The Cottingley Fairies

28th May 2022. Reading Time: 8 minutes General, Famous Paranormal Cases. 2375 page views. 0 comments.

In the early 1900's two young girls fooled the world with a camera and some paper cut outs. For a short while, it gave hope to people that fairy tales or more so tales of fairies could exist.

We know that people have been faking spirit photography for over a century. While it is very easy now for someone to take a photo in Photoshop and an array of apps that are available at our fingertips, in 1917, it wasn’t so easy to do. When we see a photo of anything potentially supernatural, our first instinct is to rip it apart and write it off as photoshopped as we are just used to seeing fake photos. Some are ridiculously fake. If in today’s world we were presented with a photo where someone had claimed to have photographic proof of fairies, it would likely be automatically written off without another thought. Things however were different in the early 1900s and a fake fairy photo quickly became one of the most famous hoaxes in not just paranormal history, but it is considered by some to be one of the top 10 hoaxes in history.

In 1917, two cousins Elsie Wright who was 16, and Frances Griffiths who was 9-10, had paper cutouts of fairies which Elsie had copied from a Children’s book. Elsie was quite good at arts and crafts and drew pictures. She used a sharp pair of scissors to cut them out and secured them with hatpins so it looked like they were standing up. They went down to the stream at the bottom of a garden in Cottingley England and took photos with a camera they borrowed from Elsie’s Dad, Arthur Wright. They took turns posing with the ‘fairies’ and returned home. When Mr Wright developed the photos in his darkroom (remember this is 1917 and it was a plate camera), he saw ‘fairies’ in the picture.  Knowing Elsie’s artistic talents, he immediately filed them away as fake. Later down the track, he banned Elsie from borrowing the camera after he developed another picture showing Elsie playing with a ‘gnome’ - another photo she had taken. The photos were all filed away where they thought the matter had been put to rest.

Image description and source: Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel by Edward Gardner (published 1945)

Frances and the Fairies. Taken July 1917. Camera: Midg Quarter. "The negative was a little over-exposed. The waterfall and rocks are about 20 feet distance behind Frances, who is standing in shallow water inside the bank of the beck. The coloring of the fairies was described by the girls as shades of green, lavender, and mauve, most marked in the wings and fading to almost pure white in the limbs and drapery."

We then fast forward to the year 1919, when Polly Wright and Frances Griffiths (who were the girl's mothers) attended a lecture about Theosophy. They both very much believed in the supernatural and Theosophy taught followers of the possibility of nature spirits - such as fairies. Polly showed the photos to the lecturer to ask if he felt they could be real as she was not convinced that they were fake. He forwarded the photos to Edward Gardner who was a self-proclaimed expert in Theosophy and a well-known leader in the movement of this particular field. He had a photographer by the name of Harold Snelling examine them for authenticity. Snelling’s conclusion was that the photos were genuine. He said they could not be faked as he determined that only one plate had been used as well as a single slow exposure.  He determined that by the softness of the water in the waterfall in the background the speed of the exposure was slow. The fairies themselves seemed to be blurry due to this slow exposure suggesting that the fairies themselves were moving or 'dancing'. With this declaration, the British spiritualist community began circulating the images. They got the attention of Sherlock Holmes writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who as we know from an earlier chapter was a big believer in spiritualism. He was convinced that they were proof of the existence of fairies and in 1920, he urged the girls to try to capture more photos of the fairies.

Image description and source: Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel by Edward Gardner (published 1945)

Elsie and the Gnome. Taken September 1917. Camera: Midg Quarter. "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 jersey and a pointed bright red cap. Elsie said there was no perceptible weight, though when on the bare hand the feeling is like a 'little breath'. The wings were more moth-like than the fairies and of a soft neutral tint. Elsie explained that what seem to be markings on his wings are simply his pipes, which he was swinging in his grotesque little left hand."

After much pressure, the girls took a further 3 photos in 1920, and in December of that year, they were published in the Strand Magazine whom Doyle wrote for, giving them international exposure. Skeptics immediately started to chime in with some concerns they spotted with the photos. 

  • Firstly, they claimed it is pretty clear they are cut-outs of pictures. 
  • They also questioned why were the girls not looking at the fairies? The response to this question was that they were so used to seeing the fairies that they often ignored them. 
  • Wings appeared to be missing from one of the fairies 
  • In another shot, the fairies seemed to be wearing the latest clothing in French designer fashion. 
  • They even spotted the hatpin in one of the photos, but it was thought to be a belly button adding to the notion that fairies were similar to humans and gave birth. 

It all seems quite bizarre to us now and would likely never be given a chance in this day and age, but this was a different time.  It was the end of World War 1 in Britain and the public wanted something good to believe in.  You also had a high profile such as Doyle advocating for the pictures.

I would warn the critic, however, not to be led away by the sophistry that because some professional trickster, apt at the game of deception, can produce a somewhat similar effect, therefore the originals were produced in the same way. There are few realities which cannot be imitated, and the ancient argument that because conjurers on their own prepared plates or stages can produce certain results, therefore similar results[vi] obtained by untrained people under natural conditions are also false, is surely discounted by the intelligent public.

I would add that this whole subject of the objective existence of a subhuman form of life has nothing to do with the larger and far more vital question of spiritualism. I should be sorry if my arguments in favour of the latter should be in any way weakened by my exposition of this very strange episode, which has really no bearing upon the continued existence of the individual.

The coming of the fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1922)

Over the years many have come forward to 'debunk' the photos. James Randi a famous and controversial skeptic pointed out that the pictures resembled characters in the 1915 book, Princess Mary’s Gift Book.  In 1981, Elsie finally admitted that she had used cut out with pictures she sketched using Princess Mary’s Gift Book for inspiration to fake all 5 of the photos. Frances admitted that 4 of the photos were faked, but said the last one was indeed the real deal. They claimed that the photos were a representation of the very real fairies they had witnessed in person. Frances swore until the day she died that the last photo was real. The girls didn't come forward earlier as they were young girls and didn't want to embarrass the famous figures who went public.

Image description and source: Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel by Edward Gardner (published 1945)

Frances and the Leaping Fairy. Taken August 1920. Camera: Cameo Quarter. "The fairy is leaping up from the leaves below and hovering for a moment—it had done so three or four times. Rising a little higher than before, Frances thought it would touch her face, and involuntarily tossed her head back. The fairy's light covering appears to be close fitting: the wings were lavender in colour."

In October of 2018, 2 of the original photos were auctioned by Dominic Winter for more than £20,000.  In April of 2019, further photos were auctioned for £50,000.  Many of the photos were put up for sale from Catherine Lynch, who was the daughter of Frances Griffiths.  

Image description and source: Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel by Edward Gardner (published 1945)

Fairy Offering a Posy to Elsie. Taken August 1920. Camera: Cameo Quarter. "The fairy is standing almost still, poised on the bush leaves. The wings were shot with yellow. An interesting point is shown in this photograph: Elsie is not looking directly at the sprite. The reason seems to be that the human eye is disconcerting. If the fairy be actively moving it does not matter much, but if motionless and aware of being gazed at then the nature-spirit will usually withdraw and apparently vanish. With fairy lovers the habit of looking at first a little sideways is common."

A special sculpture garden has been unveiled at Cottingley to honour the cousins that once gave hope to the world that fairies existed.  Elsie's final words on the matter were:

"If people wish to believe in fairies, there is no harm done.  And if people wish to think of us as a couple of practical jokers,  or two solemn faced Yorkshire comedians that’s alright too.  But the word liar is a rough word for a true or untrue Fairy story. "

Image source:


Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel by Edward Gardner (published 1945)

The coming of the fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1922)

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