The curious case of the Cottingley fairies
Under the headline "Fairies in Yorkshire", the following report appeared from our correspondent on December 6, 1920. Despite deep scepticism by our writer, the story attracted worldwide attention and ran and ran, perhaps because people thought that the inventor of Sherlock Holmes was not a man to have the wool pulled over his eyes. Here is our original report:
IN the Christmas number of the Strand Magazine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle describes what he regards as an epoch-making event, and asks his readers to believe in the existence of fairies in Yorkshire. In support of his case he reproduces photographs from negatives, in which expert photographers have expressed themselves unable to detect any evidence of faking.
One of the photographs shows a girl, seated on the grass, in a woodland glade, with a gnome apparently dancing before her. The other print shows a girl leaning on the bank of a stream, with a number of fairies pirouetting before her, one of which is seen to be playing on a pipe, and dancing with abandon like the rest.
It is a remarkable fact that these photographs were taken about three years ago, and no attempt appears to have been made to give publicity to them by the father of the girls, notwithstanding the fact that he is evidently well versed in photographic processes, and must have realised, at the time he developed the negatives, that "an epoch-making event" had happened before his eyes. It is passing strange! Most photographers would have shouted it from the housetops.
The father is said to have placed plates in a 1/4-plate camera, and the girls sallied forth into the fields with the intention of trying to photograph the fairies, which they are said to have frequently seen. On returning home they were in high glee to find they had succeeded. It is clear that the case rests entirely on the photographic evidence, and, as a photographer of thirty years' standing, I have no hesitation in asserting that it is weak. Any one who knows all the ins and outs of photography realises to the full what a facile medium it is for deception, wilful or otherwise. There are few experts in the craft who would be prepared to swear to the genuineness of any photograph unless they had seen every operation from start to finish. They would want to see the box of plates, unopened, fresh from the makers, the plates put in the camera, which had been previously examined; they would want to see the exposure made, the plates extracted, developed, fixed, washed, dried, and printed from. In the case before us the test fails at the outset. Who can prove that the plates had not been tampered with prior to insertion in the camera?
There are scores of photographers in this country who could produce negatives showing "fairies", in a variety of attitudes, amid natural surroundings, dancing in the woodlands, etc, quite as convincing as the examples shown, and without revealing any evidence of faking. Is it not strange, if Sir A Conan Doyle's arguments are sound, that on the millions of negatives exposed annually, no fairies have hitherto been observed? The sensitive film is constant. It will always record what it sees through the eye of the lens. If it can see fairies today it will assuredly see them tomorrow. I know it is argued that the girls in the case in question had some occult power to make the fairies visible, but is it not strange that the sitter had to tell the girl with the camera when to expose, leading to the supposition that the fairies were invisible to the latter, although both are reputed to possess the "seeing eye".
Readers who frequent picture shows may recall several films that have appeared lately in which "fairies" have been seen dancing, with their gossamer-like wings glistening in the semblance of moonshine. They make entrancing pictures, and eventually disappear into thin air. Given a section of one of these positive films, I could enable Sir A Conan Doyle to produce these "fairy" revellers by means of his own camera, amid the woodlands of Surrey, and he would rub his eyes and wonder where they came from. Indeed, I can conceive of a humourous packer of plates, with the intention of indulging in a joke, printing a few "fairy" subjects on negative plates and leaving them to be developed by the purchaser after he has made his own exposure on woodland or other scene. I do not say it is done -the makers would probably see to that, but it is possible.
Hence, I maintain, that the evidence produced by Sir A Conan Doyle, and his collaborator is insufficient to warrant them in asking the shrewd Yorkshire Tyke, at any rate, to believe in the existence of fairies in his county of broad acres, or anywhere else, for that matter.
Then almost a lifetime later, on March 19, 1983, we reported that one of the girls who had appeared in the photographs had come clean and admitted we were right. There never were fairies at the bottom of the garden.
The photographs were a fake I admit it at last
Headlined "Hoaxers at bottom of the garden", here's the report by Michael Brown which we published on March 19,1983:
A YORKSHIRE fairytale, which for more than 60 years has set a flutter he hearts of those who believe in he little people - the tale even tricked Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other notables of his day - was finally discredited yesterday.
Its unhappy, some would say, ending came as an octogenarian sat in her home in the Nottinghamshire village of Bunny and said impishly: "It was all a hoax."
Mrs Elsie Hill, formerly Miss Elsie Wright, was confessing that a claim in 1917 that she and her cousin had photographed fairies in Cottingley Dell, near Bingley - it created an international sensation - was a deception that they had kept up ever since.
"The photographs were a fake -I admit it at last." she says with relish.
For 66 years, ever since two breathless girls - the 16 year old Elsie and her cousin Mrs Frances Way (nee Griffiths) now 76 and living in Ramsgate, Kent - ran home with a picture of fairies in a borrowed camera, people believed that they had captured the psychic image of nature spirits at play. Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a prominent spiritualist, was one of the first and most convinced believers. In 1920 he wrote an article about the faith in the fairies of Cottingley Dell in the respectable Strand magazine.
And the cousins still insisted that the photographs were genuine...
More recently another writer, Mr Geoffrey Case, also came to the conclusion that the two girls really had seen paranormal creatures. And he wrote a play, Fairies, shown on BBC Television in 1978, in which he re-constructed the cousins' story as it developed between 1917 and 1921.
The play showed how the cousins decided to prove to their doubting elders that when they went home to 31 Lyndthorpe Terrace, wet-through after falling into a stream, it was because of the diminutive, magical beings.
Mrs Hill borrowed her father's new camera and he was astonished when he developed the plate to see on it a picture of his niece gazing absently towards the lens from behind a tableau of dancing fairies.
The photograph caused a family stir and was prudently put away. But some months later Mrs Hill had the camera again. And this time she returned with a picture of herself and a gnome.
The photographs next surface three years later and eventually reached the hands of the national secretary of the Theosophical Society, Mr. EL Gardner, who had them examined by an expert and then declared them to be genuine.
Kodak's own experts were less certain, they merely said that they could not establish how they had been faked. Then came Conan Doyle's Strand article - and Cottingley was overrun with reporters, photographers and sightseers who trampled among the undergrowth of the dell in quest of the sprites.
And the cousins stuck to their story...
Not everyone was prepared to go along with all this, however. In 1977 a Yorkshire Television Calendar film crew demonstrated how the dancing figures could have been paper cut-outs, stuck into the ground on wire. But the picture of a fairy in mid-air was still unexplained. The negative was sent to California where it was subjected to the tests of a computerised image enhancer, which is used to detect fraud in UFO photographs. The enhancer found what looked like a strand of thread in the Cottingley pictures but still the cousins vowed to the photograph's authenticity.
When Mrs Hill was asked in 1977 about what the enhancer had found, she told the Yorkshire Post: That's the craziest idea. If we'd dangled them on a string, they'd have been blown about by the wind. There's always a breeze down there near the stream in Cottingley Dell.
"We would have had to hold them firm. And another thing is that there weren't any branches to hang them from. We'd have had to hang them from the clouds."
Mr James Randi, of New York, who was researching a book in the 1970s about the paranormal to be entitled The Naked Emperor, discovered an uncanny likeness between the fairy images and those of three figures in a children's book The Princess Mary Gift Book, published in 1914 - three years before Mrs Hill took her photographs.
They illustrate a poem called A Spell for a Fairy, and were drawn by Claude AS Shepperson.
As a 16-year-old, she loved drawing fairies - and she was a sufficiently competent illustrator to be employed in a studio in Bradford designing Christmas cards.
Recalling all the comments of past year's Mrs Hill, now 82, said yesterday at her home: "It was a secret between me and Frances and we have kept it all this time. But we always intended to admit one day that it was a hoax and that the photographs were a fake and now I admit it at last."
But why had she kept up the deception so long?
"After Conan Doyle was taken in, we didn't dare to confess it because he was so well-known and he would have been made to look a fool," said Mrs Hill.
"And by the time Conan Doyle died my cousin Frances had a little girl and she believed the story and we didn't want to shatter a little girl's faith in the fairies, so we went on pretending."
But even now, she is not prepared to reveal all. "I will not tell you how we faked the photographs. I am saving that for my autobiography which I am writing now and which I hope will be published before the end of this year. I'll say in that how it was done," she said firmly.
Asked why she had chosen this particular time to confess - with Conan Doyle long dead and her cousin's daughter grown up - Mrs Hill said: "I'm old now and I don't want to die and leave my grandchildren thinking they had a loony grandmother."
Yorkshire Post photographer, the late Laurie Mercer, said at the time:
"Investigating this story for the paper in the late 1970s, I enlisted the aid of an artist employed in the creative department who drew me facsimilies of the Cottingley fairies on to a sheet of glass.
"By careful positioning it was then possible to photograph the fairy on the glass with a person behind apparently looking at the creatures."
Hollywood made a film in 1997 called Fairy Tale: the True Story.