The Cottingley Fairies – a Background
Most individuals, not so many years ago, would have heard of the Cottingley Fairies. But with the passage of time the topic is now becoming forgotten. The Cottingley affair is considered one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century, in which case you might be wondering why anyone should bother to write about it. But the Cottingley story is interesting for a variety of reasons, one of which highlights a human need and willingness to believe. It also highlights how polarised our views can tend to be. In one corner we have the fervent believers, and in the other corner we have the sceptics eager to debunk what they consider as gullibility and wishful thinking. But there is also a middle ground where the Cottingley case can challenge our preconceptions about the nature of reality, even if it’s the Cosmic Joker doing the challenging. Whether a complete hoax, or only partly a hoax, the fact is that more than a century after the Cottingley Fairies photos were taken, they still succeed in capturing the imagination of many people today.
The Cottingley case revolved around two young cousins: Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths. Elsie was the eldest, born in 1902, and Frances was born in 1908, meaning that there was a six-year age gap, which some regard as significant, between the two children. In those days Elsie was said to be a rather dreamy sort of girl who was interested in painting in watercolours, a favourite subject of hers being fairies. She also was said to have an “Otherworld” air about her and seems to have been convinced that there were definitely fairies down in Cottingley Beck. It might also be relevant to the story that both girls had neither brothers nor sisters, which was fairly unusual in those days when large families were the norm, so Elsie and Frances’s time was mostly spent alone together at Cottingley Beck “seeing the fairies”, as they put it.
Elsie was about seventeen at the time, and therefore not an impressionable little girl. One day, to prove there were fairies at the beck, Elsie borrowed her father’s Midg camera. Interestingly, it has been suggested by at least one modern commentator on the Cottingley case that Elsie’s father may in fact have taken the photos, in which case he would have been an accomplice to the hoax. But who can now say? The Midg camera used was eventually sold at Sotherbys in 1972 and at the time of writing is in the Kodak Gallery at the National Photography Museum in Bradford.
It was on a Saturday afternoon in July 1917 that the first fairy photo was taken. It was a photo of Frances taken by Elsie and which eventually became known as “Frances and the Fairy Ring”, or alternatively, “Frances and the Dancing Fairies”. The official story is that Elsie’s dad was rather sceptical of the photo, but a couple of months later, in September, he loaned his camera to Elsie again. Frances allegedly took the photo on that occasion, which showed Elsie with a gnome. An interesting feature of this second photo is that Elsie’s right hand is rather elongated. Why it appeared so long in proportion to the rest of her body has never been satisfactorily explained even to this day. In a psychic context the word “elongation” is used to denote the lengthening of a medium’s body in response to spiritual control. The famous Scottish medium Daniel Dunglas Home, who was never exposed as a fraud, was reportedly seen to elongate several inches during a séance”.
The peculiar long hand of Elsie in the photo didn’t go unnoticed by believers who later concluded that Elsie had mediumistic abilities. At the time, however, the matter might have ended there, except it seemed that the photos were destined to come to the notice of a far wider audience. What happened is that in 1919 Polly Wright and Annie Griffiths were attending a Theosophical Society meeting in Bradford, where a lady who was giving a talk happened to touch on the subject of fairies. When the meeting was over Polly told the speaker about the photos that Elsie and Frances had taken.
The idea of photographing fairies clearly aroused much interest amongst the Bradford Theosophists because Elsie’s parents were persuaded to part with the glass negative plates and the sepia prints, which soon came to the attention of none other than Edward L. Gardner, the General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in England, who began showing lanternslides of the two Cottingley fairy photos during a series of his many lectures. It wasn’t long before the photos also came to the attention of an even more illustrious figure: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a keen spiritualist and, like Gardner, was also a believer in fairies. By a strange coincidence, Doyle was in the process of writing an article on fairies at the time for the forthcoming Christmas edition of the Strand magazine, the same magazine that many of his Sherlock Holmes stories had featured in over the years. However, Doyle was a very busy man who also had a tour of Australia coming up, which meant that he had neither the time nor the inclination to make a personal visit to Cottingley. Instead, he persuaded Edward Gardner to go there in his place.
In the summer of 1920 Gardner made a second trip up north – this time equipped with new, good quality cameras and plenty of glass plates for Elsie and Frances to take more photos of fairies. This resulted in three more photos of fairies taken at Cottingley Beck. These are known as “Frances and the Leaping Fairy” and “Elsie with Posie”. The fifth, and final, photo taken by the girls still generates controversy. It is known as the “Fairy Bower”, or “Fairies and their Sun Bath”. Neither Elsie nor Frances ever agreed as to which one of them took the photo. It is, however, the only photo of the five that Frances always insisted was absolutely genuine.
Edward Gardner was very impressed with the fifth photo.
A quarter of a century later he still remained convinced of its authenticity and had this to say about it: “The sheath or cocoon appearing in the middle of the grasses had not been seen by the girls before, and they had no idea what it was. Fairy observers…however, were familiar with it and described it as a magnetic bath, woven very quickly by the fairies and used after dull weather, in the autumn especially. The interior seems to be magnetised in some manner that stimulates and pleases”.
The sceptics, however, saw nothing more than what looks like a silk scarf or some other thin gauze-like material draped over the grass, partially concealing a couple of cardboard cut-outs of fairies. In November 1920 Doyle’s article on fairies, along with the first two Cottingley photos, appeared in the Christmas edition of the Strand magazine and within days it was sold out. As to the three later photos, these were being kept on hold for a subsequent edition. In his article, Doyle had decided to preserve the anonymity of Elsie and Frances, their families, and also where they lived, so he gave then pseudonyms.
Elsie became Alice, and Frances became Iris, and given the surname “Carpenter”, which implied they were sisters rather than cousins, a piece of misinformation, among many others, which still survives to this day. Cottingley became “Dalesby”, which Edward Gardner had earlier described as “a quaint old-world village in Yorkshire”. The real Cottingley, which had a town hall, was hardly quaint; but it was gritty and many residents worked long hours in the local mill. We can see already how the myth-making machine was gradually grinding into action.
Doyle’s article was certainly a success for the Strand magazine, but the article also received a barrage of criticism from sceptical quarters. This following is a quote from one critic, a certain Major Hall-Edwards, writing in the Birmingham Post at the time: “On the evidence I have no hesitation in saying that these photographs could have been ‘faked’. I criticise the attitude of those who declared there is something supernatural in the circumstances attending 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 of nervous disorder and mental disturbances”.
Another newspaper at the time commented: “For the true explanation of these fairy photographs what is wanted is not a knowledge of occult phenomena but a knowledge of children".
Edward Gardner, however, wasn’t the only Theosophist to visit Cottingley – Geoffrey Hodson, a prolific writer on esoteric topics, also went there in the summer of 1921 and announced that the beck was teeming with nature spirits of every variety. About that time, Conan Doyle decided to write a book on the subject, entitled The Coming of the Fairies, which was published in 1922.
Years later, in 1976, Elsie and Frances announced they had been stringing Hodson along, and dismissed him as a fake, which didn’t go down well with those who knew him well. However, by the middle of the decade the Cottingley Fairies saga was running out of steam, and Elsie and Frances put the matter behind them and moved on with their lives. The case might have been forgotten once and for all, except that many years later, in 1965, the Daily Express decided to revive interest in the Cottingley Fairies. By that time Elsie and Frances were mature and very conventional ladies whose personalities were quite far removed from the stereotypical fairy seers that we tend to associate with the New Age movement today.
Frances, for example, had been a medical secretary for many years and also a matron at Epsom College, a boy’s public school. Her father had been a military man, as was her husband, and she had an air of authority about her. She was also a staunch Conservative and had an intense dislike of pacifists, and what she described as “long-haired leftie poets”. Elsie too was a Conservative, as was her son who had become a business executive and Conservative councillor.
In 1971 the TV programme Nationwide interviewed Elsie, which resulted in the well-known academic, Katherine Briggs, a member of the Folklore Society, expressing, both in print and on the radio, her own scepticism of the Cottingley photos. The result was that Frances phoned Katherine Briggs and told her she was wrong, having also taken exception to her “plummy Victorian voice”, as Frances described it. The arch-sceptic, James Randi, also got in on the act. Attention was drawn to the similarity between the Cottingley Fairies and those featured in Princess Mary’s Gift Book, which Frances confessed to having had a copy back in 1917.
Nonetheless, despite the criticism from various sceptical quarters, in 1976 Yorkshire TV also decided to feature the Cottingley case in their programme Calendar. Elsie and Frances returned to Cottingley for the first time in years and, along with Austin Mitchell, the presenter, and a film crew, the two ladies did a tour of the beck. One or two locals even managed to get Elsie and Frances’s autograph, which illustrates how both women had succeeded in putting Cottingley on the map. One of those who had joined the entourage on the day was the writer, the late Joe Cooper. In the beginning, Cooper believed Elsie and Frances, but reluctantly changed his mind when Frances implied to him that the Cottingley affair was no more than a hoax, which had taken on a life of its own.
As it turned out, in a 1982 edition of the Unexplained, Cooper and Fred Gettings wrote a critical but fairly balanced appraisal of the Cottingley Fairies, and as a consequence of that Joe Cooper received a telephone call soon after from Frances accusing him of being “a traitor”. From what we can assume from the personalities and behaviour of Elsie and Frances, there is an unavoidable impression that both women were evasive, contrary and teasing by nature - perhaps even rather manipulative. Frances in particular was quick to express her displeasure at anyone who dared to question the Cottingley affair, while also displaying condescension towards believers.
As for Elsie, she had eventually tired of newspaper reporters constantly pestering her and when pressed for an explanation, often said that the fairies were “photographs of figments of the imagination”. As to whether Elsie and Frances were simply tricksters and mischief-makers we will never now know for sure. On the one hand, both ladies remained hostile to criticism, while at the same time alluding to the likelihood that it was all nonsense. But something we should always try to bear in mind is that the realm of fairy is a realm of deception. The following quote from the writer Patrick Harpur, illustrates the point:
Hermes is the god of communication…but his communications can also be deceptions. His deceptions, like Art, can entice us into a deeper truth. He misleads us, but often for our own good, leading us out of our ideas of truth…and into the tricky paradoxical twilight of the daimonic realm.
In 1997 a movie was made and based loosely on the Cottingley case. Things had come a long way since 1917. But neither Elsie nor Frances were still around to have seen or expressed their views on it. Frances died in 1986, just short of eighty years of age, followed by Elsie in 1988.