“Do you believe in fairies?” Peter Pan
asked an auditorium full of British children
in 1904, imploring them to save his pixie
friend Tinker Bell. “If you believe, clap
your hands!” Peter needn’t have feared
For Tink, for England was the very kingdom
of fairies, and believers abounded. The
public’s belief in fairies was tried in
a much more serious way a few years later
in a small scenic village in the Aire
Valley between Shipley and Bingley.
Frances Griffiths and her cousin Elsie
Wright had been teased about their stories
of playing with fairies, but in 1917 all
this changed. In the Cottingley Beck,
close to their home, the Yorkshire schoolgirls
produced two of the oddest pictures anyone
had ever seen. Borrowing her father’s
camera, Elsie set out one afternoon with
her younger cousin for a romp in the nearby
woods. When Mr. Wright developed the picture
later that evening he would get a shock.
There in the frame, dancing around his
ten-year-old niece were the forms of four
female fairies! He confronted the girls,
who claimed nonchalantly that they often
played with fairies in the beck. A month
later another slide produced a picture
of sixteen-year-old Elsie sitting in conversation
with a gnome.
Their nonplussed attitude toward the
matter affected Mrs. Wright greatly, and
the parents set to looking in the girls’
shared bedroom and the wastebaskets for
scraps of paper or cut-outs. When nothing
was found, the parents continued to look
for evidence down in the beck. Still nothing
turned up. Mrs. Wright was inclined to
believe the girls, although her husband
made the camera off-limits.
At first the photographs
were only shared with close friends and
family, but in 1919 Mrs. Wright attended
a lecture on ‘fairy life,’ bringing the
prints with her. By 1920 the prints had
come to the attention of one of the leading
Theosophists of the time, Edward Gardner,
who examined them and had two new negatives
made, clarifying the pictures.
The story of the Cottingley
fairies gained more fame when Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes)
got wind of it. A fervent spiritualist,
Doyle immediately championed the girls’
story and even wrote an article on the
Cottingley fairies for the Christmas issue
of The Strand Magazine. A second article
in 1921 featured three new stills. Certainly,
he conjectured, these photographs would
end the debate about whether fairies existed!
Still, public opinion was
split. Doyle published his book The Coming
of Fairies in 1922, maintaining to his
death that the fairies were real. Mrs.
Wright insisted that such young girls
could not have drawn the fairies, while
baffled photograph experts at the time
conceded that it did not seem possible
that the fairies could have been made
from cloth or paper. Furthermore, nothing
could be seen propping the fairies up,
additional evidence to their authenticity.
When someone questioned a bump on the
belly of the gnome, Doyle concluded that
it was an umbilicus—proof that fairies
were born in similar fashion to humans!
The girls held to their
story, even as they aged. After the fairy
affair Frances returned to her family
in South Africa and later to Scarborough.
She married a soldier and settled in Ramsgate.
Elsie escaped the media hounding by going
to America where she was married and had
a successful artistic career. The couple
moved to India, and finally returned to
England in 1949. She repeatedly insisted
that although fairies were wonderful,
she needed to forget about them and move
on with her life. In interview after interview
the girls remained elusive, until 1983,
when Elsie admitted in a letter of confession
that the photographs were indeed a hoax.
She explained that the girls had used
Princess Mary’s Gift Book to make the
cut-outs, using hatpins to stand them
up. The bump on the gnomes belly, she
confirmed had indeed been the head of
In her confession Elsie
insisted the girls had never meant harm.
Elsie had concocted the idea when her
mother and father had scolded Frances
for getting her clothes wet one day while
playing in the beck. Frances had claimed
to be playing with fairies when she’d
fallen, and the elder Wrights had scoffed
and shamed her. Elsie had come up with
the idea of taking the first pictures
to have the last laugh.
There are still a few unsolved
mysteries concerning the Cottingley fairies,
however. For example, while Elsie claimed
all five photographs were fakes, Frances
insisted that the last one was real. Furthermore,
both girls insisted that there really
were fairies in the beck. And they weren’t
the only ones!
Former wrestler Ronnie Bennett
was working as a forester, when in the
1980s he admitted to having seen fairies
in the woods. He claimed he saw the elf-like
figures while working in the Cottingley
Estate Woods. "When they showed themselves
about nine years ago there was a slight
drizzle around. I saw three fairies in
the woods and I have never seen them since.
They were just about ten inches tall and
just stared at me. There is no way the
Cottingley Fairies is a hoax."
Do you believe in fairies?
Perhaps a trip to Cottingley Woods would
About the Author:
This article was written by Robin Daniels.
Robin is a mystic and contributes to Mystical