Cottingley Fairies

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This famous, but fraudulent, photo captures an image of the Cottingley Fairies reported by two English girls in the 1920s. The story of the fairies was supported by the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed in the hoax until the day he died. Fortean Picture Library.

Cottingley Fairies

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

During the 1920s, British Spiritualists and theosophists endorsed a set of pictures taken, supposedly, of fairies by two young girls in the village of Cottingley. The pictures were taken by seventeen-year-old Elsie Wright and her cousin, Frances Griffiths. The first picture, taken in July 1917, showed Elsie with the fairies. A second picture was taken a few months later. The pictures were put aside for several years, then eventually fell into the hands of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), who in 1919 was gathering material to write an article on fairies. In 1920 he commissioned Edward J. Gardner (d. 1970) to investigate the pictures.

Finally convinced the pictures were what they purported to be, Doyle wrote an article for the December 1920 issue of Strand magazine, with a follow-up in the March 1921 issue. The article set off a storm of controversy, and Doyle was forced to defend himself and the pictures. The articles became the basis of his 1922 book, The Coming of the Fairies, in which Doyle wrote about his belief that fairies were a means of shaking up new secular worldviews. In this effort he was joined by theosophist and medium Geoffrey Hodson (d. 1983), who in 1925 published his own argument for the existence of fairies and defense of the photographs, Fairies at Work and Play (1925). In 1945 Gardner would write a book describing his involvement in the incident. He, like Doyle and Hodson, would die believing the photographs were real.

Skeptics attacked the photographs almost immediately. To most, the photographs appeared to picture flat figures rather than living, three-dimensional figures. Defense of the photographs depended on the integrity of the girls and theirfamilies, and the inability of anyone to produce the actual mundane source of the fairies in the pictures. The pictures also passed the examination of photography experts of the day. Gardner’s death in 1970 became the occasion of further attention to the Cottingley photographs, which—in spite of efforts by skeptics to destroy them—would not go away.

A breakthrough came in 1976 when The British Journal of Photography began to run a series of articles by Geoffrey Crawley, which thoroughly reviewed the pictures. The ninth installment of the series dropped the bomb: a letter from Elsie in which, for the first time, she admitted that the pictures were a hoax. She had perpetuated the hoax in part because she felt sorry for Doyle, who had committed himself to defending the pictures. In the end, the representations of the fairies in the pictures could not be located as they had been drawn by Elsie, inspired in part from a book belonging to Frances, Princess Mary’s Gift Book.

While the Cottingley fairy hoax is common knowledge today, thirty years after the exposure, the three books that backed the story remain in print and continue to be used in support of the existence of a fairy world within contemporary spiritualist and theosophical circles.


Crawley, Geoffrey. “The Astonishing Affair of the Coming of the Fairies.” British Journal of Photography 24 (December 1982-April 1983).
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Coming of the Fairies. 1921. Reprint, New York: Samuel Weiser, 1972.
Gardner, Edward l. Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel. London: Theosophical Society, 1945.
Hodson, Geoffrey. Fairies at Work and Play. London:

Theosophical Society, 1925.

Princess Mary’s Gift Book. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1914.
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References in periodicals archive ?
Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in the truthfulness of the faked Cottingley Fairies photos.
In the enchantment room visitors can learn more about traditional tales of fairies and their dark history in Celtic folklore, and see two small sepia photographs of The Cottingley Fairies, the famous images taken by two Victorian girls, Elsie Wright, 16, and her 10-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths, which convinced figures of the day that they showed real encounters with another world.
Tolkien had recently begun teaching at Leeds University when the Cottingley fairies story broke.
Below right, an advert for Marments from 1966 The famous - and staged - picture of the Cottingley fairies that managed to fool Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and generations of other examiners
The chapter on Barrie and Peter Pan and sections on Lartigue in particular, are the most cutely wistful--even the Cottingley fairies get a look-in
Annelies's work has been inspired by a diverse range of locations and subjects, including her own life in Melide, Switzerland, the earthquake-stricken city of Kobe in Japan, the gloom of the Nazis' Auschwitz concentration camp and the Cottingley Fairies from the village near Bingley.
Her photographs of fairies resemble the famous Cottingley Fairies pictures taken by two young girls more than 90 years ago - but make use of today's advanced technology.
THE Cottingley Fairies are figures that appear in a set of five photographs taken by cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in 1917 and 1920 near Bradford, Yorkshire.
Sir, - With reference to the article by Mel Hunter on the Cottingley fairies,(Post, Mar 6) I would like to redress the balance of the argument.
But the creator of Sherlock Holmes was not the only one mystified by the strange case of the Cottingley Fairies.
Script is based on a novel by Steve Szilagyi, which in turn was based on the true incident known as the Cottingley Fairies, in which two Yorkshire girls claimed they had played with and photographed fairies in their garden (The same event is treated in Charles Sturridge's "Fairy Tale: A True Story.
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