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The Coming of the Fairies

An alternative view of the episode of The Cottingley Fairies

by Barbara Roden

I

Few things in the world of Arthur Conan Doyle raise the same amount of feeling as the 'Cottingley fairies' episode, which causes profound embarrassment in many people who otherwise admire both the man and his work. These people simply cannot understand how the creator of Sherlock Holmes — a detective who dealt in facts, not theories, and who refused to acknowledge that the supernatural could exist — could himself have believed in fairies, and could have been duped by two young girls into publicly declaring that their photographs of fairies were real. Even biographers of ACD tend to skirt around the issue, either downplaying the event or ignoring it altogether.

It is often assumed that Conan Doyle's readiness to believe in the existence of fairies sprang from his conversion to Spiritualism, which was itself a direct result of the death of his much-loved eldest son Kingsley, who died as a result of pneumonia. This somewhat pat answer — that ACD embraced Spiritualism as a means to enable him to communicate with a dead loved one — is certainly in line with the experiences of many other people following the Great War, who were trying to come to terms with an appalling catastrophe and who wanted one last word with loved ones who had been suddenly and, it seemed, purposelessly taken from them. However, this theory fails to take into account the fact that while Kingsley died in 1918, Conan Doyle had publicly announced his belief in Spiritualism two years earlier, in 1916. It also ignores the fact that while Conan Doyle only 'went public' in 1916, he had been interested in, and making a study of, Spiritualism for many years, having taken part in 'table-tuming' sessions in Portsmouth as early as 1885. The decision to convert to Spiritualism was one that was only arrived at after many years of searching, of asking questions and getting — or not getting — answers.


[Illustration: Dick Doyle's depiction of the Fairy Queen from In Fairyland]

 

The belief in the existence of fairies, or other 'little folk', however, was one that pre-dated even his first tentative steps along the road to Spiritualism. From his mother, Mary, the young Arthur had heard stories of chivalry and heraldry, and these he credited with having started his interest in things historic, which would lead him to write such novels as Micah Clarke and The White Company. However, Conan Doyle received from his father, Charles, an artistic legacy which was to prove of great importance. One of Charles's older brothers, Richard — the celebrated designer of the cover of Punch magazine — was a notable artist of the weird and fantastic. In 1846 he produced a series of illustrations for a new translation of Grimm's tales, The Fairy Ring, prompting novelist William Thackeray to declare that Dick Doyle was the new master of fairyland, supplanting the artist Cruikshank.


[Illustration: The Triumphal March of the Elf King, by Dick Doyle, from In Fairyland]

 

Dick Doyle had always loved folklore and legends, elves, goblins, fairies, and sprites; he wrote in his journal that when he was young, he was kept awake by visions of fairies and gnomes, which he could not stay awake long enough to draw. Even his designs for the cover of Punch, which he first drew in 1844, show swarms of 'little people' in various poses and occupations. By 1849 Doyle was identified by the public with his fairy drawings, and this association was to continue throughout the rest of his career, even when he had turned from book and magazine illustration to gallery paintings. His most famous work, In Fairyland, was published in 1870; and it was four years later that, as a special treat, his fifteen-year-old nephew Arthur was able to visit London for the first time, and spend time with his Uncle Richard.

The two became firm friends, and Dick entertained his nephew by showing him his studio, full of paintings and drawings of goblins and fairies, elves and ghosts, dragons and witches. He also told young Arthur some of his favourite stories of fairies and ghosts and legends, thoroughly indoctrinating him into the 'other world' which also captivated Arthur's father.

Charles Doyle was considered by his son to be the best artist of the family, even though his depression, melancholia, and eventually epilepsy and alcoholism meant that he was never able to live up to his considerable potential. Still, he did manage (thanks to some help from his brother Richard) to obtain commissions for work, and he established his name as a comic illustrator. Those who only know of Charles Doyle's artwork through his rather lacklustre illustrations for the first book edition of A Study in Scarlet .

may be surprised to find that he was in demand as a book illustrator early in his career. He shared with his brother Dick a fascination with things supernatural; a sketchbook dating from 1889 (by which time he had been committed to the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum) is filled with page after page of fantastical figures, and other sketchbooks indicate that Charles was drawing (or felt that he was drawing) some of these figures from life.

From both his father and his Uncle Richard, therefore, Arthur Conan Doyle inherited a strong sense of other worlds and other beings, and a firm foundation upon which to base his ultimate career of a storyteller (it is interesting to note that he first tried his hand at illustration before giving it up). Although he did not write any fairy tales-or, indeed, any stories specifically aimed at children-the tales, beliefs, and drawings of his father and uncle remained with him throughout his life, and helped to set the stage for what is possibly the most famous-or infamous-incident in his life: his involvement with, and championing of, photographs of what came to be known as the 'Cottingley fairies'.

In 1917, Cottingley was a village outside Bradford, although today it forms part of the outskirts of that city. Nine-year-old Frances Griffiths was, with her mother, staying at the home of her cousin, sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright, and Elsie's parents. Frances had spent most of her young life in South Africa; this was her first experience of English life, and she was finding it difficult to adjust to the very different lifestyle and surroundings. However, she was fascinated by Cottingley beck; a narrow brook running between steep banks, where she and Elsie would play for hours on end. Frances, who was not yet ten, would often slip on the wet stepping-stones, and end up soaking her shoes and stockings, to the annoyance of her mother and her aunt, who both warned her to keep away from the spot. This, however, she could not do.

One day both women persisted in asking Frances what it was that fascinated her so much about Cottingley beck. Why, they wanted to know, did she keep going back there?

After a moment of silence, Frances announced that she went to see the fairies. Not surprisingly, the reaction of the adults was one of disbelief and anger. Then Elsie claimed that she had seen the fairies as well; but both girls were disbelieved.

Frances, according to Elsie, became very upset by this. More to cheer her cousin up than anything else, Elsie suggested that they should borrow Mr Wright's camera and take a picture to prove that they were telling the truth. Somewhat to Elsie's surprise, Frances jumped at this idea; and so the two girls managed to persuade Arthur Wright to lend them his camera, and happily went down to Cottingley beck to take a photograph of the fairies.

Within half an hour they were back at the house, asking Mr Wright (who, being a keen amateur photographer, had recently built his own dark-room) to develop the plate for them. It was not until after tea that he obliged, with Elsie standing in the tiny dark-room with him while Frances waited outside. Slowly the face of Frances came into focus, surrounded by something; Mr Wright thought at first that they might be birds. Then the figures became clearer-and he saw, to his astonishment, five figures dancing around Frances, who was looking straight at the camera.

Eisie was in no doubt as to what the figures were. "The fairies are on the plate!' she cried to her young cousin outside the dark-room.

Arthur Wright was far from convinced. He knew that his daughter was a good artist, who had for many years delighted in drawing figures of fairies. He was inclined to dismiss the 'fairies' as cardboard cut-outs. The two mothers, however, were not quite so certain. Both knew their girls to be truthful, and both were becoming interested in Theosophy, and the possibility of nature spirits living on earth.

The whole matter was soon dismissed, however; or so the adults thought. The first photograph had been taken in July. In September the two girls again borrowed Arthur Wright's camera, and took another picture. This one was taken by Frances, and, when developed, showed Elsie with what appeared to be a gnome. Perhaps understandably, Arthur Wright refused to loan the girls his camera after that; but for the next year or so copies of the photographs were made and distributed to family and friends, with the girls claiming that they really had photographed fairies.

Whether or not they succeeded in accomplishing this is still, more than eighty years after the fact, open to some debate. What is certain is that the first photograph Elsie Wright ever took has gone on to become one of the most talked-about pictures of the century; and that three years after the pictures were taken, the whole affair was to take a turn that neither Elsie nor Frances-nor their parents-could ever have envisioned . . .

 

II

Few events in the life of Arthur Conan Doyle are as well known as the incident of the Cottingley Fairies; although general knowledge of the affair is usually limited to the fact that Conan Doyle was 'taken in' by fake photographs created by two schoolgirls. The case has become one of the most celebrated hoaxes of the twentieth century, ranking alongside Piltdown Man. Indeed, the June 1998 issue of Reader's Digest (Canadian version) contained an article entitled 'The Greatest Hoaxes of All Time', which included a short account of the Cottingley case, accompanied by the first of the two photographs taken by sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright and her nine-year-old cousin, Frances Griffiths, in the Summer of 1917.

The photographs were taken two months apart, at Cottingley beck-a small brook near the Wright home where the two girls spent much of their time. Young Frances, especially, could not keep away from it, even when repeatedly warned by her mother and her aunt. It was when she was challenged one day that she came up with the story of going there to see the fairies, and Elsie backed her up. The photographs, they said, proved that there were fairies at Cottingley beck.

Arthur Wright, Elsie's father, was sceptical, but his wife and sister-in-law were half-inclined to believe the girls, who were truthful children. However, after the brief flurry of interest in the photographs in 1917, they faded into the background, and were known only among a smallish circle of family and friends, to whom copies of the pictures were sometimes given as curiosity pieces.

The affair might have ended here, but for the fact that Polly Wright and Annie Griffiths had both become interested in Theosophy, and in 1919 were attending meetings in Bradford. On one of these occasions, the speaker mentioned fairies. After the meeting was over, Polly Wright stayed behind and approached the speaker. Her daughter, she said, had taken some photographs which she claimed showed fairies. Could these pictures be genuine?

It was a simple enough question; yet it was to have ramifications which no one could have anticipated. The family was persuaded to let members of the Bradford Lodge have the glass negative plates and the original photographs. These latter came to the attention of Edward Gardner, a well-respected figure in the Theosophical movement. In February 1920 he wrote to Mrs Wright, explaining that he had seen one of the photographs, which he thought to be 'the best of its kind 1 should think anywhere'. He asked many questions about the pictures, and said, 'I am keenly interested in this side of our wonderful world life and am urging a better understanding of nature spirits and fairies'.

[Illustration taken from The Case of the Cottingley Fairies by Joe Cooper; Robert Hale, 1990. The top picture is the original version; the bottom a retouched print reproduced in The Strand Magazine in 1920.] 

Polly Wright, who was probably somewhat overwhelmed by this letter, enlisted the aid of a friend and neighbour, Edie Wright (no relation), a former member of the Bradford Theosophical Society. She began corresponding with Gardner, providing the background to the photographs, answering his questions, and obtaining for him the original glass negatives from the Bradford Lodge. Gardner hoped that Elsie would be able to take more photographs for him, even volunteering to loan her a camera and plates. However, he also made sure he had the existing plates carefully checked, by photographer Harold Snelling, about whom it was said 'What Snelling doesn't know about faked photography isn't worth knowing.'

After careful analysis of one of the original prints and the plate it was taken from, Snelling gave Gardner his verdict. 'This plate is a single exposure. These dancing figures are not made of paper nor of any fabric; they are not painted on a photographed background-but what gets me most is that all these figures have moved during exposure.'

By May 1920 Gardner was using slides of the two pictures at lectures; and it was during one of his talks that his cousin, Miss E.M. Blomfield, saw the pictures. One of the people who she told about them was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had been asked by The Strand Magazine to write something about fairies for the Christmas 1920 issue. He was immediately intrigued by Gardner's 'find', and the two men met in London

in June 1920. Shortly thereafter, ACD wrote to Arthur Wright, asking permission to use Elsie's photographs, as well as other material, in his article for The Strand. He called the pictures 'very interesting' and 'certainly amazing', and suggested that either he or Gardner would try to 'run up and have half an hour's chat with the girls'.

It was Gardner who made the trip-ACD was in the midst of preparing for a lecture tour to Australia-and he spoke to the Wright family at some length. Arthur was puzzled and irritated by the whole affair, but his wife believed in the photographs, and Elsie-well, she had stuck to her story for three years, and seemed a truthful, straightforward girl. Besides, how could two children have created such a hoax?

Gardner, convinced that the pictures were real, reported his findings to Conan Doyle, who expressed one or two doubts but seemed prepared to accept Gardner's reports and the evidence of the photographs. The Theosophist continued his interviews and supervised the taking of more photographs. Three further pictures showing fairies were the result, and Gardner was impressed. His thoughts on the matter were conveyed to ACD in Australia, and Sir Arthur was very pleased indeed to receive this 'confirmation'. His article for The Strand had been written before he left for Australia, and was based on the first two photographs only. It begins in noncommittal fashion, with the author declaring that before he considered the case to be absolutely and finally proved' he would like to see the results repeated before a 'disinterested witness'.

Neither Polly Wright nor Edward Gardner could remotely be called a 'disinterested witness'; yet when he saw the three later photographs ACD was persuaded to commit himself wholeheartedly to supporting the photographs as genuine proof of the existence of fairies. A second article for The Strand appeared in March 192 1, and 1922 saw publication of Conan Doyle's book on the subject, The Coming of the Fairies.

Why did ACD believe — or want to believe — so strongly in the existence of fairies? There was, of course, his strong family disposition to believe in the creatures, as outlined in Part One of this article. However, at the end of his first article in The Strand, Conan Doyle gets nearer to the real reason when he writes: 'The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.'

In other words, if the world could accept that there were fairies-and here were the pictures to prove it, or so Conan Doyle thought-then the world could accept the existence of the spiritualistic truths that ACD and others had been preaching, but with only limited success. Conan Doyle was a man of great integrity, yet this was combined with his idealism on behalf of the cause of Spiritualism. There can be little doubt that Conan Doyle genuinely believed in the photographs, and saw them as the great proof he had been looking for. Others, however, merely saw fakes; and not-very-convincing fakes at that.

In fairness to ACD and others who believed in the pictures, the original photographs were much fuzzier and less detailed than the versions commonly seen today; at some point, probably at Gardner's request, the original plates were sharpened and enhanced. Still, the pictures do look embarrassingly 'fake' to modem eyes, and they clearly did to many contemporary readers as well, who failed to understand how the creator of Sherlock Holmes could be so easily taken in.

For taken in he certainly was; although it was not until 1983 that Elsie Wright, then aged eighty-three, admitted that the pictures had been faked, using pictures of fairies cut out of magazines and stuck on hatpins. Frances Griffiths maintained that she had seen fairies; and that while four of the photographs had been faked, the fifth one was genuine. She died in 1986, aged almost eighty, while Elsie died in 1988.

Why had they done it? It probably started out as little more than a hamless prank; a way for Frances to ,prove' to her mother and aunt that she was telling the truth when she said that she went down to Cottingley beck to see the fairies. Neither girl could have had any idea that the whole affair would snowball out of control in 1920, by which time they had probably forgotten the whole incident, or at most filed it away for their own private amusement. However, Polly Wright brought the matter up with the Bradford Theosophical Society, who passed it on to Edward Gardner, who brought the affair to the attention of

Conan Doyle, who then wrote it up for The Strand Magazine . . . By the time Gardner and ACD were involved, considerable sums of money were being spent on the affair, and many people were involved. It must have been a nightmare for the two girls, who realised that the time for owning up to a practical joke was long since past. All they could do was hope that the whole thing blew over quickly and could be forgotten.

That, however, seems unlikely to happen. The Case of the Cottingley Fairies has gained a place in history, and Arthur Conan Doyle's name will always be associated with it. This association has caused a good deal of laughter at the expense of the good doctor; but the background details show, 1 think, that the case is less clear-cut than many would believe from merely a surface look at the facts. And Frances maintained until the end of her life that she had seen fairies, and that the fifth photograph was real. Perhaps — just perhaps — Conan Doyle is joining with Elsie and Frances in having a last laugh.

 

When a sepia print from the original negative, and a retouched print are seen side by side, the case perhaps becomes less clear-cut than critics would have us believe.

 

Barbara Roden 1998, 2003
This article was first serialised in the Sherlock Holmes Detective Magazine

A complete archive of material concerning the Cottingley incident is held by the Brotherton Library, Leeds, UK.

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The Arthur Conan Doyle Society, 2003