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A country devastated by war, a famous author desperate to believe in the spiritual world and two little girls who borrowed a camera ... the fascinating story of the Cottingley Fairies

When two girls produced a series of photographs of fairies, they launched a mystery that fascinated and enchanted much of the world for almost 70 years — and one of their daughters, living in Belfast, maintains one image still merits further investigation

By Emily Hourican

The Cottingley Fairies turns up again and again in lists of famous hoaxes, along with the 1995 Roswell alien autopsy and the 1842 Fiji Mermaid, but the actual story is far more interesting — a delicate blend of societal timing, wishful thinking and happenstance, rather than any deliberate attempt to mislead.

The five Cottingley photographs will vaguely jog the memories of most of us, particularly the first, showing a solemn-eyed girl staring into the middle distance, chin cupped in hand, with flowers in her hair, while around her prances a troop of delicate fairies, complete with pretty wings and tunics, blowing fairy trumpets.

Despite being black and white, the difference in depth and texture between the girl and the fairies is so noticeable that no one now would think for one second that they were anything but fake, but when the photo was first taken, in Yorkshire 100 years ago, it caused a stirring of national excitement.

The first two photos were taken in 1917, a year before the end of the First World War, by which time many of the almost one million British soldiers killed in the war were already dead or missing. There wasn’t a town or village, and barely a family, that hadn’t been cruelly affected by the death and destruction the war brought. Fathers, sons, brothers had been killed or maimed. England was on its knees. The old order and certainties had been thoroughly overturned, with little to put in their place. No wonder the country, or some of it anyway, was open to the idea of a different world; somewhere full of beauty, untouched by the horrors of war, where the dead might be met again.

Because after all, if fairies were true, what else might also be true?

As author Hazel Gaynor, whose new novel, The Cottingley Secret — about the photos, and the girls behind them — is out shortly, says: “This isn’t just a silly little thing about two girls and fake fairies. There’s a whole lot going on. England was recovering from a devastating war. What could be more of a contrast to grief and devastation than young girls with fairies? People were desperate for it to be true.”

For Hazel, what drew her to the story was simple: “It’s the ultimate fairy story. As a novelist, you want to ask, ‘What goes on behind the photos?’”

Frances Griffiths, the solemn-eyed girl in the first photo, arrived in England from South Africa in 1917, when she was nine, with her mother. They were to spend the duration of the war in England while Frances’s father was away fighting. They went to the village of Cottingley, near Bradford, to live with Frances’s cousin, Elsie Wright (16), whose father, Arthur, was too old to enlist.

There, in a village without young men, where women worked hard to get on with their lives and turn their thoughts away from the muddy fields of Flanders, Frances tried to settle and adapt to her new life. She soon began coming home from playing in the stream beyond the Wrights’ garden wet and dirty, talking of the fairies she had seen. The fairies, she said and always maintained, would show themselves if she was quiet and still, and go about their business while she watched silently.

Naturally, no one much listened to her, and it was her mother’s annoyance at the way she kept ruining her clothes that apparently prompted the first photo — Frances and Elsie, knowing no one believed the fairy stories, decided to prove them, using methods that were crude but surprisingly effective.

Elsie borrowed her father’s camera — Arthur was one of the earliest qualified electrical engineers and had set up his own darkroom — and the girls came home, apparently “triumphant”, according to Arthur, after half an hour down at the stream.

He developed the plate, and found the now-famous photograph of Frances and prancing fairies, which he instantly dismissed as a fake. Two months later, the girls took his camera again, and this time the darkroom yielded a picture of Elsie, apparently holding out her hand to a tiny gnome. Again Arthur was unimpressed, and forbade the girls to take his camera any more.

However, his wife, Polly, Elsie’s mother, believed the photos — and the fairies — to be real, which was all the girls really needed: an excuse to get their clothes dirty and stay away from the house for hours. Instead, they got caught up in a desperate tide of other people’s need, hope and expectation.

That should have been an end to it — a couple of curious photos that would, over time, have been shoved to the back of a drawer somewhere and forgotten, or ruefully acknowledged as fakes by the girls as they grew older. Instead, a year or so after they were taken, Elsie’s mother took the photos to a local meeting of the Theosophical Society, where a lecture on fairy life was being given. She showed the photos to the speaker and organisers, and this is where the hoax began to take on a rather alarming life of its own.

From there, the photos ended up in the hands of Edward Gardner, a devoted theosophist, who believed they constituted strong evidence, not just of fairy life, but of the perfecting of humanity, something that was a cornerstone of theosophists’ beliefs. “The fact that two young girls had not only been able to see fairies, which others had done, but had actually for the first time ever been able to materialise them at a density sufficient for their images to be recorded on a photographic plate, meant that it was possible that the next cycle of evolution was under way,” he said.

The photographs were sent for testing to photography expert Harold Snelling, who said: “The two negatives are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs ... (with) no trace whatsoever of studio work involving card or paper models.” Which of course is not at all the same thing as saying the fairies were genuine, but by then, the ball was rolling too fast for that to be taken as anything other than proof by those determined to believe.

Gardner showed the photos to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who used them to illustrate an article for Strand magazine on the existence of fairies. And yes, there is plenty of irony in the fact that Conan Doyle, who dreamed up the most brilliant and logical of all detectives — a man who could not be fooled — was himself so completely taken in. But, of course, the point about Holmes is that he seems almost immune to emotional manipulation in a way that Conan Doyle clearly wasn’t.

The writer was an ardent spiritualist, meaning he believed the spirits of the dead could continue to communicate with the living, and have things to teach us about the nature of life, death and God. He was also a grieving father — his son, Kingsley, died in 1918 from pneumonia contracted after he was wounded in the Battle of the Somme.

The effect of bereavement on Doyle’s already-strong spiritualist convictions may have encouraged him in the strength of his belief of Frances and Elsie’s photos.

In the December 1920 issue of Strand magazine, which sold out within days — and in which he protected Frances and Elsie by calling them Alice and Iris, and keeping secret their exact location — he wrote excitedly: “The recognition of their existence will jolt the material 20th century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.”

Spiritualism had begun around the 1840s — Madame Blavatsky, the most famous spiritualist of all, founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, and WB Yeats, Maud Gonne and Aleister Crowley were all busily dabbling throughout the 1890s but reached a peak in England in the 1920s. Elsie and Frances’s photos unwittingly tapped into a long-established dispute between the forces of reason and superstition.

Conan Doyle wrote to Arthur Wright, requesting permission to use the photos, which Arthur, despite his own misgivings about them, granted. As Hazel Gaynor says: “Elsie and Frances were increasingly trapped by a little white lie. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was revered. Once you had the backing of these men in London, how could two little girls in Yorkshire admit they were only having a laugh?”

Among the many surprising elements of the Cottingley Fairies is the fact that the images on which the fairies were based came from a book that included a story by Conan Doyle himself.

Princess Mary’s Gift Book was a fundraiser for the war effort, with contributions from writers including Charles Kingsley, JM Barrie, Rudyard Kipling and Conan Doyle. The book was illustrated by Claude Arthur Shepperson, with fairly sickly pictures of fairies, and it was from these that Elsie — a talented artist — copied her versions (indeed, one sceptic noted the excessively ‘Parisienne’ styles of the fairies’ hair).

She drew the fairies, cut them out together with Frances, and used hat pins to stick the paper figures into the ground so they looked as if they were flying. The hoax was so very unsophisticated, it seems amazing that it should ever have been convincing, but the relative newness of photography as an art form meant that it was generally trusted, and this worked in the girls’ favour.

Or it would have done had they ever intended for the joke to go as far as it did. In fact, they were secretly horrified as the prank span out of all control. Newspaper editorials were written as far away as Sydney — one stating that the photographs could be readily explained not by “a knowledge of occult phenomena but a knowledge of children” — and the matter hotly debated. More experts were called in. One, from Kodak, gave his opinion, like Snelling, that the pictures “showed no signs of being faked”, but concluded that “this could not be taken as conclusive evidence ... that they were authentic photographs of fairies”. Kodak declined to issue a certificate of authenticity.

But the faithful continued to believe. Gardner went himself to Cottingley and met the girls and Elsie’s parents, with another camera. By this time, Frances, whose father had come home unharmed from the war, was living in Scarborough, but she — reluctantly, one suspects — returned to Cottingley for another go at photographing fairies. This time, they produced a shot of Frances with a ‘leaping fairy’ and Elsie being offered ‘a posy of harebells’ by a different fairy. There was a fifth, and final, photo taken that day, quite different to the previous four, showing what the girls described as a nest of fairies, with neither girl in it. The figures in that photo are quite different — more stately, less picaresque — than the previous, and it is that picture that provided a final, lingering hint of controversy.

Gardner pronounced himself “ecstatic” with the new photos and sent them to Conan Doyle, who was in Melbourne. Conan Doyle responded: “My heart was gladdened when out here in far Australia I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance ... We have had continued messages at seances for some time that a visible sign was coming through.”

For Conan Doyle, the Cottingley Fairies was that sign — a sign that the age of acceptance was coming, when humanity would accept they shared the world with spirits and other beings, and learn to live accordingly. He continued to believe in the fairies until his death in 1930.

Elsie and Frances however, were done with the whole thing. They refused to photograph any more fairies and claimed they could no longer see them — something that surprised none of their champions, who thought this a natural result of the loss of innocence that comes with growing up.

However, both girls continued to insist on the truth of their story right up until 1983, at which stage various different investigations had been conducted. The Daily Express, BBC’s Nationwide and Yorkshire Television all interviewed them separately about the photos, but the most the women would admit to was that the photos, somehow, had captured and made real their imaginations. “I’ve told you that they’re photographs of figments of our imagination, and that’s what I’m sticking to,” said Elsie in 1971.

Finally, they confessed in an article in The Unexplained magazine that the photos were faked, for fun, and had taken on a life of their own.

Even then, both insisted they did truly see fairies, and Frances always maintained that the final photo, the fifth Cottingley photo, was genuine. “It was a wet Saturday afternoon and we were just mooching about with our cameras and Elsie had nothing prepared. I saw these fairies building up in the grasses and just aimed the camera and took a photograph.” To this day, her daughter, Christine, who lives in Belfast, believes that photo is worth further investigation.

The Cottingley Fairies is a story that fascinates, not so much because a photo might or might not be true, but because of how willing — how desperate — people were to believe and what that says about the world as it was, and is.

Conan Doyle’s assertion that recognition of fairies would “jolt the material twentieth century out of its heavy ruts in the mud” is exactly why so many were prepared to suspend disbelief for so long; the infinitely seductive possibility of more, of stranger, than what we think we know.

As WB Yeats put it: “Come Fairies, take me out of this dull world.”

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor is published by HarperCollins on September 7

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