During the summer of 1917, Frances Griffiths, who was then 9 years-old, returned to England from South Africa to stay with her aunt, Polly Wright, Polly’s husband Arthur, and their 16 year-old daughter, Elsie. In a country gripped by war, and all the fear and uncertainty that accompanied it, the two young girls sought to escape into the glorious countryside which surrounded the Wright’s home in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley. The youngsters having persuaded Arthur Wright to let them use his camera, returned one day to excitedly boast that they had seen, and taken images of themselves with, the mystical beings that inhabited Cottingley Beck; an idyllic spot, where enchantment seemed to hang in the air. The two photographs, one of Frances with a ring of four fairies, the other showing Elsie, sitting by a gnome, were quickly dismissed by Elsie’s father as nothing more than a childish trick. Little did he suspect that the pictures would go on to deceive one of the most esteemed and distinguished writers in Britain.
Were it not for Elsie’s mother, the photographs might never have been seen beyond the Wright and Griffiths families. More amenable to the possibility of supernatural phenomena than her husband. In 1919, Polly attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford. She took with her the two photographs, which were then put on display at the society’s annual conference in Harrogate. Brought to the attention of Edward Gardner, one of the society’s most prominent members, the photographs were sent by him to Harold Snelling, an expert who declared them to be genuine.
After they were mentioned in the Spiritualist publication, Light, the images were brought to the notice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; himself a long-term advocate for and believer in Spiritualism, a faith which had only been reinforced by the horrors of the Great War. Conan Doyle’s son, Kingsley had been wounded during the Battle of the Somme, before contracting pneumonia and dying in October 1917. The War also claimed the lives of Doyle’s brother, Innes, and two of his nephews. Struggling to accept his loss, Doyle turned to Spiritualism to reassure himself that there was indeed life after death, and even reported to have spoken with his son from beyond the grave.
Above: Interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1930)