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Myths and legends about fairies do not have a distinct single origin. A fundamental of European folklore, stories about fairies can be found in many places, from the valleys of Wales in the British Isles to the Slavic lands of Poland and Ukraine.
Generally described as spirits of small stature with magical powers and a love of trickery, fairies are nowadays most commonly associated with make believe and children’s stories. However, this has not always been the case. Since ancient times, many ordinary people have believed in the existence of these magical beings, with them being widely connected with natural spaces like woodlands, glens and caves across Europe.
In the 1600s, a man was brought to trial after being accused of liaising with fairies. The man was reputed to be a great healer, yet it was said he had learned this knowledge from fairies who lived deep within the woods. During his trial, he confessed to having obtained a highly potent magical powder from the fairies during one of his many visits to their woodland knoll. Determined to prove that he was telling the truth, the man invited the people in court to accompany him to the magical glade where he supposedly did business with the fairies. His offer was not accepted. Strangely, rather than visit the alleged fairy knoll and disprove the accused, the court made the decision to drop all charges. The self-professed fairy-trained healer walked free, with local people seeming to prefer to keep away from that area of the woods than risk encountering fairy folk. 1
Such folk belief extends beyond the 17th century. It was in 1876 that John Walter Lukis, a writer for an archaeological and historical journal, commented on the extent to which fairies were thought to exist by local people in Wales at the time. Lukis, who was also the President of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society, described how some fairy tales were “fully believed in by the inhabitants” of certain rural localities. He stated that such tales were “often of the most absurd character”, with it being his opinion that “the more ridiculous they are, the more they are believed in.” 2
And certainly, fairy tales occupy a peculiar place on the spectrum of belief in the supernatural. Whereas many people are willing to admit that they believe in ghosts and spirits of the dead, the percentage of those who openly admit to believing in fairies is far lower, with even the most open-minded of people quick to discredit fairies as nothing more than fiction. Yet, people have believed, and do indeed continue to believe, in fairies – regardless of how “absurd” some of the supposed encounters may seem. And, in terms of the seemingly ridiculous being accepted as truth, there is no case more exemplary than that of the Cottingley Fairies.
In May 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the renowned Sherlock Holmes series, was in the process of collating material for an article on fairies for The Strand magazine. Doyle had a long standing interest in mystical matters, so it was not unusual for him to turn his attention to the subject of fairies. He had heard that photographs had allegedly been taken of fairies in the North of England, under circumstances which seemed to preclude the possibility of fraud.
Determined to pursue the case, Doyle entered into contact with Edward Gardner, a member of the Executive Committee of the Theosophical Society. Gardner had been in contact with the parents of two “shy and reserved” girls who claimed to “have played with fairies and elves in the woods near their village since babyhood”. 3 It was these two girls who had supposedly taken the photographs in question.
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In the summer of 1917, in the small village of Cottingley in Yorkshire, Elsie Wright, aged sixteen, and her cousin Frances Griffiths, aged ten, had set upon proving to their parents that a stream, known as the Cottingley Beck, was a unique and irreplaceable location where they interacted with a colony of fairies on multiple occasions. Hazel Gaynor, who investigated the story for many years and wrote a fictionalised version of the events, believes it was after complaints from Frances’ mother that playing by the stream was muddying their clothes that the two girls embarked upon the task of attempting to show why they were so enthralled by the location – and needed to continue playing there.
After some persuasion, Elsie’s father, Mr. Wright, agreed to lend them his camera. In a later interview, Elsie’s mother recalled that the girls returned within less than an hour, supposedly with photographic evidence of the fairies.
The photos taken that day in 1917 would eventually become globally recognised. Two of the most well-known images were those of Frances posing behind a ring of fairies, and of Elsie being approached by, what would later be referred to as, a gnome. The photos were published alongside Doyle’s article in the 1920 Christmas edition of The Strand.
The publication of the photographs received a mixed reception. They had previously been analysed by photography experts as part of the initial investigation by Gardner and Doyle. A Mr Snelling, who had had over thirty years of experience with photography, had with some conviction concluded that the fairies appeared to have moved during the exposure. Meanwhile, contacts at Kodak were more cautious. They had been unable to find evidence that the photos were fraudulent, yet were unwilling to authenticate them.
Public opinion on the matter was divided. Many people were equally as cautious to accept the photos as genuine, with some highlighting the various ways in which the images could have been faked. Yet, this was by no means the prevailing stance. Many people felt that, since the young girls could not have possibly had the ability to fake the images, they must have been real. Before too long, the existence of the Cottingley fairies became accepted fact for many. 4 Looking at his handling of the case, it seems as though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shared in this belief.
Following the initial investigation, Gardner left a camera with Elsie after he heard that her cousin was due to visit her again that summer. No sooner had the two girls been given the camera than Gardner was able to write to Doyle about three further fairy photos that had been taken by the two girls. In this series, the fairies seem to have a more transparent appearance.
With more photographs having been taken, the fairies, along with the two girls, were launched across the national press. The fairies ability to change appearance from “rather hard” to “transparent” was just one detail discussed by Elsie during an interview with the Westminster Gazette. 5
In the article, the interviewer described how Elsie had initially been unwilling to see him and speak about the fairies. He reported how many of their questions, such as asking whether Elsie had seen where the fairies had come from, elicited embarrassment and no clear response. Not only that, Elsie seemed unsurprised that no one else in the village had seen the magical beings, merely stating, “If anybody else were there, the fairies would not come out”.
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The lack of sightings from anyone else in the village, as well as the fairies supposed ability to modify their appearance, increased public scepticism of the photos. For many, it was simply too difficult a case to believe.
It was as interest in the case of the Cottingley fairies began to subside that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his book, The Coming of the Fairies, in which he offered an uncertain assessment of the case. He wrote that “the series of incidents set forth in this little volume represent either the most elaborate and ingenious hoax ever played upon the public” or an event in human history which would be “epoch-making” and forever remembered by future generations. 6
As time went by, the case unravelled and proved to be more the former than the latter. It was in the 1980s that a confession was published in the magazine The Unexplained. The cousins, now old and near death, revealed that the photographs were fakes. The images of the fairies, the cousins admitted, had been cut from a book called Princess Mary’s Gift Book and then pinned up with fine wire.
To the modern observer, it can be said that the images being fraudulent is hardly surprising. Yet, far from making a clean break with their confession, Elsie and Frances were adamant that, whilst they had faked the photographs, they had still encountered fairies at the stream. Not only that, they maintained that, despite the rest being fraudulent, the fifth and final photograph was real.
Today, the case of the Cottingley Fairies has not been forgotten, with two of the original photographs selling at auction for over $25,000 in early October 2018.7 It can even be said that Elsie and Frances’ photographs inspired a future generation of photographers, when, in April 2014, John Hyatt, a university professor who lectures on art research, claimed to have captured fairies on camera in Rossendale Valley in the United Kingdom.
Hyatt claimed that his photographs depicted a multitude of tiny, humanoid winged creatures – creatures which he described as fairies. Whilst the photographs have not been conclusively found to be fraudulent, with Hyatt, himself an expert in the field, staking his reputation on them being genuine, sceptics have argued that they are merely pictures of insects. This did not stop Hyatt from showcasing his images at a local museum in a collection titled the “Rossendale Fairies”, a seeming nod to the Cottingley Fairies. 8
Undoubtedly, the photos of the Cottingley fairies have had a far reaching impact – in spite of, or perhaps precisely because of, their dubious origins. That is not to say that fairies do not exist, merely that, in the case of the Cottingley fairies, the only truth to be found appears to be forgery. Yet, for all of this, one mystery remains. After determining to at last be honest about the composition of these photos, why did the cousins maintain that the fifth and final image was genuine? What, if anything, was different about the last photo?
- The Coming of the Fairies, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1922, ed. 2019)
- British Goblins: Welsh Folklore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions, by Wirt Sikes (1880, ed. 2017)
- Fairies Plain and Simple, by Ralph Harvey (2017)
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