay away from
In that year, 1917, Frances Griffiths had just arrived
in England from South Africa and she and her mother were staying
with Frances's aunt. Frances and her cousin, sixteen-year-old
Elsie Wright, often played together near the beck to the annoyance
of their mothers.
When Frances returned from the stream that day with
wet feet, her mother persisted in asking her why she constantly
returned to that forbidden place. The girl's answer precipitated
a strange affair that lasted nearly 70 years and involved one
of the greatest literary minds of the day. She told her mother
she went to see the fairies.
Her mother and aunt greeted this statement with
disbelief. Frances's cousin Elsie added that she had seen the
fairies too, and suggested to Frances that they borrow Mr. Wright's
camera and take some photographs of them. Within a half hour
of taking the camera, they were back begging Elsie's father
to develop the film plates for them. After tea, Mr. Wright (with
Elsie at this side) developed the film in his darkroom. He was
astonished when the picture showed Frances looking straight
at the camera while a group of five fairies danced before her
on an earthen bank.
After the initial surprise, Mr. Wright dismissed
the fairies as cardboard cutouts. He knew his daughter was a
talented artist who enjoyed drawing fairy figures. Eventually
Mr. Wright stopped loaning his camera to his daughter and niece
after they took another photo with Elsie posed next to what
appeared to be a gnome.
Except for a few copies of the pictures given
to friends and family the whole matter might have stayed a private
affair. In 1919 the mothers Polly Wright and Annie Griffiths
attended a meeting about Theosophy. Theosophy was philosophy
that included in its teaching the possibility of nature spirits.
After the meeting was over the women approached the speaker
about the pictures. This brought the photographs to the attention
of Edward Gardner, a well-known leader in the Theosophical movement.
He wrote to Polly Wright telling her that the photographs were
"the best of its kind I should think anywhere." Gardner obtained
from the Wrights the original negative glass plates and sent
them to photographic expert Harold Snelling. It was said of
Snelling, "What Snelling doesn't know about faked photography
isn't worth knowing."
After examing them Snelling concluded, "This plate
is a single exposure. These dancing figures are not made of paper
nor any fabric; they are not painted on a photographic background-but
what gets me most is that all these figures have moved during
What Snelling meant by his last sentence was that
the camera's shutter speed must have been set very low (something
that can be confirmed by the movement of the blurred waterfall
behind Frances in the first picture) and that the fairies appeared
to be blurred as if the exposure had caught them moving in their
Gardner showed the pictures to his cousin, who
in turn brought them to the attention of Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was author of the Sherlock
Holmes stories as well as several novels including The Lost
Conan Doyle was a member of the Spiritualist movement
and believed that the living could communicate with the dead
through psychics and seances. He was very open to the idea of
fairies and welcomed the photos as evidence of a world beyond
physical reality. Conan Doyle considered going to Bradford himself
to interview the family, but was too busy preparing for a trip
to Australia. He asked Gardner to go instead.
After talking to the girls, Gardner reported to
Conan Doyle that he believed they were telling the truth. Conan
Doyle then used the pictures in a story he was writing about
fairies for The Strand magazine and suggested that more
photographs be taken while the girls were being observed by
a "disinterested witness."
The article received much criticism. Major Edward
Halls, a radium expert, wrote:
"On the evidence I have no hesitation in saying
that these photographs could have been faked. I criticize the
attitude of those who declare 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
with the Gnome
In 1920 Edward Gardner returned to Bradford with
a new cameras and persuaded the girls to try to get some more
fairy pictures. In a few weeks they had taken several additional
photographs with fairies in them. This made a total of five.
In 1921 a well-known clairvoyant, Geoffrey Hodson
,was brought to Cottingley to see if he could detect the spirits.
He claimed that he, like the girls, could see them.
For many years the debate continued as to whether
the girls had actually captured fairies on film. Meanwhile the
world lost track of Elsie and Frances. In 1966 Peter Chambers
of the Daily Express decided to do a follow-up on the
stories and located Elsie. She told him in an interview that
the fairies might have been "figments of my imagination," but
it was unclear if she meant that she had indeed faked the photographs
or somehow believed she had photographed her thoughts.
Five years later the BBC-TV program Nationwide
approached Elsie for another interview. Elsie seemed very evasive
on whether she had actually photographed real fairies and the
BBC crew came to the conclusion that the pictures had been paper
cutouts made to stand up with hat pins.
Finally in 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 claimed that the first four had been faked, but the
fifth was real. Both ladies contended they had indeed seen real
fairies near the beck.
The hoax had been carried out by using the cutout
and hatpin method as many people had suspected. Elsie had some
art training and drew the characters based on drawings by Arthur
Shepperson in Princess Mary's Gift Book of which Frances
owned a copy. Using a sharp pair of scissors owned by Frances's
mother, they cut them out and secured them to a bank of earth
with hat pins. After the photographs were taken, they dropped
the evidence into the stream and brought the camera back to
Elsie's father so that he could develop the pictures. Though
some had suspected Mr. Wright of being in on the hoax, the girls
deny he knew anything about it.
Looking at the photographs now, it seems amazing
anyone could not see that the figures are one-dimensional cardboard
or paper cutouts. In a careful examination of the gnome picture,
it is possible to see where the pin passes through the paper.
Elsie herself in 1982 expressed surprise that so many people
were fooled by what seemed to her an obvious fake. Still, we
must remember that photography was a new art then and people
were not as experienced in seeing photographs as we are today.
Also the images were cleaned up and sharpened for their publication
in The Strand. Finally, perhaps we can excuse some of
Conan Doyle's gullibility in accepting the images remembering
that he had a photographic expert (Snelling) examine the pictures
and state they were not fakes. What excuse Snelling might have
had is hard to imagine..
The story of the Cottingley Fairies was put to
film in 1997 under the title Photographing Fairies.
Perhaps the whole affair can best be summed up
by a quote from a columnist in the newspaper Truth on
the Conan Doyle's Strand article.
"For the true explanation of these fairy photographs
what is wanted is not a knowledge of occult phenomena, but a
knowledge of children."
Krystek 2000. All rights Reserved.