In 1917 two young girls took photographs by a beck in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley.
Their photographs were of ‘fairies’.
What no one anticipated was that these photographs would become one of the biggest hoaxes of the 20th century.
Unfortunately due to copyright laws I cannot post the fairy photographs on this post, however, they can be found through a quick search on Google images.
The two young girls in question, were Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths. Elsie and her parents, Arthur and Polly, lived in Cottingley where her cousin Frances came to visit in 1917. The two girls would often go to the beck nearby, and decided to create some fairy cut-outs using images from Princess Mary’s Gift Book (published in 1914 featuring short stories from Arthur Conan Doyle among others). These images may never seen the light of day had it not been for Polly Wright, who two years after they were taken showed them to the Theosophical Society. This caught the attention of a member of the society Edward Gardner and later the writer Arthur Conan Doyle, both of whom were keen spiritualists. Spiritualism is a “belief or doctrine that the spirits of the dead…can and do communicate with the living”.
Conan Doyle is mostly remembered for his character Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective who recently brought to life by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC’s Sherlock. Throughout his life he was fascinated by spiritualism and the occult, but after the deaths of many family members in the Great War, this became more pronounced. He came across the fairy images and wrote to Elsie’s father…
“Dear Mr Wright, I have seen the very interesting photos which your little girl took. They are certainly amazing. I was writing a little article for the Strand upon the evidence for the existence of fairies, so…I was very much interested. I should naturally like to use the photos, along with other material, in any article but would not of course do so without your knowledge and permission“
Permission was granted, although as Elsie recounts to Edward Gardner’s son in the 1970’s, her father always thought the photographs were a joke played by Elsie and Frances. The images were published in the Strand in the early 1920’s, and Conan Doyle was mocked by many in the press, but he continued to pursue his beliefs going on psychic trips across the world until ill health stopped him travelling in 1929.
Elsie and and Frances’ names were changed to protect their identities in the article, but they were eventually discovered and both received media attention throughout their lives. Elsie recalls that during her youth the fairy saga “brought about quite a bit of teasing and questioning”, and the harassment of the press nearly resulted in her getting the sack from her workplace. As with all news stories, it eventually died down and Elsie was to later move to Bombay with her husband Frank. The fairy photographs were not something she ever spoke about to her friends, and they only discovered her involvement in the story when she appeared out of the blue on the programme Nationwide years later. She had been approached by Lynn Lewis at Nationwide to discuss the story again, but was initially reluctant to do so. She admitted that she had made up her mind to tell any media that approached her that the photographs were figments of her imagination “because unlike Frances I much prefer the role of being a solemn faced Yorkshire comedienne than being thought to be a solemn faced nut case”. She did however appear on Nationwide, and in the end was happy that she had helped with the TV programme. Despite her appearance on the programme it was only in the 1980’s that she and Frances finally admitted that the photographs were fakes. Although Frances maintained the fifth fairy photo was real, she said “I never even thought of it as being a fraud, it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in, they wanted to be taken in”.
Although these photographs are just over a 100 years old this story still manages to capture the imagination of the public, and only last month the original photographs were sold for £20,000 at Dominic Winter Auctioneers.
What do you think of the fairy hoax? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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4D81 Elsie Hill, Letters to Leslie Gardner Regarding Cottingley Fairies. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Bradford.
BC MS Cottingley Fairies, University of Leeds Special Collections.