Cottingley Fairies

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The Cottingley Fairies appear in a series of five photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, two young cousins who lived in Cottingley, near Bradford in England. In 1917, when the first two photographs were taken, Elsie was 16 years old and Frances was 10. The pictures came to the attention of writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who used them to illustrate an article on fairies he had been commissioned to write for the Christmas 1920 edition of The Strand Magazine. Conan Doyle, as a Spiritualist, was enthusiastic about the photographs, and interpreted them as clear and visible evidence of psychic phenomena. Public reaction was mixed; some accepted that the images were genuine, but others believed they had been faked.

Interest in the Cottingley Fairies gradually declined after 1921. Both girls grew up, married and lived abroad for a time. Yet, the photographs continued to hold the public imagination; in 1966 a reporter from the Daily Express newspaper traced Elsie, who had by then returned to the UK. Elsie left open the possibility that she believed she had photographed her thoughts, and the media once again became interested in the story. In the early 1980s, both admitted that the photographs were faked using cardboard cutouts of fairies copied from a popular children's book of the time. Yet Frances continued to claim that the fifth and final photograph was genuine.

The photographs and two of the cameras used are on display in the National Media Museum in Bradford.


1917 photographs

In the summer of 1917, 10-year-old Frances Griffiths and her mother – both newly arrived in the United Kingdom from South Africa – were staying with Frances' aunt, Elsie Wright's mother, in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire; Elsie was then 16 years old. The two girls often played beside the beck (stream) at the bottom of the garden, much to their mothers' annoyance, because they frequently came back with wet feet and clothes. Frances and Elsie said they only went to the beck to see the fairies, and to prove it, Elsie borrowed her father's camera, a Midg quarter-plate. The girls returned about 30 minutes later, "triumphant".[1]

Elsie's father, Arthur, was a keen amateur photographer, and had set up his own darkroom. The picture on the photographic plate he developed showed Frances behind a bush in the foreground, on which four fairies appeared to be dancing. Knowing his daughter's artistic ability, and that she had spent some time working in a photographer's studio, he dismissed the figures as cardboard cutouts. Two months later the girls borrowed his camera again, and this time returned with a photograph of Elsie sitting on the lawn holding out her hand to a 1-foot (0.30 m) tall gnome. Exasperated by what he believed to be "nothing but a prank",[2] and convinced the girls must have tampered with his camera in some way, Arthur Wright refused to lend it to them again.[3] His wife Polly, however, believed the photographs to be authentic.[2]

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