Borrowed Scenes: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle And The Cottingley Fairies

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) 

The Strand magazine, where Conan Doyle’s most famous creation Sherlock Holmes had first been published, had commissioned the author to write a piece on fairies, and the Cottingley case naturally drew his curiosity. In June 1920, Conan Doyle wrote to both Elsie and her father to ask for permission to use the photographs in his article, telling Arthur Wright, I have seen the very interesting photos which your little girl took. They are certainly amazing. I was writing a little article for The Strand upon the evidence for the existence of fairies, so that I was very much interested.’  To Elsie, he wrote, ‘I have seen the wonderful pictures of the fairies which you and your cousin Frances have taken and I have not been so interested for a long time. I will send you tomorrow one of my little books for I am sure you are not too old to enjoy adventures.’ Flattered that such a prominent figure had taken an interest in his family, Arthur Wright agreed.

As he was leaving for a lecture tour of Australia, Conan Doyle sent Gardner to meet the Wright family, and it was reported that they were respectable people, not given to dishonesty or flights of fancy. This seemed to be the proof Conan Doyle needed, and he wrote to Gardner from Melbourne, ‘The human race does not deserve fresh evidence, since it has not troubled, as a rule, to examine that which already exists. However, our friends beyond are very long-suffering and more charitable than I, for I will confess that my soul is filled with a cold contempt for the muddle-headed indifference and the moral cowardice which I see around me.’ Before publication, Gardner and Conan Doyle approached Kodak to independently verify the photographs, and whilst it was concluded that they were not fakes, no concrete evidence they were authentic could be provided either; nevertheless, Conan Doyle decided to include them in his article.

“The Evidence for Fairies,” appeared in the December 1920 issue of The Strand and featured both the 1917 images, although the names of the girls and their families were changed to protect their privacy. Despite his attempts at impartiality, Doyle could not hide his conviction that the photographs were legitimate, and professed his hopes that ‘These little folk who appear to be our neighbours, with only some small difference of vibration to separate us, will become familiar. The thought of them, even when unseen, will add charm to every brook and valley and give romantic interest to every country walk.’  The following year, Conan Doyle wrote another article about fairies for The Strand, this time including three further images, apparently taken by the girls in 1920.

Both articles formed the basis for Conan Doyle’s 1922 book, The Coming of the Fairies, in which he claimed, ‘I have analysed some of the criticism which we have had to meet. I have given the reader the opportunity of judging the evidence for a considerable number of alleged cases, collected before and after the Cottingley incident. Finally, I have placed before him the general theory of the place in creation of such creatures, as defined by the only system of thought which has found room for them.’ The book met with a great deal of scepticism, notably from Major Hall-Edwards, the famous authority upon radium, who wrote in the Birmingham Weekly Post, ‘It is well to point out that the elder of the two girls has been described by her mother as a most imaginative child, who has been in the habit of drawing fairies for years, and who for a time was apprenticed to a firm of photographers. In addition to this she has access to some of the most beautiful dales and valleys, where the imagination of a young person is easily quickened.’

By 1922, interest in the Cottingley Fairies had already begun to evaporate, and the two girls went on to marry and have children of their own, leaving behind the brief celebrity of their youth. Every once in a while, however, public interest in the case would flare up, with Elsie and Frances approached to give comment. It was only in 1983 in the magazine The Unexplained that the two finally confessed to having faked the photographs, with Elsie adding, ‘The joke was only meant to last two hours…it lasted 70 years.’ In fact, Elsie had drawn the fairies herself, copying the illustrations from a 1914 children’s book, Princess Mary’s Gift Book, the cut out figures had then been positioned and supported with hatpins. Yet Frances maintained that the final image they took, known as “Fairies and Their Sun-Bath,” and in which neither of the girls appeared, was real. In a 1985 television interview, Elsie revealed that they had gone along with the deception because they were simply too embarrassed to admit lying to and duping a brilliant man like Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet.’ Frances died in 1986 and Elsie in 1988.

 Above: Interview with Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths (1985)

To the modern eye it seems incredible, that anyone would have countenanced the authenticity of the fairy photographs, with their obvious two-dimensionality, let alone the implausibility that elemental beings might also have adopted the latest fashions and hairstyles. But it must be remembered that those who supposed them to be true, inhabited a world as far removed from our own as any fairy realm. Sights had been seen, and experiences lived, that only a few short years previously would have been as utterly unthinkable, as the presence of the ethereal creatures Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths purported to have captured on film. In the last years before his death in 1930, at the age of 71, Conan Doyle would often sit outside his home in the New Forest, with plaster gnomes dotted around the grounds, listening to his gramophone, and with a camera by his side in case one of the fairies he wrote of appeared to him. Whether real or imagined, there are those for whom other worlds are more yielding than a dream, and who are never too old to enjoy adventures.

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Contacting the First World War dead – Sherlock Holmes would never have approved‏