S1:E10 The Cottingley Fairies

Children born of fairy stock
Never need for shirt or frock,
Never want for food or fire,
Always get their heart's desire:
Jingle pockets full of gold,
Marry when they're seven years old.
Every fairy child may keep
Two strong ponies and ten sheep;
All have houses, each his own,
Built of brick or granite stone;
They live on cherries, they run wild—
I'd love to be a Fairy's child.

I’d Love to be a Fairy’s Child by Robert Graves, from Fairies and Fusiliers

In 1917 in Cottingley England, two photographs were taken. This in and of itself is not remarkable. The photos were taken by two cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths. This too is unremarkable. What was remarkable was the subject of these photos. For the pictures weren't just of two girls; the photos contained fairies.

Elsie Wright lived with her father, Arthur Wright who was a mechanic, and mother Polly in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire. She was 16 years old in 1917. She was an artistic girl and frequently painted fairies. She and her cousin Frances were reportedly close.

Frances Griffiths, aged 10, and her mother Annie moved from South Africa to live with their family the Wrights in the summer of 1917. Her father was serving in the army. Frances loved to play in the stream at the bottom of the garden. She would race home from school to go down to the water and have her own little adventures.

Elsie often joined Frances and the two claimed to see fairies around the stream. Frances said of her first encounter with fairies:

“One evening after I came home from school I went down to the beck to a favorite place – the willow overhanging the stream… then a willow leaf started shaking violently – just one. I’d seen it happen before – there was no wind, and it was odd that one leaf should shake… as I watched, a small man all dressed in green, stood on the branch with the stem of the leaf in his hand, which he seemed to be shaking at something he was looking at. I daredn’t move for fear of frightening him, but just sat looking at him. He looked straight at me and disappeared.”

The first photo may have been taken in an effort to prove the fairies were real to Frances’ mother. Frances was frequently reprimanded for going down to the water and coming back with wet clothes. During one such argument, Polly demanded to know why Frances was always at the stream and Frances answered that she went to see the fairies.

The camera was borrowed from Elsie’s father Arthur who was said to have been reluctant. Cameras and glass negatives were expensive and it was easy to imagine Elsie falling by the stream or dropping it. Nevertheless, he did agree to allow the girls to borrow the camera. He showed her how to use it and the two girls went down to the stream to take a photo. They returned some thirty minutes later and the glass negative was developed later that evening. The adults were rather shocked to see that the photo contained fairies.

The first photo is famous to those in the know. You may have even seen it already. If you haven’t, the photo is of Frances leaning forward against a bank and fairies dancing in front of her. There is a waterfall behind her. The girls later said the fairies were of green, lavender, and mauve coloring, fading into pure white. 

The family thought the girls had somehow faked it and didn’t believe it despite the girls insisting that this was proof of the fairies at the bottom of the garden. However, both girls were known to be truthful, so the adults may not have known what to think.

A few weeks later, Elsie borrowed her father’s camera again and came back with yet another photograph with a fairy. This one was taken by Frances of Elsie and what was described as a gnome. Elsie is sitting on the grass, hand extended toward the gnome. He was described by the girls as wearing black tights, a reddish top, and a red cap. His wings were more moth-like and he carried a set of pipes. If you’re looking at the photo, you might also notice that Elsie’s hand is oddly elongated, which might be a weird angle or might be something else. It has never been fully accounted for.

Arthur refused to lend them his camera again, likely still thinking the girls were up to something. The photos became a sort of curiosity that were passed around amongst family and friends, but very little came from them until years later.

The photos became more than a family amusement in mid-1919 when Elsie’s mother Polly showed the photos to the speaker after a meeting of the Theosophical Society. Theosophy was an occult movement founded in the 19th century in America. It’s an interesting philosophy and I encourage my listeners to read further on it.

The speaker that night was discussing fairies and spirits of nature. Polly Wright showed him the photos, which led to the photos then being shown at the society’s annual conference. It was there they came to the attention of one Edward Gardner. One of the central beliefs of theosophy is that humanity is undergoing a cycle of evolution, towards increasing "perfection". Gardner believed that the girls’ ability to capture the fairies in photographs meant that the next cycle of human evolution was underway.

In 1920, the photographs came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the well-known creator of Sherlock Holmes. He had recently, by coincidence, been asked to write a piece on fairies by The Strand Magazine. Doyle contacted Gardner and then Elsie and Frances, care of Elsie’s father Arthur Wright, for permission to use the photographs in his article.

The photographs were thoroughly examined by several experts before and after publication.

Initially, Gardner sent the prints to Harold Snelling. He examined them and determined that he could find no evidence of fakery in the photographs themselves. That is, the negatives were unaltered and the picture showed exactly that which was in front of the camera. He did not go so far as to confirm they were photos of fairies. Snelling also enhanced the prints for publication.

Kodak experts also examined the prints and came to the same conclusions as Snelling. They declined to issue a certificate of authenticity. However, Gardner didn’t believe that the technicians were entirely objective, as one had observed that because fairies couldn’t be real, the photos must be faked somehow.

A second company, Ilford, also examined the prints. Their opinion differed from Snelling and Kodak, stating that the prints were fake. Gardner and Doyle appear to have ignored this opinion in favor of a “best two out of three” attitude.

Another man named Kenneth Styles, called a “fairy authority” by Doyle, examined the photographs as well. He was suspicious and called the photographs frauds, even citing that the hairstyles of the fairies were “much too Parisienne”.

It was at this point that through Doyle’s correspondence, Gardner was able to get permission to visit Elsie and Frances. It was now early August of 1920. In Cottingley, he walked to the stream with Elsie and was photographed there. In Scarborough (where the Griffiths now lived) he interviewed Frances.

Gardner said of his interview with Frances: “I interviewed both Mrs. Griffiths and Frances, both then seen for the first time, and a half hour’s talk with Frances explained a good deal. The girl, at that time thirteen years old, was mediumistic, which merely meant that she had loosely knit ectoplasmic material in her body. The subtle ectoplasmic or etheric material of the body, which with most people is very closely interwoven with the denser frame, was in her case unlocked or, rather, loosened, and on seeing her I had the first glimpse of how the nature spirits had densified their own normal bodies sufficiently to come into the field of the camera’s range.”

Gardner provided Elsie and Frances with two cameras and several plates in hopes of getting more fairy photos. On August 19, 1920 the girls took several photographs, two of which appear to show fairies.

The first, entitled Frances and the Leaping Fairy, shows Frances sitting amongst thick foliage, with her head turned in profile. Her hair is neatly done up with a big bow. Near her nose is a fairy that appears to be leaping into the air. This fairy was described as having lavender wings.

Fairy Offering Posy of Harebells to Elsie shows Elsie in three-quarters profile looking down at a fairy who is either hovering or perched on a branch. The fairy is offering a bouquet of flowers. The wings were said to be yellow.

The final picture is called A Fairy Sunbath and doesn’t include either girl. It was taken a few days later on August 21, 1920. This photo is the hardest to make out, but appears to show fairies in the long grass.

Gardner described this picture in 1947: “This is especially remarkable as it contains a feature quite unknown to the girls. The sheath or cocoon appearing in the middle of the grasses had not been seen by them before, and they had no idea what it was. Fairy observers of Scotland and the New Forest, however, were familiar with it and described it as a magnetic bath, woven very quickly by the fairies and used after dull weather, in the autumn especially. The interior seems to be magnetized in some manner that stimulates and pleases.”

In December of 1920, the first two photographs appeared in The Strand Magazine with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s article entitled Fairies Photographed. In the article, Elsie and Frances received the pseudonyms Iris and Alice Carpenter. Reception was mixed, with many prominent people coming down on either side, faked or fact.

Gardner made a final visit to Cottingley in August 1921. With him he brought Geoffrey Hodson, a respected medium and member of the Theosophical Society. The intention was for Hodson to accompany Elsie and Frances to the stream. The girls later said they believed Hodson a fraud and, while they did see fairies during the visits, exaggerated and faked much of their own observations for a laugh.

In a later interview, Hodson stated he believed both Elsie and Frances to be clairvoyant. He stated he would see a fairy or a gnome himself and then one of the girls would spot it and describe it to him.

No more photographs were forthcoming from Elsie and Frances. The media frenzy eventually died down and the girls moved on with their lives. Elsie moved briefly to America and met and married an engineer, Frank Hill. They had one child, Glenn. Frances married a soldier, Sidney Way, and lived in many places both in England and abroad. They had two children, Christine and David.

In 1983, the cousins stated that the photographs were faked, but maintained they had indeed seen fairies. Elsie, being artistic, stated she had copied figures from a book called Princess Mary's Gift Book and added wings to the figures. The women said they had then cut out the cardboard figures and secured them with hat pins to the foliage. Their props were then tossed into the stream.

Another point of controversy though was the final photograph called A Fairy Sunbath. The cousins gave differing accounts of this one. Elsie claimed it to be fake, like the others, but Frances said it was real. “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.”

Were the Cottingley fairies real? Did Frances and Elsie have a special sense that allowed them to see these fairies and capture them in photographs? Or was this an elaborate prank that went too far? In the midst of World War I, it isn’t hard to imagine that people were desperate for a bit of escapism. People want to believe that fairies exist, especially at the bottom of the garden.

There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!
It's not so very, very far away;
You pass the gardner's shed and you just keep straight ahead --
I do so hope they've really come to stay.
There's a little wood, with moss in it and beetles,
And a little stream that quietly runs through;
You wouldn't think they'd dare to come merrymaking there--
      Well, they do.

There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!
They often have a dance on summer nights;
The butterflies and bees make a lovely little breeze,
And the rabbits stand about and hold the lights.
Did you know that they could sit upon the moonbeams
And pick a little star to make a fan,
And dance away up there in the middle of the air?
      Well, they can.

There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!
You cannot think how beautiful they are;
They all stand up and sing when the Fairy Queen and King
Come gently floating down upon their car.
The King is very proud and very handsome;
The Queen--now you can guess who that could be
(She's a little girl all day, but at night she steals away)?
      Well -- it's Me!

Fairies by Rose Fyleman

My recommendation this week is a continuation of The Cottingley Fairies story. The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor reimagines the story.

From Goodreads: 1917… It was inexplicable, impossible, but it had to be true—didn’t it? When two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright from Cottingley, England, claim to have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden, their parents are astonished. But when one of the great novelists of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, becomes convinced of the photographs’ authenticity, the girls become a national sensation, their discovery offering hope to those longing for something to believe in amid a world ravaged by war. Frances and Elsie will hide their secret for many decades. But Frances longs for the truth to be told.

One hundred years later… When Olivia Kavanagh finds an old manuscript in her late grandfather’s bookshop she becomes fascinated by the story it tells of two young girls who mystified the world. But it is the discovery of an old photograph that leads her to realize how the fairy girls’ lives intertwine with hers, connecting past to present, and blurring her understanding of what is real and what is imagined. As she begins to understand why a nation once believed in fairies, can Olivia find a way to believe in herself?