Cottingley Fairies
In 1917 Annie Griffiths and her daughter Frances moved
from South Africa to the small village of Cottingley, a suburb
of Bradford in Yorkshire, England. They would live with
Annie’s sister, Polly Wright; her brother-in-law, Arthur; and
her niece, Elsie, while her husband was in France fighting in
the war. At the time Frances was nine and Elsie was 17. Despite
their age difference, Elsie and Frances soon became best
friends and played together in the stream at the bottom of the
garden behind the Wright home. On one occasion, Frances’s
mother became irritated when the girls returned with wet shoes
and socks. Frances responded to her mother’s scolding by telling
her they had gone to the stream to see fairies. To prove that
they had actually seen fairies, Elsie borrowed her father’s Midg
camera and in July 1917 took a picture of Frances with the
fairies. When they returned from the stream, Elsie’s father developed
the photograph they had taken, which showed Frances
sitting by the stream surrounded by four dancing fairies. In
September of the same year Frances took a photograph of Elsie
with a gnome kneeling near her lap.
Despite the remarkable nature of these photographs, the
family chose not to publicize them immediately; instead they
remained silent until 1919 when Elsie’s mother attended a
meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford. Held at a
time when interest in psychic phenomena was greatly increased,
in the aftermath of World War I, the meeting was attended
by several hundred persons. During the meeting the
lecturer, a Mrs. Powell, apparently mentioned the existence of
fairies, which prompted Polly to ask if it was possible that the
fairy photographs taken by her daughter and niece could be
valid representations of fairy life. Eventually the two photographs
taken by Frances and Elsie were given to Mrs. Powell,
who forwarded them to Edward J. Gardner. Gardner discussed
them with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who not only believed in
the existence of fairies but was also coincidentally collecting
material on fairies for an article he had promised to write for
the Strand.
Doyle obtained prints of the photographs in June 1920,
while he was making preparations for a trip to Australia with
his family to preach the cause of Spiritualism. Because of the
importance of the subject matter, Doyle made arrangements to
meet Gardner at the Grosvenor Hotel in London to discuss the
photographs. During those discussions, Doyle asked Gardner
to travel to Yorkshire to meet with the family and to investigate
the photographs. After completing his investigation, Gardner
was convinced that the girls’ story was true and that the photographs
were valid representations of fairies. Before leaving for
Australia, Doyle spoke with Gardner and submitted an article
to the Strand; it appeared in December 1920. In the article
Doyle used pseudonyms for Elsie (who became Iris) and Frances
(who became Alice) and discussed the background of the
two photographs and Gardner’s visit with the family. Doyle left
for Australia before the article was published, but he admitted
in the published account of that trip that he took with him ‘‘the
Cosmology Newslink Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
famous fairy photos—which will appear in England in the
Christmas number of the Strand. I feel as if it were a delayaction
of mine which I had left behind me. I can imagine the
cry of ‘‘Fake!’’ which will arise. But they will stand investigation.
It has, of course, nothing to do with Spiritualism proper, but
everything which can shake the mind out of narrow material
grooves and make it realize that endless worlds surround us,
separated only by difference of vibration, must work in the general
direction of truth.’’
When Doyle returned from Australia in the spring of 1921,
he submitted another article to the Strand, which appeared in
the March 1921 issue. Although two additional photographs
were reproduced for the first time in this article—photographs
that Elsie and Frances had been urged to take by Gardner in
August 1920—the article itself had been written by Doyle before
he knew anything about any of the Cottingley fairy photographs.
A preface to the article states ‘‘This article was written
by Sir A. Conan Doyle before actual photographs of fairies were
known to exist. His departure for Australia prevented him from
revising the article in the new light which has so strikingly
strengthened his case. We are glad to be able to sit before our
readers two new fairy photographs, taken by the same girls, but
of more recent date than those which created so much discussion
when they were published in our Christmas number, and
of even greater interest and importance.’’
Following the publication of Doyle’s articles, he wrote several
letters to the British press to explain his belief in the fairy
photographs. On June 18, 1921, he wrote to Light, a spiritualist
magazine, and defended the photographs against charges that
they were ‘‘clumsy fakes’’ by assuring its readers that ‘‘the photos
have been enlarged and also examined in the negatives by
some of the most competent professional photographers in England,
who could find no flaw.’’
In October of the same year he wrote to the Yorkshire Weekly
Post and repeated that the fairy photographs had been ‘‘inspected
by several of the first authorities in England, who have
found no flaw in them,’’ but also added ‘‘When one considers
that these are the first photographs which these children ever
took in their lives it is impossible to conceive that they are capable
of technical manipulation which would deceive experts.’’
Despite these explanations, others advanced more skeptical
theories. On December 20, 1921, an article appeared in the
British newspaper Star, in which a representative of Price and
Sons, who were candlemakers, suggested that the Cottingley
fairies were almost identical to drawings the company had used
to advertise their nightlights.
Despite these criticisms, Doyle utilized both Strand articles
as chapters in the first edition of The Coming of the Fairies (1922),
which consisted of 1,000 copies published on September 1,
1922. A second impression was made on November 23, 1922,
in which an additional 500 copies were published. The first
American edition of The Coming of the Fairies, which consisted
of 1,500 copies, was published later that same year. These publications
included the four previously published fairy photographs
and a fifth photograph, which was also taken in 1920.
Following the publication of the first edition of The Coming of
the Fairies, the South African newspaper Cape Argus published
an article that disclosed that Elsie Wright wrote a letter concerning
her fairy photographs before making them public. Believing
that this disclosure was significant, Doyle submitted a
third article to the Strand, for their February 1923 issue, in
which he writes that there is new evidence that vindicates Elsie
and Frances ‘‘There are a good many apologies due to the children
for criticism which could only mean that they were dishonest
little wretches. That line of comment must now be definitely
abandoned by every fair-minded critic, but what other
one is open’’
Following the publication of this article, Doyle relied on others
to argue the case. Geoffrey Hodson, a medium who visited
Elsie and Frances in Cottingley in August 1921 and whose account
was included in Doyle’s book, published his own book on
the subject. In Fairies at Work and Play (1925) Hodson cites the
Cottingley fairy photos as evidence that fairies exist. His book
also describes other sightings of brownies, elves, gnomes, manikins,
undins, sea spirits, sylphs, devas, and nature spirits. That
same year Doyle wrote a letter to The Northern Whig and Belfast
Post in which he blasted an ‘‘allusion to the ‘Fairy Photographs’
as if they had been in some way explained or discredited.’’ He
declared ‘‘This is not so,’’ and reviewed the evidence that supported
their veracity, including the letter that appeared in the
Cape Argus, and the unquestioned honesty of the girls.
Although Doyle considered writing a fourth article for the
Strand after the discovery of additional fairy photographs from
other sources, he decided, instead, to publish a second edition
of The Coming of the Fairies in 1928. This second edition, published
by Doyle’s own Psychic Press, added material that was
not in the first edition, including a new preface in which he recommends
Hodson’s book, and an article by Florizel von Reuter
which discusses photographs of nature sprites.
Following the publication of the second edition of The Coming
of the Fairies, Doyle wrote nothing further on the subject
until 1929. In Our African Winter—the account of his missionary
adventures in Africa—he recognizes that
‘‘. . . there are thousands of people who still believe the wild
assertion made years ago that the fairy photographs were taken
from a well-known advertisement. I took the line in my lecture
that I was prepared to consider any explanation of these results,
save only one which attacked the character of the children.
I am sure that when I had explained the facts there were
few in the Hall who were not prepared to accept the
photographs. . . . There have been many objections made to
the Cottingley photographs, most of them palpably absurd.
The one which merits most attention is that they are cleverly
cut-out figures which have been held up by invisible threads.
Such an explanation is conceivable, but the balance of probability
seems to me to be greatly against it.’’
In the same book Doyle also explains why he continued to
reject the skeptical explanations advanced concerning the Cottingley
fairy photographs
‘‘1. Frances, the younger girl, wrote at the time (1917) that
Cottingley was a nice place on account of the butterflies and
fairies. This card was sent to her friend in South Africa (who
came from South Africa) and was unearthed in 1923, or thereabouts,
and published in the Cape Argus. For what possible reason
would she, a child of ten, write thus, if she knew it was a deception
‘‘2. If the figures were cut out, then similar figures must be
in existence in other copies of the book or paper. These have
not been found.
‘‘3. There is a great difference in solidity between the 1920
figures and those of 1917, which could be accounted for by
waning mediumship, but which is inconsistent with faking.
‘‘4. Experts have reported signs of movement in the figures.
‘‘5. Mr. Gardner formed a high opinion of the character of
both of the children and of their father. The latter would certainly
have known if there were deception.’’
Until his death in 1930, Doyle continued to believe that the
photos were genuine and that Elsie and Frances were telling
the truth. Edward J. Gardner, who first interviewed the girls,
also wrote a book on the subject in 1945, in which he includes
all five fairy photographs and describes the events that led to
their publication.
Although Doyle, Gardner, and Hodson all died believing
that the photographs were genuine, the controversy survived
them, and more than 60 years after the initial photographs
were taken, Frances and Elsie finally admitted that ‘‘for the
most part, the Cottingley fairy episode was a fraud.’’
Following Gardner’s death in 1970, at age 100, the British
press revived the Cottingley fairy story. Beginning in 1971,
television programs were produced in which Elsie appeared
and described her first conversations with the fairies. Of course,
most of these programs were tongue in cheek attempts by the
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Cottingley Fairies
British press to report the historical facts of the episode while,
at the same time, leaving no doubt that it was all in good fun.
In 1973 the president of the Folklore Society in Yorkshire delivered
his annual address, in which he assured his audience
that he did not believe the photographs actually depicted real
fairies. He concluded this after watching Elsie’s 1971 interview.
In 1976, another interview with both Frances and Elsie was
televised in Yorkshire. During this program both women confirmed
the events recorded by Doyle, Hodson, and Gardner.
Shortly thereafter, Fred Gettings discovered a picture in a
book entitled Princess Mary’s Gift Book (London Hodder &
Stoughton, 1914), which, unlike the Price & Sons advertisement,
depicted dancing fairies very similar to those in the first
of the photographs. Ironically, Princess Mary’s Gift Book also
contained an article by Doyle. In 1982 James Randi, the famous
magician, published blowups of the photographs to demonstrate
that the fairy figurines in the Cottingley photos were cutouts
and that the last photograph was a double exposure.
The same year Randi’s book appeared, a series of articles by
Geoffrey Crawley, entitled ‘‘The Astonishing Affair of the Cottingley
Fairies,’’ began running as a series in The British Journal
of Photography. These articles examine the history of the episode,
give an analysis of each of the photographs, and detailed
discussions of the Midg camera used by Frances and Elsie and
of the source material the girls could have used in constructing
the photographs. It also describes Elsie’s artistic abilities. The
articles become truly ‘‘astonishing’’ in Part 9, which contains a
letter from Elsie in which she admits, apparently for the first
time, that the fairy photograph episode was a ‘‘practical joke
that fell flat on its face.’’ She also writes that
‘‘My dad said really you must tell right now how you got
these photos, so I took Frances aside for a serious talk, as the
joke had been my own invention. But she begged me not to tell
as the Strand Magazine had brought her so much teasing at
school, and I was also feeling sad for Conan Doyle, we had read
in the newspapers of his getting some jarring comments, first
about his interest in Spiritualism and now laughter about his
belief in our fairies, there was also a critical cartoon of him in
a newspaper chained to a chair with his head in a cloud and
Sherlock Holmes stood beside him, he had recently lost his son
in the war and the poor man was probably trying to comfort
himself with unworldly things.’’
In the same issue, Frances also admits that the first four
photographs were staged but, unlike Elsie, she maintains that
the pictures were taken ‘‘to help establish that fairies did exist’’
and that as a child ‘‘she did indeed see real fairies very close.’’
In addition, she says she believed that the final photograph was
‘‘a genuine one of real fairies.’’
Apparently, Frances had made a similar confession to Joe
Cooper, who published an article on the subject in the British
magazine The Unexplained—before its appearance in The British
Journal of Photography. Geoffrey Crawley later admitted that he
was aware of the confession when he wrote his articles but that
he believed that the subsequent confessions made by Frances
and Elsie, published in The British Journal of Photography, established
for the first time in written form, the reason for the charade.
Crawley also sets forth in the articles the first detailed
analysis of each of the five photographs and concludes that
only one of the photographs, the first one, contained material
similar to the illustration found in Princess Mary’s Gift Book. The
fairy figurines in the next three photographs were drawings
made by Elsie from other sources, he says. The first four photographs
were taken while the fairy figurines were planted in the
earth with hat pins. Crawley, unlike James Randi, offers no solution
for the last photograph.
Ironically, Geoffrey Hodson died in January 1983, at age 97
shortly after the beginning of The British Journal of Photography’s
The final chapter in the Cottingley fairy episode was written
by Joe Cooper in 1990 when he published his recollections of
Frances’s first confession. According to Cooper, Frances first
confessed in September 1981 during a discussion with him in
Canterbury. During this conversation she claimed that the final
photo was of real fairies. She also admitted, however, that she
brought a copy of Princess Mary’s Gift Book with her from South
Africa in 1917, and that Elsie in fact copied the figures for the
first photograph from that book. Apparently, the first confession
made by Elsie was her letter to The British Journal of Photography,
which appeared in the April 1, 1983, issue.
Although Frances and Elsie steadfastly maintained that the
photographs were valid for most of their lives, they both eventually
admitted they were faked. However, Frances only admitted
that four of the five were fake. She maintained that the last
photograph, which she took, was not faked and, to her dying
day, believed in the existence of fairies. Elsie, on the other
hand, stated in her last interview that she did not believe in
In Doyle’s December 1920 Strand article he alludes to his
Sherlock Holmes character when he writes, ‘‘I will now make a
few comments upon the two pictures which I have studied long
and earnestly with a high powered lens.’’ Cooper, in his 1990
book, also mentions Holmes in his discussion of the fairy photos
in a four-page pastiche in which Holmes solves the Cottingley
fairy mystery. One telling incident occurs after Holmes
solves the mystery and Doyle recalls that he wrote an article in
Princess Mary’s Gift Book. In hindsight, he laments that he
should have realized that the figures in that book could have
been copied by the girls for their fairy pictures.
Cooper, Joe. The Case of the Cottingley Fairies. London Robert
Hale, 1990.
Crawley, Geoffrey. ‘‘The Astonishing Affair of the Cottingley
Fairies.’’ British Journal of Photography 24 (December
1982–April 1983; 24 May 1985; 25 July 1986).
Doyle, Arthur Conan. ‘‘The Cottingley Fairies An Epilogue.’’
Strand Magazine 65 (February 1923).
———. ‘‘The Evidence for Fairies; with More Fairy Photographs.’’
Strand Magazine 61 (March 1921) 199–206.
———. ‘‘Fairies Photographed An Epic-Making Event.’’
Strand Magazine 60 (December 1920) 463–68.
Gardner, Edward L. Fairies The Cottingley Photographs and
Their Sequel. London The Theosophical Publishing House,
Hodson, Geoffrey. Fairies at Work and Play. London Theosophical
Publishing House, 1925.