Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Conan Doyle And The Case of The Cottingley Fairies...

Once upon a time...

Bradford is not a city you would normally associate with fairies. At the heart of the Industrial Revolution, its 'dark satanic mills' belched acrid, choking smoke high into the air from towering chimneys, caked in soot - surely, enough to send any self-respecting fairy scurrying for protection before her wings became torn and grimy.

Cottingley Beck. Photo - Paul Glazzard
But our story doesn't take place in the heart of this city. Around 4500 people live in the suburban village of Cottingley, which, while sharing part of  Bradford's mill working heritage, manages to convey a peaceful, rural setting with woods and a pleasant stream - known as a 'beck' in the local, Yorkshire, dialect - running through it. And in 1917, this  Cottingley Beck began to gain a bit of a reputation - for fairies.

In the early summer of that year, nine year old Frances Griffiths came, with her mother, from South Africa, to stay at her aunt's house in the village. The aunt had a sixteen year old daughter, Elsie, who immediately developed a friendship with her cousin, despite their age difference.

Cottingley Beck ran along the bottom of Elsie Wright's garden and the two girls played there every day the weather would allow. When Elsie's mother protested at the sight of the girls' muddy feet and wet clothes, they protested that they went there to see the fairies and, to prove it, they would photograph them.

With Elsie's father's camera firmly in hand, off they went and returned half an hour later, their photographs duly taken. With great scepticism, Arthur Wright developed the plate, which showed Frances behind a bush watching four fairies dance in front of her. A pragmatic man, Mr Wright dismissed the photograph as a fake. He knew his daughter was artistic and creative. and also that she had spent some time working in a photographer's studio. She was, he said, perfectly capable of making cardboard cutouts and faking the photograph.

Two months later, the girls borrowed his camera again and this time when the plate was developed, the print showed Elsie holding out her hand to a gnome. Annoyed by what he saw as a prank, Arthur Wright refused to allow them to borrow his camera again. But the girls insisted there really were fairies at the bottom of the garden - and Elsie's mother believed them.
In 1919, Polly Wright attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford and showed the two photographs to the speaker, whose topic was "Fairy Life". As a result, the pictures were displayed at the Society's annual conference and came to the attention of Edward Gardner - a leading light of the Society. He was so impressed he sent the negatives to a photography expert - Harold Snelling - who stated, "the two negatives are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs...of whatever was in front of the camera at the time."

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - creator of the most famous sleuth of all time, Sherlock Holmes, was a leading Spiritualist and had been commissioned by The Strand Magazine to write a Christmas article on fairies. He wrote to Elsie and her father requesting permission to use the photographs, and then sought expert opinion from Kodak. They too said they could find no trace of them being faked, although they wouldn't go as far as issuing a certificate of authenticity. Well, to do so, would have been to state publicly that Kodak believed in fairies! Ilford, on the other hand, disagreed. They felt there was a possibility the photographs had been faked. Despite this difference of opinion, the 2-1 ratio in favour of authenticity was enough both for Edward Gardner and Conan Doyle. As far as these eminent gentlemen were concerned, there really were fairies down by Cottingley Beck - and they were anything but camera shy!

Over the next months, other experts examined the pictures and differing opinions emerged, but Conan Doyle maintained his interest and, as he was off on a lecture tour of Australia, asked Gardner to meet the Wrights during the following summer of 1920.

Frances had once again been invited to stay with her cousin and Edward Gardner arrived, armed with two Kodak Cameo cameras and a set of secretly marked photographic plates. Elsie and Frances insisted the fairies would not come out if anyone else was watching so, on a fine day in August, the girls went off alone to take phtographs and returned, triumphantly.
On one, Frances is up close to a fairy. On another, a fairy offers a flower to Elsie. The next day, they took their final picture - of the fairies having a sun-bath. The photographic plates were sent to London and Gardner informed Conan Doyle, still in Australia, of his successful visit. Sir Arthur was ecstatic: "My heart was gladdened when out here in far Australia I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance"

 The photographs appeared in The Strand in December of that year, as part of his article and the issue sold out within a few days. The rest of the press didn't know what to make of it, beyond a high degree of sceptism. Sir Arthur saw that, if the public were prepared to accept that the Cottingley Fairies were indeed real, then they would be far more amenable to other, perhaps, darker, Spiritualist ideas of which he was an adherent.

In 1922, Conan Doyle published a book, The Coming of the Fairies, which once again relied heavily on the photographs. This time, his critics said the subjects looked suspiciously like fairies straight out of nursery books and that their hairstyles were fashionably Pariesienne. Conan Doyle was having none of it. For the rest of his life, he protested that the fairies were real and the photographs genuine. He died in 1930.

By now, the public's interest was waning and the girls themselves were getting a little fed up with being hounded. They produced no more fairy photographs and settled down to the business of growing up.

Renewed interest came in 1966, and again in 1971, when the BBC's Nationwide programme tracked down Elsie. On each occasion, she stood firm, saying, "I've told you that they're photographs of figments of our imagination, and that's what I'm sticking to." The idea that, somehow, the girls had found a way to capture their thoughts on camera seems almost more incredible than the possibility of the photographs being genuine!
Fairies from Princess Mary's Gift Book

In 1976, both women were interviewed again and stuck by their story. The photographs were examined again and denounced as fakes.

Eventually, Elsie and Frances admitted that the first four photographs were cardboard cut outs, copied from illustrations in Princess Mary's Gift Book and held together with hat pins but, while Elsie applied the same explanation to the fifth photograph, Frances insisted to her dying day that this indeed was the genuine article. She said, "It was a wet Saturday afternoon and we were just mooching about with our cameras and Elsie had nothing prepared. I saw these fairies building up in the grasses and just aimed the camera and took a photograph."
The disputed fifth photograph
So who was telling the truth this time? Certainly, if you look at the fifth photograph, it is rather different to the previous four...

Frances handed her assertion down to her daughter, who appeared, with the original photographs and one of Conan Doyle's cameras, on an edition of Antiques Roadshow in 2009. She was accompanied by her daughter - Frances's granddaughter. The value of the items was estimated then at between £25000-30000.

Elsie died in 1988, two years after Frances, but the story of the famous writer and the two young girls from a suburban village in Yorkshire continues to delight and intrigue. At least two films (Fairy Tale; A True Story and Photographing Fairies) have been based on the story and, anyway, with so much doom and gloom in the world, it would be rather nice to believe in fairies wouldn't it? Or, at the very least, the possibility of them.


  1. well u really think Arthur would have known better but I guess we all have our blind spots and the whole thing played brilliantly to the desire to be intrigued as you say....

    1. Very true, Shehanne. I also think Arthur believed because he wanted to, and that's as good a reason as any in my book.