Cottingley Fairies

The Cottingley Fairies are a series of five photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, two young cousins living in Cottingley, near Bradford in England, depicting the two in various activities with supposed fairies. In 1917, when the first two photos were taken, Elsie was 16 years old and Frances was 10. In 1981 the two women admitted to faking all but one of the photographs, but insisted that they really had seen fairies.

Biographies of the girls

Elsie Wright

Elsie was born in 1901 to Arthur Wright and Polly Wright. Elsie was an extremely gifted and accomplished artist who painted landscapes and portraits, mainly in watercolour. She had attended Bradford Art College since the age of 13 and also found work in a photographic lab and a greeting card factory during World War I. In the darkroom her job was to create composite photos of fallen soldiers with pictures of loved ones and during this time she had the opportunity to work with plate cameras. She later emigrated to America. After marrying an engineer, Elsie emigrated again, this time to India. For the duration of the Second World War she was a captain in the WRVS working in military hospitals in Calcutta. She returned to England after the 1947 declaration of independence. She died in 1988 aged 87. She had one daughter.

Frances Griffith

Frances Mary Griffith was born on 4 September 1907 to Sergeant Major Arthur Griffith and Annie Griffith in South Africa and moved to live with her cousin in Cottingley. Frances married Sydney Way, a soldier in 1928 and finally settled in Ramsgate. She died on 11 July 1986 at the age of 78. She had two children, a son and a daughter.

The story

The beginning

Elsie was the daughter of Arthur Wright, one of the earliest qualified electrical engineers. She borrowed her father's camera (a Butcher Midg No. 1 Magazine Type Falling Plate 1/4-plate camera) and took photos in the beck behind the family house. When Mr. Wright, upon developing the plates, saw fairies in the pictures, he considered them fake. After he saw the second picture, he banned Elsie from using the camera again. Her mother, Polly, however was convinced of their authenticity.

The first picture was taken by the girls at Cottingley Beck and shows Frances looking into the camera as a troop of fairies dances on the branches in the foreground. Some photographers of the day examined the photo and declared them to be genuine but the Kodak laboratories refused to authenticate them, stating that there were many ways to get such faked results. The photo had been received in its original form in a letter to Edward L. Gardner along with the second photo in the series. However, as the images were relatively faded and ill defined, Gardner tasked Harold Snelling to produce some better reprints that were then made in enough numbers to satisfy the public as interest in the photographs accelerated.

In 1918 in the week before the end of the First World War, Frances sent a letter to a Johanna Parvin, a friend in Cape Town, South Africa, where she had lived most of her life. Dated November 9 1918:

"Dear Joe [Johanna], I hope you are quite well. I wrote a letter before, only I lost it or it got mislaid. Do you play with Elsie and Nora Biddles? I am learning French, Geometry, Cookery and Algebra at school now. Dad came home from France the other week after being there ten months, and we all think the war will be over in a few days. We are going to get our flags to hang upstairs in our bedroom. 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. Rosebud is as fat as ever and I have made her some new clothes. How are Teddy and dolly? Elsie and I are very friendly with the beck Fairies."

On the back of the photograph Frances wrote "It is funny I never used to see them in Africa. It must be too hot for them there."

The matter first became public in the summer of 1919 when Polly Wright went to a meeting at the Theosophical Society in Bradford. She was interested in the occult, and had some experiences of astral projection and memories of past lives herself. The lecture that night was on 'fairy life' and Polly mentioned to the person sitting next to her that fairy prints had been taken by her daughter and niece. The result of this conversation was that two rough prints came to the notice of Theosophists at the Harrogate conference in the autumn and then to a leading Theosophist, Edward Gardner, in early 1920.

Gardner's immediate impulse after seeing the fairy pictures was to believe the prints were genuine. Four years later, on 25 November 1922, the letter from Frances to Johanna Parvin was rediscovered and later published in the Cape Town Argus in an article called "Cape Town Link In World Controversy", once more reigniting public curiosity.

Conan Doyle's involvement

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a prominent Spiritualist, had been commissioned by the Strand Magazine to write an article on fairies for their Christmas issue, to be published at the end of November 1920. He was preparing this in June when he heard of the two prints of fairies, made contact with Gardner and borrowed copies of the prints.

He showed the prints to Sir Oliver Lodge, a pioneer psychical researcher, who thought them to be 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. Lodge also passed them on to a clairvoyant for psychometric impressions.

Conan Doyle dispatched Gardner to Cottingley in July. Gardner reported that the whole Wright family seemed honest and totally respectable. Conan Doyle and Gardner decided that if further fairy photographs were taken then the matter would be firmly put beyond question. Gardner journeyed north in August with cameras and 20 photographic plates to leave with Elsie and Frances hoping to persuade them to take more photographs. Only in this way, he felt, could it be proved that the fairies were genuine.

Meanwhile, the Strand article was completed, featuring the two reprinted, better defined prints. Conan Doyle sailed for Australia, and a lecture tour designed to spread the gospel of Spiritualism. He left his colleagues to face public reactions to the fairy controversy.

That issue of the Strand sold out within days of publication at the end of November. Reaction was vigorous, especially from critics. The leading voice among them was that of Major Hall-Edwards, a radium expert. He declared:

"On the evidence I have no hesitation in saying that these photographs could have been 'faked'. I criticize the attitude of those who declared 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 disturbances…"

Newspaper comments were varied. On 5 January 1921, Truth declared:

"For the true explanation of these fairy photographs what is wanted is not a knowledge of occult phenomena but a knowledge of children."

On the other hand the South Wales Argus of November 27 1920 took a more tolerant view:

"The day we kill our Santa Claus with our statistics we shall have plunged a glorious world into deepest darkness".

City News, on 29 January, stated:

"It seems at this point that we must either believe in the almost incredible mystery of the fairy or in the almost incredible wonders of faked photographs."

The Westminster Gazette broke the aliases used by Conan Doyle to protect Frances and Elsie and a reporter went north. However, nothing new was added to the story by the reporter's investigation. He found out that Elsie had borrowed her father's camera to take the first picture, and that Frances had taken a picture of Elsie and a gnome. In fact there was nothing he could add to the facts listed by Conan Doyle in his article "Fairies photographed–an epoch making event". The reporter considered Polly and Arthur Wright to be honest enough folk and he returned a verdict of 'unexplained' to his paper in London.

Extra photographs

The Cottingley fairy photographs provoked heated arguments. To Sir Arthur Conan Doyle they were the long-awaited proof of the existence of spirits–but to many people they were just clever fakes. In the school holidays of August 1920, Frances Griffiths was asked to come by train to Cottingley from Scarborough, where she had gone to live with her mother and father after the First World War. Aunt Polly had written to say that Edward Gardner would be travelling up from London with new cameras so that the cousins might have further opportunities of taking fairy photographs to add to the two they took in 1917.

Edward Gardner came from London to Bradford by train and took the tram out to Cottingley Bar, three miles away. He had brought with him two cameras and two dozen secretly marked photographic plates. He described the briefing of the girls thus in his book Fairies: a book of real fairies published in 1945:

"I went off, too, to Cottingley again, taking the two cameras and plates from London, and met the family and explained to the two girls the simple working of the cameras, giving one each to keep. The cameras were loaded, and my final advice was that they need go up to the glen only on fine days as they had been accustomed to do before and tice the fairies, as they called their way of attracting them, and see what they could get. I suggested only the most obvious and easy precautions about lighting and distance, for I knew it was essential they should feel free and unhampered and have no burden of responsibility. If nothing came of it all, I told them, they were not to mind a bit."

In a letter to Gardner from Polly, she wrote about the events of Thursday, 19 August 1920:

"The morning was dull and misty so they did not take any photos until after dinner when the mist had cleared away and it was sunny. I went to my sister's for tea and left them to it. When I got back they had only managed two with fairies, I was disappointed."
Two days later...

"They went up again on Saturday afternoon and took several photos but there was only one with anything on and it's a queer one, we can't make it out. Elsie put the plates in this time and Arthur developed them next day.

P.S. She did not take one flying after all."

So the plates were returned to London. Elsie remembers the care with which they were packed in cotton wool by her father, who was puzzled about the whole affair. He never understood it until the end of his days and Conan Doyle went down in his estimation. Before the man had shown an interest in fairies, Arthur held him in high regard; afterwards he found it hard to believe that so intelligent a man could be bamboozled "by our Elsie, and her at the bottom of the class!" But whereas Arthur could not bring himself to believe in fairies, Polly, as the tone of her letter suggests, supported her daughter and professed belief in the existence of nature spirits.

Gardner was elated to receive the secretly marked plates which bore the fairy photographs and telegrams were sent off to Conan Doyle who was on his Australian lecture tour, currently in Melbourne. Conan Doyle wrote back:

"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 … we have had continued messages at seances for some time that a visible sign was coming through...."

Both Conan Doyle and Edward Gardner were primarily interested in spreading their own ideas of the infinite to what they considered to be a far from receptive public. Conan Doyle saw the Cottingley fairies incident as (perhaps literally) a gift from the gods, paving the way for more profound truths that may gradually become acceptable to a materialistic world. He used the last three photographs to illustrate a second article in the Strand Magazine in 1921. It described other accounts of alleged fairy sightings and served as the foundation for his later book entitled The Coming of the Fairies, published in 1922.

Reactions to the new fairy photographs were, as before, varied. The most common criticism was that the fairies looked suspiciously like the traditional fairies of nursery tales and that they had very fashionable hairstyles. It was also pointed out that the pictures were particularly sharply-defined as if some improvement had been made by an expert photographer.

However, some public figures were sympathetic. Margaret McMillan, the educational and social reformer:

"How wonderful that to these dear children such a wonderful gift has been vouchsafed."

The novelist Henry de Vere Stacpoole, decided to take the fairy photographs and the girls at face value. He accepted that both girls and pictures were genuine. In a letter to Gardner he said:

"Look at Alice's face. Look at Iris's face. There is an extraordinary thing called TRUTH which has 10 million faces and forms–it is God's currency and the cleverest coiner or forger can't imitate it… "

The aliases 'Alice' and 'Iris' first used by Conan Doyle to protect the anonymity of the girls were deliberately preserved by Stacpoole.

The fifth photo

The fifth and last fairy photograph is often believed to be the most striking. Conan Doyle in his The Coming of the Fairies advances a detailed view of the pictured proceedings:

"Seated on the upper left hand edge with wing well displayed is an undraped fairy apparently considering whether it is time to get up. An earlier riser of more mature age is seen on the right possessing abundant hair and wonderful wings. Her slightly denser body can be glimpsed within her fairy dress."
However, he was by no means the only believer in elemental spirits. In August 1921, a last expedition was made to Cottingley. This time the clairvoyant, Geoffrey Hodson, was brought along to verify any fairy sightings. The feeling was that if anyone apart from the girls could see the fairies, Hodson could. The fairies were not photographed although they were reported to have been seen both by Hodson and by Elsie.

But by then both Elsie and Frances were tired of the whole fairy business. Many years later, Elsie looked at a photograph of herself and Frances taken with Hodson and said:

"Look at that, fed up with fairies!"

Both Elsie and Frances have since agreed that they humoured Hodson to a sometimes ludicrous extent.

Elsie and Frances interviewed

For fifty years Elsie managed to avoid publicity, then in 1971, BBC TV's Nationwide programme took up the case. For 10 days she was interviewed, and visited Cottingley.


Elsie: I didn't want to upset Mr. Gardner. I don't mind talking now.

(Mr. Gardner had died the year before)

Elsie: I would swear on the Bible father didn't know what was going on.

Interviewer: Could you equally swear on the Bible you didn't play any tricks?

Elsie (after a pause): I took the photographs. I took two of them... no, three. Frances took two.

Interviewer: 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.

Interviewer: Have you had your fun with the world for 50 years? Have you been kidding us for 10 days?

(Elsie laughs.)

Elsie (gently): I think we'll close on that if you don't mind.

More objective was Austin Mitchell's interview for Yorkshire Television in September 1976. On the spot where the photographs had allegedly been taken, the following dialogue took place:

Mitchell: A rational person doesn't see fairies. If people say they see fairies, then one's bound to be critical.

Frances: Yes.

Mitchell: Now, if you say you saw them, at the time the photograph was taken, that means that if there's a confidence trick, then you're both part of it.

Frances: Yes–that's fair enough–yes.

Mitchell: So are you?

Frances: No.

Elsie: No.

Frances: Of course not.

Mitchell: Did you, in any way, fabricate those photographs?

Frances: Of course not. You tell us how she could do it, remember she was 16 and I was 10. So, then, as a child of 10, can you go through life and keep a secret?

The Yorkshire Television team, however, believed the cardboard cutout theory. Austin Mitchell with a row of fairy figures before him set against a background of greenery. He flicked them around a little.

"Simple cardboard cutouts" he commented on the live magazine programme. "Done by our photographic department and mounted on wire frames. They discovered that you really need wire to make them stand up–paper figures droop, of course. That's how it could have been done."

The critics were Lewis of Nationwide, Austin Mitchell of Yorkshire TV, James Randi, and Stewart Sanderson and Katherine Briggs of the Folklore Society.

F. W. Holiday in his book The Dragon and the Disc likens the appearance of the Cottingley gnome to that of Icelandic Bronze Age figures, and William Riley, the Yorkshire author, puts the five fairy pictures into perhaps the most relevant context:

"I have many times come across several people who have seen pixies at certain favoured spots in Upper Airedale and Wharfedale."

Confession by the girls

In 1981, in an interview by Joe Cooper for the magazine The Unexplained, the cousins stated that the photos were fake; they had held up cut-outs with hatpins. Frances Way (nee Griffiths), however, continued to maintain until her death in July, 1986 (Elsie died in April, 1988) that they did see fairies and that the fifth photograph, which showed fairies in a sunbath, was genuine.

In a 1985 TV interview on Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers Elsie Wright stated that they were too embarrassed to admit the truth after fooling the author of Sherlock Holmes.

"Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle, well, we could only keep quiet."

In the same interview they also stated:

"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."

In this interview, neither woman said any photograph was genuine, however Frances maintained that there had been fairies in the garden.

Analysis of the pictures

In the pictures and prints available today, the fairies look flat, with lighting that does not match the rest of the photograph, as if they were paper cut-outs. It has been claimed that this is because the originals were of poor quality and needed retouching and that this is the reason the originals were first seen as convincing. Harold Snelling, a man considered an expert in fake photography in the early 1900s, said "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 the exposure." However in the long exposure, wind could have moved the fairies' wings or bodies if they were made of paper or fabric, which Frances admitted to in her TV interview. Doyle also dismissed the idea the photographs could have been faked.

In 1978, it was found some of the fairies resemble in the 1914 book Princess Mary's Gift Book by Claude A. Shepperson.

In popular culture

The novel Little, Big, or The Fairies' Parliament by John Crowley (1981) has a photographer as a character who studies his young female cousins' photographs of fairies.

The 1997 film, Fairy Tale: A True Story, starring Peter O'Toole and Harvey Keitel was based on these events.

The film Photographing Fairies, also released in 1997 used the photographs in the early part of its storyline.

The Cottingley Fairies are recurring characters in the comic book series Proof.

A 2006 episode of Torchwood, "Small Worlds", features the photographs.

In the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the protagonist references the incident and features one photograph as an example of "people [wanting] to be stupid and [not wanting] to know the truth."


Notes *





Further reading

  • The Coming of the Fairies by Arthur Conan Doyle, Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, 1922.
  • The Unexplained, Mysteries of Mind, Space & Time. Edited by Brian Innes and Peter Brookesmith, a weekly part work published by Orbis Publishing Ltd.

External links


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