The photos that made the world believe in fairies

In 1917 after falling into a stream at the bottom of the garden Frances Griffiths told her mother that it was because she was playing with the fairies, in order to prove her story she and her cousin Elsie Wright, two young girls from Cottingley, England produced perhaps the world’s most famous fairy pictures. Images that would set the world on a theosophical debate that would last decades.

Cottingley Fairies

The first two of the five images in which the fairies appear was taken on Elsies fathers Midg Quarter plate camera, which he pre-set  to 1/50s at f/11 for her. When her father developed the images he declared them as a prank and banned the girls from using the camera again.

It wasn’t until 3 years later when the images had been making the rounds in local circles that they came to the attention of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who as a keen believer in the supernatural, decided to write an article on the existence of fairies in 1920 for The Strand magazine and used the girls images as the basis of his argument. The issue sold out almost immediately and split public opinion between the sceptics and believers.

It was around this time that the girls were asked to take more images, this time with Butchers Cameo Quarter plate cameras that had been given to them sealed to prevent tampering with the negatives. They created three more images with these cameras, which along with the original two plates were sent for testing by expert Harold Snelling and the labs at Kodak – both could find no fault with the plates concluding that the negatives were entirely genuine, unfaked photographs… [with] no trace whatsoever of studio work involving card or paper models”. However, neither would go as far as saying that the images were genuine and therefore proof of fairies. Since as one expert added that he thought the photographs might have been made by using the glen features and the girl as a background; then enlarging prints from these and painting in the figures; then taking half-plate and finally quarter-plate snaps, suitably lighted. However, all this, he agreed, would be clever work and take time.

Over the years public interest faded, both girls moved on with their lives trying to leave behind the story. However, the two women were hounded by the press throughout their lives, but they remained quiet about the details, until eventually Elsie began to relent suggesting that the images were manifestations of her imagination. Finally in 1983 Elsie confessed that they had in fact created the fairies themselves by sketching the images from a Princess Mary’s Gift Book and sticking them into the ground with hatpins.

Frances however maintained til her death that the last image named ‘Fairy sunbath’ was genuine.

Cottingley fairies

Even today these photographs continue to mystify and fascinate the world, with movies, documentaries and books being made about the story. Most recently Frances memories have been published by her daughter Christine written from her own perspective.

The official website for the Cottingley Fairies and where you can find Frances memories can be found at http://www.cottingleyreflections.com/

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