In 1917, sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright and her nine-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths claimed to have seen fairies at a stream at the bottom of Elsie's garden in Cottingley, near Bingley, Yorkshire, England. They subsequently took two photographs using a camera belonging to Elsie's father which showed images of the fairies.
In early 1920, these photographs came to the attention of leading theosophist Edward Gardner, and were later shown to the author and spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In August 1920, three further photographs of the fairies were taken by Elsie and Frances, using a camera and photographic plates provided by Gardner. After examination by experts, Gardner and Doyle came to accept the photographs as authentic.
In December 1920, The Strand magazine published an article by Conan Doyle including the two 1917 photographs and, in 1921, a second article which included the 1920 photographs. In these articles, to protect their identities, Frances and Elsie were called Alice and Iris Carpenter. These two Strand articles formed the basis for Conan Doyle's 1922 book The Coming of the Fairies. In this book, the girls' real names were used.
More than 60 years later, in 1983, the two cousins admitted that the photographs had been faked by copying illustrations from Princess Mary's Gift Book, a popular children's volume published in 1914 to support the War effort. The two girls had made cardboard cutouts of the fairies, which they supported with hatpins. However, both women asserted that they had seen fairies in the beck. Frances also maintained that the final photograph was genuine, although Elsie said that it was faked.
In 1997, two feature films based on the events at Cottingley were released: Fairytale: A True Story, and Photographing Fairies.
The legal copyright status of the five Cottingley Fairy photographs remains unclear and untested. Copyright law is complex, and varies from country to country. In the US, the photographs are often considered to be in the public domain because they were originally published in the country before 1923.
However, the photographs were first published in the UK, where copyright on photographs extends for 70 years after the death of the photographer. The Cottingley Fairy photographs were taken by Frances and Elsie, who died in 1986 and 1988 respectively. This implies that the photographs will not become public domain in the UK until 2057 and 2059. Under the Berne Convention, these dates should also apply to other signatories, including the US.
According to some accounts, the Wright family transferred copyright in the five photographs to Edward Gardner. Since Gardner died in 1969, copyright may therefore expire in 2040. In 1972, Edward Gardner's family donated the five photographic plates (along with other original material) to Leeds University, where they are still housed.
In order to comply with any copyright restrictions, the fairy photographs are embedded here courtesy of SSPL / Getty Images who hold the licensing rights.
'Photograph taken by Elsie. Bright sunny day in July 1917. The "Midg" camera. Distance, 4ft. Time, 1/50th sec. The original negative is asserted by expert photographers to bear not the slightest trace of combination work, retouching, or anything whatever to mark it as other than a perfectly straight single-exposure photograph, taken in the open air under natural conditions. The negative is sufficiently, indeed somewhat over-exposed. The waterfall and rocks are about 20 ft. behind Frances, who is standing against the bank of the beck. A fifth fairy may be seen between and behind the two on the right. The colouring of the fairies is described by the girls as being of very pale pink, green, lavender, and mauve, most marked in the wings and fading to almost pure white in the limbs and drapery. Each fairy has its own special colour.' [Arthur Conan Doyle (1922). The Coming of the Fairies. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. (p. 31).]
'Photograph taken by Frances. Fairly bright day in September 1917. The "Midg" camera. Distance 8ft. Time, 1/50th sec. The original negative has been tested, enlarged, and analysed in the same exhaustive manner as A. This plate was badly under-exposed. Elsie was playing with the gnome and beckoning it to come on to her knee. The gnome leapt up just as Frances, who had the camera, snapped the shutter. He is described as wearing black tights, a reddish-brown jersey, and a pointed bright-red cap. The wings are more moth-like than the fairies and of a soft, downy, neutral tint. The music of the pipes held in his left hand can just be heard as a tiny tinkle sometimes if all is still. No weight is perceptible, though when on the bare hand a fairy feels like a "little breath."' [Arthur Conan Doyle (1922). The Coming of the Fairies. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. (p. 39).]
Embed from Getty Images
Note Elsie's strangely elongated hand.
'Photograph taken by Elsie in August 1920. "Cameo" camera. Distance, 3 ft. Time, 1/50th sec. This negative and the two following (D and E) have been as strictly examined as the earlier ones, and similarly disclose no trace of being other than perfectly genuine photographs. Also they proved to have been taken from the packet given them, each plate having been privately marked unknown to the girls. The fairy is leaping up from the leaves below and hovering for a moment - it had so so three of four times. Rising a little higher than before, Frances thought it would touch her face, and involuntarily tossed her head back. The fairy is apparently in a close-fitting costume of faint lavender colour.' [Arthur Conan Doyle (1922). The Coming of the Fairies. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. (p. 67).]
Photograph taken by Frances.
'The fairy is standing almost still, poised on the bush leaves. The wings are shot with yellow, and upper part of dress is very pale pink.' [Arthur Conan Doyle (1922). The Coming of the Fairies. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. (p. 71).]
It is not clear who took this photograph - Elsie and Frances both claimed to have done so. Possibly, therefore, it is a double exposure.
'This is especially remarkable, as not only would it be exceedingly difficult to produce such a negative by faked work - impossible in the opinion of some experts - but it contains a feature that was quite unknown to the girls. The sheath or cocoon appearing in the midst of the grasses had never been seen by them before, and they had no idea what it was. Fairy lovers and observers, of the New Forest and elsewhere, describe it as a magnetic bath, woven very quickly by the fairies, and used after dull weather and in the autumn especially. The sun's rays through the sheath appear to magnetise the interior, and thus provide a "bath" that restores vitality and vigour.' [Arthur Conan Doyle (1922). The Coming of the Fairies. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. (p. 73).]
Arthur Wright (1865-1926)
Arthur Wright was an electrician working on a local estate. In 1917, he bought a quarter-plate 'Midg' camera, photographic plates, and set up his own dark room in the cellar. In the summer of 1917, he showed Elsie how to use the camera and he developed the first two photographs when the girls brought the camera back from their excursions to the beck. Arthur is reported to have been very surprised by the images, which he did could not explain, and suspected they had been faked.
Polly Wright [née Curtis] (1875-1955)
Arthur's wife, Polly is reported to have previously read Theosophical literature and to have gained spiritual benefit from this. While Arthur did not take the photographs seriously, Polly was more interested in them and she attended a Theosophical Society talk in nearby Bradford about fairies where she showed the photographs to the speaker. As a result, the photos later came to the attention of leading theosophist, Edward Gardner.
Elsie Wright (1901-1988)
Elsie was the only daughter of Arthur and Polly. She was sixteen in the summer of 1917 when the first two fairy photographs were taken. She had first seen fairies in the glen in 1915, and had often mentioned this to her parents. Elsie was said to have been a 'dreamy' and imaginative girl whose health was not robust. She had artistic talent and had taken up water-color drawing. She had also worked for a few months for a photographer. In 1925, she moved to the USA and the following year married scotsman Francis Hill (1895-1980). The couple had one son. Later they moved to India before returning to England in 1949.
Frances Griffiths (1908-1986)
In 1917, nine-year old Frances Mary Griffiths and her mother Annie were recently arrived from South Africa and lodging with Arthur, Polly, and Elsie Wright at their house in Cottingley. World War I was at a critical phase and Frances' father, Arthur Griffiths, was in France serving in the Royal Artillery. Annie was Polly's sister, and Frances and Elsie were first cousins. Frances was seven years younger than Elsie and seems to have played along with her older cousin's talk of fairies. However, Frances maintained until her death that she had seen fairies at Cottingley, and that the final photograph (E) was genuine. Frances married Cecil Wilfred Way in 1928. They lived overseas for several years before returning to England. The couple had two children.
Edward Gardner (1869-1969)
Edward Lewis Gardner was a prominent Theosophist and lecturer on esoteric topics.
He first heard about the fairy photographs (Photos A and B) in early 1920 and was sent prints and, later, the two original plates. He immediately had the negatives examined by a photographic expert (Harold Snelling) who concluded they were genuine single exposures.
In May 1920, he showed slides of the images at a lecture he gave in London. He was subsequently contacted by and met with Arthur Conan Doyle who encouraged Gardner to investigate the matter without delay.
Gardner visited Cottingley in July, was shown the locations in which the photographs were taken, and interviewed Elsie and her parents. Frances had, by then, moved to Scarborough, but was due back in a few weeks time. Gardner left the 'Cameo' camera and plates, which he had brought with him, asking that the girls take more photographs of the fairies when they had the opportunity.
In September, Elsie sent him the three later photographic plates (Photos C, D, and E). Gardner had these examined by experts and was again satisfied they were genuine. Later that month, Gardner made a second visit to Cottingley, taking photographs of the locations and talking again with Elsie and her parents.
Gardner and Conan Doyle planned a third series of photographs for August the following year (1921) when Frances was due to visit for a fortnight. For this, both a stereoscopic camera and cine camera were made available to the girls. Unfortunately it rained throughout the fortnight of Frances' visit and photographing was not possible. It is also reported that the girls were much changed, having become tired of the fairies.
In 1945, Gardner's book about the Cottingley Fairies was published. In this, he continued to maintain that the photographs were genuine.
Harold Snelling of Harrow was one of the photographic experts that Edward Gardner first contacted for an opinion on the photographs. Snelling had, according to Gardner, thirty years practical photographic experience. While some of the experts consulted were sceptical, Snelling's opinion was that there was no evidence of fakery and he was happy to endorse them. After examining the first two negatives, he reported that they:
'are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement in the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures, etc. In my opinion, they are both straight, untouched pictures.'
At Gardner's request, Snelling made prints from the two negatives and, from these, made and 'intensified' (i.e., retouched) new negatives, from which better prints and lantern slides could be made.
When the second series of three photographs was taken, Gardner immediately showed them to Snelling, who again reported that the photographs were genuine. The final image in particular, Snelling said, could not have been faked (Photo E).
From Gardner's account it appears that Snelling's help was again sought to enhance the negatives from this second series.
Geoffrey Hodson (1886-1983)
On Edward Gardner's third and final visit to Cottingley in August 1921, he brought the clairvoyant Geoffrey Hodson (called 'Mr Sergeant' in The Coming of the Fairies).
Hodson had been a British Army Officer during WWI and was a leading figure in the Theosophical Society. He went on to write a number of works on esoteric and theosophical topics.
Hodson spent a week in August 1921 accompanying Elsie and Frances in the glen. He wrote extensive notes on his experiences, claiming that both he and the girls regularly observed gnomes, fairies, elves, nymphs, and goblins. Conan Doyle included Hodson's reports as a chapter in The Coming of the Fairies.
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
Famed creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle had long been fascinated by mysticism, psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, and the paranormal.
In 1920, Doyle was commissioned by The Strand Magazine to write an article about fairies for the Christmas issue. He could hardly believe his luck when, that summer, he heard about the Cottingley Fairy photographs and met with Edward Gardner.
Doyle wrote to Elsie and Arthur Wright requesting permission to use the photographs in his article and offering a fee of £5. He also encouraged Edward Gardner to visit Cottingley to investigate the case. Doyle did not visit Cottingley himself because he was in the throes of arranging a lecture tour of Australia.
Doyle's first article on the fairies duly appeared in December 1920, and contained the first two photographs, taken in 1917. The issue sold out almost immediately. He followed up in 1921 with a second article for The Strand, which included the three later photographs.
Doyle quickly adapted these articles into a book The Coming of the Fairies (1922). Although it sold well, publication of this book seriously damaged Conan Doyle's reputation. Yet, despite embarrassment, scepticism and objections from many quarters, Arthur Conan Doyle continued to believe that the Cottingley Fairy photographs were genuine.
Read "The Coming of the Fairies"
The Wrights lived in a small end-terrace house at 31 Main Street (aka Lynwood Terrace), in the village of Cottingley, a few miles from Bingley in Yorkshire England.
Plan of Cottingley Beck and Glen (c. 1920)
The Wright house is marked X. The locations of the five fairy photos are marked A-E.
Original source; Conan Doyle, A. (1922). The Coming of the Fairies (p. 44).
The "Midg" Camera
Quarter-plate "Midg" Camera, c. 1912 (owned by Elsie's father, Arthur Wright). This camera was used to take Photos A and B.
The "Cameo" Camera
Quarter-plate "Cameo" Camera, 1915-1920. This camera was loaned to the family by Edward Gardner and, with secretly marked plates, was used to take Photos C, D and E.
Analyses of the photographs by Snelling as well as experts from Kodak were said to show no evidence that these had been manipulated in any way (e.g., by double exposure) and theosophist Edward Gardner and spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle both believed the five photographs to show genuine fairies.
However, from their first publication in 1920 and 1921, doubts about the fairy images were widely expressed. It was noted, for example, that the original images had been retouched by Gardner's favored photographic 'expert' (Harold Snelling) and new negatives produced.
The most telling criticism to emerge was that the images of the fairies resembled depictions found in children's books. In particular, there were very suspicious similarities with illustrations by Claude A. Shepperson in the popular Princess Mary's Gift Book, which had been published in 1914 to aid the war effort. Also, Elsie Wright was known to have some talent in water-color painting.
Dancing girls by Claude A. Shepperson (1867-1921)
Published in Princess Mary's Gift Book (1914) p.104.
The poses of the two dancing girls on the left of Shepperson's drawing match very closely those of two of the Photo A fairies in the Cottingley series (to which wings have been added).
Comparisons with Cottingley Fairy Photo A
In 1981 and 1982, Elsie and Frances were interviewed by researcher Joe Cooper for an article he was writing for The Unexplained magazine. In these interviews, Elsie confessed that the five photographs had been faked, while Frances admitted that the first four were faked. Both maintained, however, that they had seen fairies in the glen. According to the elderly women's accounts, Elsie had drawn the fairies by copying pictures from Princess Mary's Gift Book. These were then mounted on cardboard and stuck to the ground or foliage using hatpins.
On 17th February 1983, Elsie replied to a letter she had received from Geoffrey Crawley, who had recently published a series of critical appraisals of the photographs in The British Journal of Photography (1982-83). In her letter, Elsie talked of the 'pickle' she and Frances found themselves in when their 'joke' was taken seriously. They decided they had better keep up the pretence so as not to look silly, and to avoid upsetting and embarrassing Edward Gardner and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Letter from Elsie Hill (Wright) to Geoffrey Crawley, dated 17th February 1983
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During her correspondence with Geoffrey Crawley, Elsie drew new pictures illustrating typical fairies.
It is now beyond reasonable doubt that Elsie and Frances faked the first four Cottingley Fairy photographs. The 'fairies' were drawn by Elsie, mounted on cardboard, and posed for the camera using hatpins.
The photographs were therefore 'genuine' in the sense that they were single exposures that recorded what was in front of the camera. The plates were developed normally and neither Elsie nor anyone else in the family carried out any photographic manipulation of the images. However, the images that were later shown around and sold by Edward Gardner, and published in The Strand Magazine and in Conan Doyle's book The Coming of the Fairies, had been cleaned up, retouched and reprinted by photographic expert Harold Snelling.
There continues to be some doubt about the final photograph taken by the girls (Photo E) which appears very different from the other images. Neither girl is in the shot, and the 'cocoon' or 'magnetic bath' is novel and distinctive. The photograph was also taken some distance from the other locations, on the other side of the beck. Initially, Elsie and Frances could not understand the images in the photograph, but both claimed to have taken it. Furthermore, while Elsie later said it had also been faked, Frances maintained that the photo was genuine. It remains possible that the photograph is a double exposure and was, in fact, taken by both girls.
Photo B also shows Elsie's mysteriously elongated hand, which has never been satisfactorily explained. The girls attributed it to the slant of the camera, while others have suggested it is an illusion due to the superimposition of Elsie's two hands.
Even after admitting that the photographs had been faked, both Elsie and Frances continued to claim that they had seen fairies at Cottingley Beck. They had taken the photographs partly as a practical joke, but also in the hope of convincing Elsie's parents of the reality of the fairies. However, when the photographs began to be taken seriously, the girls became ensnared by the tissue of lies they had created. While they made an effort to distance themselves from the whole fairy business, they continued to play along with the pretence to avoid embarrassing themselves, or their family, or Edward Gardner and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
As for Edward Gardner and Arthur Conan Doyle, it seems that, in the case of the Cottingley Fairy photographs, they saw and believed what they wanted.
Books and Articles
Conan Doyle, A. (1922). The Coming of the Fairies. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. [Archive.org]
Cooper, J. (1990). The Case of the Cottingley Fairies. Robert Hale Ltd.
Crawley, G. (1982-1983). 'That Astonishing Affair of the Cottingley Fairies'. British Journal of Photography, December 24 1982 - April 8 1983 (10 parts).
Gardner, E.L. (1945). Fairies: The Cottingley Photos and Their Sequel. Theosophical Publishing House.
Griffiths, F.M. & Lynch, C. (2009). Reflections on the Cottingley Fairies: Frances Griffiths - in Her Own Words: With Additional Material by Her Daughter Christine. JMJ Publications.
Maher, F. (2017). 'The Cottingley Centenary'. Fortean Times, #356, August 2017. [PressReader]
Maher, F.R. (2017). The Secret of the Cottingley Fairies: Hidden for 100 Years: The New Evidence. CreateSpace.
Randi, J. et al. (2012). The Case of the Cottingley Fairies: Examine the Evidence (Teacher Edition). JREF. [PDF]
Cottingley Fairies [Wikipedia]