“Do you believe in fairies?” Peter Pan asked an auditorium full of British children in 1904, imploring them to save his pixie friend Tinker Bell. “If you believe, clap your hands!” Peter needn’t have feared For Tink, for England was the very kingdom of fairies, and believers abounded. The public’s belief in fairies was tried in a much more serious way a few years later in a small scenic village in the Aire Valley between Shipley and Bingley.
Frances Griffiths and her cousin Elsie Wright had been teased about their stories of playing with fairies, but in 1917 all this changed. In the Cottingley Beck, close to their home, the Yorkshire schoolgirls produced two of the oddest pictures anyone had ever seen. Borrowing her father’s camera, Elsie set out one afternoon with her younger cousin for a romp in the nearby woods. When Mr. Wright developed the picture later that evening he would get a shock. There in the frame, dancing around his ten-year-old niece were the forms of four female fairies! He confronted the girls, who claimed nonchalantly that they often played with fairies in the beck. A month later another slide produced a picture of sixteen-year-old Elsie sitting in conversation with a gnome.
Their nonplussed attitude toward the matter affected Mrs. Wright greatly, and the parents set to looking in the girls, shared bedroom and the wastebaskets for scraps of paper or cut-outs. When nothing was found, the parents continued to look for evidence down in the beck. Still nothing turned up. Mrs. Wright was inclined to believe the girls, although her husband made the camera off-limits.
At first the photographs were only shared with close friends and family, but in 1919 Mrs. Wright attended a lecture on “fairy life, bringing the prints with her. By 1920 the prints had come to the attention of one of the leading Theosophists of the time, Edward Gardner, who examined them and had two new negatives made, clarifying the pictures.
The story of the Cottingley fairies gained more fame when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) got wind of it. A fervent spiritualist, Doyle immediately championed the girls, story and even wrote an article on the Cottingley fairies for the Christmas issue of The Strand Magazine. A second article in 1921 featured three new stills. Certainly, he conjectured, these photographs would end the debate about whether fairies existed!
Still, public opinion was split. Doyle published his book The Coming of Fairies in 1922, maintaining to his death that the fairies were real. Mrs. Wright insisted that such young girls could not have drawn the fairies, while baffled photograph experts at the time conceded that it did not seem possible that the fairies could have been made from cloth or paper. Furthermore, nothing could be seen propping the fairies up, additional evidence to their authenticity. When someone questioned a bump on the belly of the gnome, Doyle concluded that it was an umbilicus, proof that fairies were born in similar fashion to humans!
The girls held to their story, even as they aged. After the fairy affair Frances returned to her family in South Africa and later to Scarborough. She married a soldier and settled in Ramsgate. Elsie escaped the media hounding by going to America where she was married and had a successful artistic career. The couple moved to India, and finally returned to England in 1949. She repeatedly insisted that although fairies were wonderful, she needed to forget about them and move on with her life. In interview after interview the girls remained elusive, until 1983, when Elsie admitted in a letter of confession that the photographs were indeed a hoax. She explained that the girls had used Princess Mary’s Gift Book to make the cut-outs, using hatpins to stand them up. The bump on the gnomes belly, she confirmed had indeed been the head of a pin.
In her confession Elsie insisted the girls had never meant harm. Elsie had concocted the idea when her mother and father had scolded Frances for getting her clothes wet one day while playing in the beck. Frances had claimed to be playing with fairies when she’d fallen, and the elder Wrights had scoffed and shamed her. Elsie had come up with the idea of taking the first pictures to have the last laugh.
There are still a few unsolved mysteries concerning the Cottingley fairies, however. For example, while Elsie claimed all five photographs were fakes, Frances insisted that the last one was real. Furthermore, both girls insisted that there really were fairies in the beck. And they weren’t the only ones!
Former wrestler Ronnie Bennett was working as a forester, when in the 1980s he admitted to having seen fairies in the woods. He claimed he saw the elf-like figures while working in the Cottingley Estate Woods. “When they showed themselves about nine years ago there was a slight drizzle around. I saw three fairies in the woods and I have never seen them since. They were just about ten inches tall and just stared at me. There is no way the Cottingley Fairies is a hoax.”
Do you believe in fairies? Perhaps a trip to Cottingley Woods would convince you!