Imagine encountering fairies in your backyard. This is precisely what happened to cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in Cottingley, Yorkshire, in 1917. In this fascinating journey, we delve into the enchanting yet mysterious tale of the Cottingley fairies. It’s a story that intertwines belief, skepticism, and a dash of magic.
In the quaint town of Cottingley, where rural England met the enchanting outdoors, young cousins Elsie and Frances embarked on an extraordinary adventure during the summer of 1917. Elsie, aged sixteen, and Frances, aged ten, had recently moved to Cottingley and were struggling to adapt to their new countryside life. Much to their parents’ dismay, the girls often returned home with mud-stained and damp clothes after playing by Cottingley Beck, a nearby creek.
When questioned about their frequent visits to the beck, the girls made a remarkable claim—they were meeting fairies in the woods. Unsurprisingly, their parents dismissed this whimsical explanation. Undeterred, Elsie borrowed her father’s glass plate camera, determined to return with photographic evidence.
A Startling Discovery
Around half an hour later, the girls returned, and Elsie’s father, Arthur Wright, developed the exposed plates. To everyone’s astonishment, the photographs displayed Elsie lying in the grass with small, faint objects in the foreground. At first glance, they appeared to be birds, but as the images became clearer, it became apparent that they were four winged fairies dancing on a shrub.
Despite the girls’ enthusiasm and claims, Arthur Wright remained skeptical. He knew his daughter was a talented artist who enjoyed creating fairy figures. He dismissed the photographs as an elaborate prank, suggesting that the fairies were nothing more than cardboard cutouts. However, two months later, the girls returned with another photograph, this time depicting Elsie with a one-foot-tall winged gnome. Exasperated by what he deemed a ridiculous joke, Arthur firmly declared that the camera would never be loaned to them again.
The Persistence of Belief
Despite Arthur’s disbelief, Elsie and Frances staunchly insisted that the photographs were genuine. Frances even wrote in a letter to a friend in South Africa that they had a friendly relationship with the beck fairies. The photographs took on a life of their own, sparking interest beyond the family circle.
Polly Wright, Arthur Wright’s wife, held doubts about the images, unlike her husband. Polly and Annie Griffiths, Frances’ mother, had recently developed an interest in Theosophy, an esoteric religious movement founded by Helena Blavatsky. Theosophy preached the existence of nature spirits and the idea that humans could manifest these spirits in visible forms. Polly and Annie attended a lecture on fairies at the Theosophical Lodge in Bradford in 1919, where they presented the speaker with copies of the Cottingley fairy photographs.
The photographs intrigued the speaker, who passed them on to Edward Gardner, a prominent figure in the Theosophy movement. Gardner, captivated by the images, corresponded with Polly Wright. He saw the photographs as potential proof of the existence of nature spirits, a fundamental belief in Theosophy. Gardner took great care to verify the authenticity of the plates, even commissioning photographer Harold Snelling to examine them.
A Photographer’s Verdict
Harold Snelling’s verdict left little room for doubt. He declared the photographs to be completely authentic, unaltered images. Snelling asserted that the photographs showed no signs of studio work or manipulation, confirming their legitimacy.
Other Witnesses: Elsie and Frances were not the only ones who claimed to have seen the fairies. Some local children also reported similar encounters with these magical creatures in the Cottingley woods, adding an extra layer of intrigue to the story.
The Second Camera: Elsie’s father, Arthur Wright, was not the only one with a camera. The girls used a second camera, which belonged to Elsie’s uncle, for some of their fairy photographs. This raised suspicions about potential collaboration between the cousins.
Changing Fairies: In subsequent photographs, the fairies appeared to change in appearance. Some were more ethereal and translucent, while others were more solid and detailed. Critics argued that these variations were indicative of artistic creation rather than actual fairies.
Realistic Wings: One of the fairies in the photographs had wings that were anatomically similar to those of an insect. This level of detail led skeptics to question whether the wings were actually attached to a small model rather than a living creature.
Independent Verification: Edward Gardner, the theosophist who played a significant role in promoting the photographs, had a vested interest in their authenticity due to his belief in nature spirits. His involvement raised concerns about independent verification of the images.
Unpublished Fifth Photograph: Elsie and Frances claimed to have taken a fifth photograph that was never published or publicly shared. This mysterious photograph, if it existed, could have provided further evidence or raised more questions about the authenticity of the fairies.
Retrospective Interviews: In later years, both Elsie and Frances maintained that they had indeed seen fairies in Cottingley. They consistently stuck to their story, even in retrospective interviews, despite the growing skepticism surrounding the photographs.
Frances’ Artistic Talent: Frances Griffiths was known to have artistic abilities, leading some to speculate that she might have played a more significant role in creating the fairy figures. However, this aspect of her character was often overshadowed by the focus on the photographs.
Spiritualist Influence: Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in spiritualism and the supernatural heavily influenced his endorsement of the Cottingley photographs. He was particularly drawn to the idea that the images provided evidence of a spiritual realm, which aligned with his own beliefs.
Later Life: Elsie and Frances lived relatively quiet lives after the fairy photographs controversy. They rarely discussed the events in public and largely avoided the spotlight. Despite the enduring mystery, they chose to keep a low profile.
As we explore the enthralling story of the Cottingley fairies, we uncover the enigmatic blend of belief, skepticism, and the inexplicable. The magical journey of Elsie and Frances continues to captivate imaginations, leaving us to ponder the mysteries that still linger in the shadows.