March 2021

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was away with the fairies

Frances and the Fairies, July 1917. Credit: Special Collections, University of Leeds

It is one hundred years since renowned author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle confirmed the existence of fairies, based on a series of photographs taken by two young girls.

In an article published in March 1921, Sherlock Holmes’ creator draws comparisons between the photographs taken by cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths at Cottingley, near Bradford, with accounts of fairies, pixies and sprites from Ireland, Sussex, Hampshire and elsewhere. “To wave aside the evidence on the ground that it does not correspond with our own experience is an act of mental arrogance which no wise man will commit,” he writes.

By now, Doyle has been utterly taken in by the pictures, which were created as an innocent prank by Elsie and Frances, and which snowballed into the greatest hoax of the twentieth century. And many of the most important documents and artefacts relating to the Cottingley fairies are now held in Special Collections at the University of Leeds.

The Cottingley Fairies Collection is an extensive archive of private correspondence, negatives, prints and publications relating to the photographs, which casts light on the relationships that developed between Doyle and the other people involved. It illuminates in the most fascinating detail how his tentative interest developed into an unshakable confidence in the authenticity of the images.

The story begins in 1917 when nine-year-old Frances Griffiths travelled from South Africa to stay with her 16-year-old cousin Elsie in Cottingley. When the girls came in with wet clothes after playing in a nearby stream, they said they had gone there to see the fairies. Later they borrowed a camera from Elsie’s father Arthur – and took a photograph to prove it.

Arthur developed the image in his own darkroom; it showed four fairies dancing in a bush in front of Frances. A second photograph showed Elsie holding out her hand to a gnome.

Elsie and the Gnome, September 1917. Credit: Special Collections, University of Leeds

Despite the girls’ denials, Arthur remained convinced the pictures were fake, and they remained a puzzling family anecdote, until Elsie's mother Polly attended a talk on “fairy life” hosted by the English Theosophical Society in Bradford – and showed the images to the speaker. From here, they soon made their way to Society member Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose long-standing interest in spiritualism had hardened into an obsession – which led him to risk his reputation by first endorsing the fairy photographs as genuine in the 1920 Christmas issue of The Strand magazine. 

Letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Edward L. Gardner, June 1920. Credit: Special Collections, University of Leeds

Encouraged to take more pictures by Doyle, the girls produced three more images – Frances with a leaping fairy, a fairy offering a posy of flowers to Elsie, and a final image of fairies bathing in the sunshine. After analysing the plates, photographic experts, including technicians from Kodak, declared that the images had not been faked, though others, including from rival film company Ilford, disagreed.

Even so, Conan Doyle continued to believe in the pictures, and died in 1930 still convinced of their veracity. Frances and Elsie stuck to their story, and as recently as the 1970s the pictures were used as evidence of the possible existence of fairies, and drew a steady stream of fairy-hunters to Cottingley Beck.

It was only shortly before their deaths in the 1980s that the two cousins finally admitted the truth – that they had faked the photographs using hand-drawn pictures of fairies, copied from a book, and propped up in front of the camera with hatpins. In an interview in 1985 Elsie admitted that she and Frances were too embarrassed to tell the truth out of a sense of pity for Doyle: “Two village kids and a brilliant man like Arthur Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet.”

Even so, Frances maintained until her death that the last photograph of the fairies in their sunbath was genuine.

An exhibition, “The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception”, will be on display in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery later this year.

'The Strand Magazine’, December 1920. Credit: Special Collections, University of Leeds