Elsie Wright with the first of the fairy photographs
In the summer of 1917, 10-year-old Frances Griffiths and her mother - both newly arrived in the United Kingdom from South Africa - were staying with Frances' aunt in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire. The aunt had a daughter, Elsie, 16. Over the course of a few days in 1917 the two girls took a series of photographs that stunned the world and remain contentious to this day.
The girls frequently played by the beck at the bottom of the garden, causing typical parental anguish when returning with muddy feet and wet clothes. When asked exasperatedly why they insisted on playing in the stream, the girls answered that they only went there to see the fairies.
Comically, Elsie borrowed her dad's camera to prove that the fairies were, indeed, real. Just half an hour later, the girls returned in triumph, claiming that they had photographed the fairies successfully.
Arthur, Elsie's dad, was a hobbyist photographer and had his own darkroom, and developed the pictures himself that same day. The pictures showed Frances behind a bush in which 4 "fairies" were dancing. He dismissed the pictures as showing nothing more than a cardboard cut-out, inspired by his daughter's interest in art.
Two months later, the girls took further pictures - a winged gnome, a leaping fairy, a fairy apparently offering a posy of flowers to Elsie and the cryptic "sun bath" photograph.
Exasperated by what he took to be tampering with his photographic equipment, Arthur forbade the girls from using the camera and no more pictures were taken.
Fame and Notoreity
In 1919, Elsie's mother attended a lecture on "Fairy Life" at the Bradford Theosophical Society and at the end showed them to the speaker. The Theosophists believed that humankind were evolving towards perfection and that the ability to see realms beyond normal experience was a natural part of this process. In this context, the pictures seemed to have great significance and the photographs were swiftly put on display in Harrogate.
News of the photographs filtered through the esoteric community of Britain and reached Sir Arthur Conan Doyle through the pages of the spiritualist magazine 'Light'. Commissioned to write an article on fairies for the Christmas edition of The Strand, the timing seemed propitious, and Conan Doyle seemed eager to publish them alongside his article.
Having submitted the photographs to Kodak (who refused to vouch for their authenticity, despite not seeing any clear evidence of fakery) and Ilford (who reported unequivocally that they saw signs of faking) Conan Doyle pressed ahead and published the images, creating the sensation that still surrounds the images today.
In 1920, the girls were contacted by the head of the Theosophical Society in Harrogate, Edward Gardner. He supplied them with two cameras and asked if they thought they could obtain new photographs to settle any question of fakery.
The girls averred that the fairies wouldn't show themselves in the company of others and so were left alone for 2 hours, during which time they produced a further set of 2 photographs - including a fairy leaping within inches of Frances' nose.
At various points following the initial brouhaha surrounding the publication of the photographs, the girls were traced by curious newspapermen, and their story began to subtly change. The teasingly enigmatic statement that the fairies were "photographs of figments of our imagination", made by Elsie in 1966 hinted that perhaps some of the early sceptics were correct to doubt the photographs' authenticity.
Finally, in a 1983 interview for The Unexplained magazine the girls finally came clean, explaining that the fairies were copied from illustrations in a popular childrens' book of the time called Princess Mary's Gift Book. By the simple expedient of cutting them out on cardboard and holding them in place with pins, the two had somehow managed to convince apparently serious men like Arthur Conan Doyle that fairies really lived in their garden.