In 1917 two schoolgirls in the North of England played a practical joke on their parents. They took a series of photos of the fairies they claimed lived at the bottom of the garden: the now-infamous Cottingley Fairies. What started out as a bit of childish fun would become an international sensation thanks to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—our beloved creator of Sherlock Holmes.
Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright were cousins. They lived in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire. When they returned home wet and grubby one afternoon, they got a ticking off from their mothers for spoiling their clothes. “Oh, but it wasn’t our fault,” the girls replied, “We were just following the woodland fairies”.
Unsurprisingly, the adults laughed and told the pair not to make such silly excuses. The girls, however, would not back down. Elsie’s father, Arthur was a keen amateur photographer. If he would lend Elsie his Midg quarterplate camera, the cousins said, they would go back to the woods and take pictures of their fairy friends.
Amused by the girl’s audacity, Arthur handed his sixteen-year-old daughter his camera and watched as she and her younger cousin headed off towards the narrow valley surrounding the village stream. In less than an hour they were back and triumphant—they had their evidence.
Arthur took the camera plate and went into his darkroom. The photo that developed showed a smiling Frances gazing up at a group of fairies dancing amongst the woodland flowers. Arthur shook his head and chuckled. His daughter Elsie was a smart girl and had the makings of a good photographer. She was also mischievous. The photo was clearly a clever fake.
The girls continued to insist the fairies were real and even took another photo, this one showing Elsie apparently shaking hands with a winged gnome. Arthur looked at it and smiled. The fairy folk in the photos, he decided, were two-dimensional, likely painted onto paper, cut out and held in place using hat pins. It was a joke, but a good one.
And there it might have ended had not Elsie’s mother Polly joined the Theosophical Society. The Theosophists were part of a late-nineteenth-century occult revival that also included pagan societies and spiritualists. Broadly, the Theosophists believed that humanity was on the point of evolving into a more spiritual being—people were about to shrug off their physical selves as a snake does its skin.
The Coming of the Fairies
In 1919 Polly Wright took Elsie’s photos with her to a Theosophical Society meeting in nearby Bradford. They created an immediate sensation. Without hesitation, author Edward Gardner, a leading theosophist, proclaimed the photos to be a supernatural sign that a new age for humanity was dawning.
He showed the images to a photographic expert, Harold Snelling. After examining them Snelling reported that they were “authentic images of what was in front of the camera”. This was of course true—the fairies really were there, it was just that, as Arthur Wright had surmised, they were paper cut-outs.
Armed with this endorsement, Gardner began touring the country giving lectures on the Cottingley Fairies and showing the pictures as proof of their existence. The images began to appear in spiritualist magazines alongside photos showing spectral ghosts manifesting themselves in darkened rooms.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a convinced and evangelical spiritualist. He regularly attended séances at which mediums communicated with the dead. He saw the Cottingley photos as further proof that the world was not the rational, logical place conceived by his greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes.
To Conan Doyle proving the existence of the Cottingley Fairies would be a step towards a greater public acceptance of spiritualism, something Sir Arthur viewed neither as faith nor belief, but as fact.
According to Sir Arthur, “The recognition of [the fairies'] existence will jolt the material twentieth-century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life."
Conan Doyle was one of the most famous men in the British Empire. Frances and Elsie’s childish escapade was now so out of hand it was impossible for them to admit it had all been a silly prank. So instead, in 1920, at the insistence of Gardner, they went back into the woods and took a final series of photos.
A year later, Sir Arthur’s friend, the clairvoyant Geoffrey Hodson visited Frances and Elsie in Cottingley. After exploring the woodland with them he pronounced that, though he hadn’t actually seen the fairies, he had definitely detected their aura. Well, of course he had.
Conan Doyle was by now as utterly convinced by the Cottingley Fairies as he was that spirit mediums could scribble down messages from the dead. In 1920 he’d written the first of several articles on the significance of the Yorkshire fairies for The Strand magazine. Now he set about writing a book of the subject The Coming of the Fairies.
Conan Doyle would go on proclaiming the authenticity the Cottingley Fairies until his death in 1930. It did his reputation immense harm. A gentleman who believed in elves and sprites? Many of his contemporaries concluded that the old man had lost his mind.
Yet, incredibly, the debate about the authenticity of the photos would carry on for several decades after Sir Arthur had—as he would have put it— passed over to the other side.
Frances and Elsie had made a childhood pact never to confess to faking the photographs. They held fast to it for over sixty years. Then, in the 1980s, Frances, by now in her seventies, and Elsie, who was over eighty, finally told the truth.
Arthur Wright had been correct all along. The images of the fairies had been lovingly copied from a 1914 children’s publication, Princess Mary’s Gift Book, cut out, mounted on cardboard, and posed using pins.
Speaking in 1983, Frances said, “I never thought of it as being a fraud. It was just Elsie and me having a bit of fun.”
People from Yorkshire have a reputation in England for being plain-speaking folk who don’t tolerate idiots. Frances followed that tradition. Asked if she felt guilty about fooling so many people, including the world-famous creator of the greatest fictional detective of all time, she said bluntly, “No, I don’t. I cannot understand to this day how people were taken in. They wanted to be taken in. They believed in us, because they wanted to believe."