Friday, July 31, 2020

Fae on Film: The Cottingley Fairies.

The Fae are a big part of our folklore, having seemingly existed for as long as we have written records.  For creatures that may or may not exist, they are important to us, continuing to be a big part of our culture and some religions to this day. They also have a fascinating duality to them; the dark creatures of our folklore and the glittering nymphs of our fairytales. And it's those saccharine sweet Fairytale Fairies that we'll be looking at today. The darker Folks will get a blog post of their own another day.
The Victorians (or at least those who could afford to be) were a desperately romantic bunch, clinging to magic and mystery in a world that was rapidly becoming swamped by industry and science. Spiritualism was still finding its feet in the world, all that was mystical or paranormal was being sought out. So, when in 1917, photos came to light of two young girls posing with seemingly real fairies, people were delighted. These photos are iconic. Chances are you've seen them before and, even if you weren't aware of where they came from, you were most likely charmed by them. It's hard not to be. Like something from a fairytale, innocent-looking girls surrounded by crowds of delicate, dancing Fairies. Although, by modern standards (either photoshop, CGI or a man in a Bigfoot costume) they're clearly fake, in the 1900's photography was still an ever evolving art. 

By Elsie Wright (1901–1988) - Scan of photographs, PD-US

Francis Griffith (10 years old) had travelled to England from South Africa, to stay with her Aunt,
Uncle and 13-year-old cousin, Elsie Wright. The two soon became best friends, inseparable. So, how are these children responsible for one of the worlds most famous hoaxes? The same way many hoaxes start. It was a prank. With a beautiful garden to play in and only a sparkling brook separating it from the local woods, they could let their imaginations run wild. So it's somewhat unsurprising that when they were told off for continuously coming home with torn pinafores and muddy shoes, they chose to blame the whole mess on the fairies they claimed lived at the bottom of the garden. No matter how many times they were scolded, the girls insisted it was because they'd been playing with the fairies and told their parents that they could prove it, if Elsie's father would just lend them his camera. After a quick lesson on how to use it, the girls trotted off with the camera, only to return an hour later. And, when the glass plates from the camera were developed, they showed the girls interacting with what appeared to be Fairies. Elsie's father immediately called the girls out on it, correctly guessing that the Fairies were paper cut-outs, even going as far as to search their rooms and the garden for evidence when they insisted the little people in the photos were real. Unable to find anything, he confiscated the camera. Elsie's mother, while shocked, believed the photos were real. Nothing her husband could say could convince her otherwise, but she still wanted to get proof and took the photos to Bradford with her, where she attended a meeting held by the Theosophical Society, who were dedicated to investigating the paranormal. When the lectures had finished, she pulled the speaker aside and explained the whole situation to him. Taking a look at the photos, he was so convinced of their authenticity, that he took them to their annual conference and put them on display for all attending to see. One of the many people attending that conference was a Mr Edward Gardner.
Edward Gardner
Gardner was fascinated but, like Elsie's Father, also a little sceptical. He was the first person to take the photos to an independent expert to be examined, although the expert became convinced that the photos were real after finding no evidence that the glass plate had been tampered with. And it's here that the innocent prank turns into a full-on hoax, as word of the photos and Gardner's testing of them reaches the ears of Sir Conan Arthur Doyle; creator of Sherlock Holmes and enthusiastic seeker of the paranormal. As convinced as everyone else that the girls had produced evidence of the existence of Fairies, he wanted to bring the photos to an even wider audience. As a contributor to The Strand Magazine, he contacted the Wights to ask for their permission to publish the photos and an article about them. And when he gained permission from the surprised family, he contacted Gardner. Working together, Gardner and Doyle would go on to get the photos checked out by more photography experts. Only one of these was convinced the whole thing was faked, so they disregarded his opinion, choosing to go with the majority. 
1920 bought more fairy photos. Doyle was busy and asked Gardner to visit the girls, investigate their story further and secure more evidence. The trip was a success. The girls agreed to take more photos, but on the understanding that they would be allowed to do so alone. The fairies, they explained to Gardner, would only appear to children and only then when there were no adults present. This allowed them to set up some hastily made paper models and shoot a few photos. One can assume that it also gave them some time to panic in private and discuss what on earth they were going to do, because the prank had
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
gone too far. They weren't just fooling their parents anymore, there were serious intellectuals involved and they thought the photos were real. Three photos were taken and these would be the last ones the girls ever produced. Even when Gardner visited them again in 1921 with a medium in tow, the girls told him there were no fairies present at that time. This didn't matter to Doyle, however. He proceeded to publish a second article on the subject, and even used the photos to write a book, The Coming of the Fairies, which was published in 1922. Both the article and the book were met with mixed reactions, the Cottingley Fairies fame had started to wane with that of the supernatural. Some people were still convinced, but others were sure they were faked, even calling into question the Fairies "fashionable" hairstyles as evidence of this. Even though people had lost interest, the story didn't end there, not for Elsie and Francis. For decades after they would have to put up with people wanting to speak to them about the fairies, but these people only wanted to know if the photos were fake and how they'd done it. I've got to give them credit, they were as brave as they were clever, admitting nothing. Even when James Randi got involved in the 1970s, pointing out that the Fae in the photos were identical to those published in a book from the 1900s, a book the girls were most likely to have owned, they said nothing. It wasn't until 1983 that the photos were officially debunked, with Elsie admitting they were faked. Her father had been right when he'd said they were paper cutouts and Randi was right when he'd spoken about the book. The girls had traced the books illustrations, colouring them in and mounting them on hairpins. This allowed them to stand the Fairies up without fear of them falling mid-photograph. They maintained the hoax out of pure embarrassment, Elsie reported. After fooling Gardner and Doyle, the articles and the book, it was easier to keep up the ruse than admit that it was false. And Francis? Francis swore the photos were genuine to the very end.

By Frances Griffiths (died 1986) - Scan of photograph, PD-US

I can only wonder how that felt for Elsie and Francis, to live their whole lives haunted by what started as a harmless bit of fun, to live with the knowledge that if they told the truth then it wouldn't be a few people laughing about it but hundreds of them, mocking and jeering. The dread of knowing that they'd go down in history not as the Boy Who Cried Wolf but as the Girls Who Cried Fairy. In Victorian times, a persons reputation was everything and once that reputation was damaged, they would either become a joke to their peers or be shunned completely. And, of course, they would have known that it wasn't just their reputations at risk, but Gardner and Doyle's too.
I don't know about you, but I'm fond of the Cottingley Fairy photos. The images speak of a more innocent time, something a lot of us left behind in our own childhoods. They must have had so much fun taking those first photos, before it all spiralled out of control. At the same time, there's something sad about them and I think that feeling stems from knowing the story behind them and what the girls went through for their entire lives.

What do you guys think? Sympathetic, or serves them right? Harmless prank turned hoax to save their reputations, or malicious prank stemming from a string of lies? Let me know in the comments below or tag me in a Tweet, you guys know I love to hear from you!


  1. Life becomes very difficult @adverse situations. But honesty Will always too.

    The strange appearance of your blog have special effect. Thanks

  2. I love this story I think everyone ends a bit of magic in their lives and so what if 2 little girls made it up was it such a bad thing??

  3. Love this. I was unaware of all the history. Thanks for sharing this very interesting piece.

  4. Amazing story. I really enjoyed it. I've always been fascinated with the possibility of the super natural

  5. This is a great story and one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. How they ever kept up the story for so long is beyond me because I know as a child, if I was scared, I'd have accidentally let slip that it wasn't real.