Friday, 15 February 2013

The Cottingley Fairies

 The Cottingley Fairies

The story of the Cottingley Fairies is one of the best known controversies concerning the argument of whether fairies actually exist. It all began in July of 1917, with Frances Griffiths getting into trouble with her mother for coming home with wet shoes and stockings. In frustration, Frances' mother said that she didn't understand what attracted the two girls to the beck as there was nothing there to see. In her book, Reflections on the Cottingley Fairies, Frances says, 'I did what I had never done before. I answered her back, yelling, 'There is! I go up to see the fairies!' Frances' mother, obviously, did not believe her daughter and sent her to the attic bedroom which she shared with her older cousin Elsie Wright. She also made sure to ask Elsie if she had seen these fairies, to which Elsie said she had.

After being teased mercilessly, Elsie concocted a plan to fool the adults. 'Elsie got tired of the joking and one night suggested to me that she would copy the dancing figures of fairies from one of my most precious possessions, my Princess Mary's Gift book... 'That will shake them!' she said. 'They'll have to stop making fun of us then.'' The next time that the two girls were teased by their parents, Elsie challenged her father, telling him that if he lent them his camera, a Midg quarter plate, the two girls would try to take a photograph of one of the fairies. While Arthur, Elsie's father, wasn't happy about it, after being pestered by his wife and daughter, he eventually gave in. After loading the camera with a glass plate and setting the camera's shutter speed of 1/50s, the girls took the camera down to the beck to photograph a fairy.
 
'Elsie had already prepared her fairy figures when no one was about,' says Frances in her book. The figures were painted onto a stiff paper and poked into the ground using flat-headed hatpins which was stuck onto the backs of the figures. 'On the lower bank she had found a small toadstool growing and a poor-looking little harebell, and she had arranged her fairies artistically on this bank... She then told me to stand behind the bank and she would take the photograph.' And so the first photograph was taken.

 The First Photograph – Frances and the Dancing Fairies (Original)
 
Once the photograph was taken, Frances and Elsie proceeded to destroy the evidence. 'Before leaving the beck we'd torn the cut-outs into tiny pieces and just stuck the hatpins into the earth...just getting rid of what, I supposed, would be called 'The Evidence!'' The girls then went home and Elsie's father took the plate out of the camera to expose it, with Elsie going with him. It was not long before Elsie could be heard shouting, 'Frances, they're coming up!'

To make sure that the adults did believe that the fairies existed, Elsie convinced Frances to help her take another photograph. '...she thought it would consolidate our position...if we took another photograph. She would like to paint a gnome and I was to have the job of taking the photo.' 
 
The girls, again, destroyed the evidence, with Frances later commenting, '...I had no feeling of guilt at all... to me, it was of no consequence.' Elsie's father then developed the second plate, and was somewhat irritated by the appearance of another strange figure as the plate developed. He believed that the girls were trying to play some kind of trick on him but, when he questioned them, they adamantly denied any kind of trickery, insisting that these were the fairies with which they had been playing. The girls' parents had apparently been searching for proof that the girls were trying to fool them but could find no evidence that might have suggested trickery.

While Polly, Elsie's mother, was sceptical about the photographs, she took an interest in the Theosophical Society, attending some of their meetings in 1919. Here the two photographs attracted great interest and later came to the attention of Mr Edward L. Gardner.

'It was early in this year, 1920, that I heard from a friend of photographs of fairies having been successfully taken in the North of England,' commented Gardner, in the first published account of the Cottingley Fairies, printed in the Christmas edition of The Strand, published in November 1920. Gardner requested prints of the photographs and, upon viewing them, requested the plates which he received a few days later. Upon seeing the negatives, Gardner was filled with hope that these photographs could be genuine.
The Second Photograph – Elsie and the Gnome (Original)
Consequently, Gardner had them examined by Mr Snelling, an expert photographer with, at the time, 30 years practical experience. He passed the photographs to Snelling with no explanation, only asking what he thought of them. Gardner writes, 'After examining the 'fairies' negative carefully, exclamations began: This is the most extraordinary thing I've ever seen! Single exposure! Figures have moved! Why, it's a genuine photograph!' As a leading expert in faked photographs, Snelling's opinion was believed to be unquestionable, so when he gave his approval of the photographs genuineness,Gardner was convinced. In the article printed in The Strand, Arthur Conan Doyle comments, '...let me add the exact words which Mr Snelling allows us to use... He laughs at the idea that any expert in England could deceive him with a faked photograph. 'These two negatives, he says, 'are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs of single exposure open-air work, show movement in the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures, ect. In my opinion, they are both straight untouched pictures.''
 
Prints that were touched up and sharpened were taken from the negatives, apparently to avoid damaging the originals. In the summer of 1920, Gardner decided to visit the family and was greatly relieved to find that they seemed trustworthy and honest.

It was not long after this that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle received a letter from a Miss Scatcherd, Gardner.'s sister.
I wish you could see a photo he has... He [Gardner] has got in touch with the family in Bradford where the little girl... Elsie, and her cousin, Frances, constantly go into the woods and play with the fairies. The father and mother are sceptical and have no sympathy with their nonsense... Some little time ago, Elsie said she wanted to photograph them, and begged her father to lend his camera. For long he refused, but at last she managed to get the loan of it and one plate. Off she and Frances went... Frances 'ticed them, as they call it... Soon three fairies appeared, and one pixie dancing in Frances' aura. Elsie snapped and hoped for the best. It was a long time before the father would develop the photo, but at last he did, and to his utter amazement the four sweet little figures came out beautifully.
Edward got the negative and took it to a specialist in photography who would know a fake at once... He pronounced it absolutely genuine and a perfectly remarkable photograph.
I wish you could see that photo and another one of the girls playing with the quaintest goblin imaginable.
Conan Doyle wrote to Gardner soon after receiving the above letter to express his interest in Gardner's findings.

In the summer of 1920 Gardner revisited Cottingley and left two Cameo quarter-plate folding cameras, a tripod and 24 marked plates, asking Elsie to photograph the fairies again. Frances, at the time 13 years old, received a letter telling her about Gardner's visit and inviting her to Cottingley to photograph the fairies during her summer holidays, with Frances begrudgingly accepting. In her book, Frances writes, 'Then the letter came from Gardner saying he was sending us a good camera 
  Photograph 3: Frances and the leaping fairy (Original)
 
and plenty of plates so we could take photographs. He'd arranged with Aunt Polly that I should
spend a fortnight... with her and wanted Elsie and me to go up the beck and take more photographs of fairies and gnomes. This was not funny. I couldn't write to Elsie to ask what she intended to do and we weren't on the phone, so I just accepted the camera with thanks.' At this point Frances was feeling uncomfortable about the whole idea and no longer wanted to pretend. 'It wasn't a joke anymore. People were taking it too seriously and it had all got out of hand.'

Regardless, the two girls went to the beck, Elsie already having prepared her fairies cut-outs. 'She'd
made up her mind to have... the one of the fairy holding out a harebell... the hatpin was stuck at a right angle to the figure and the point neatly pushed into the branch of the tree.' This particular image was much criticised for the contemporary hairstyle of the fairy. It was this photograph that prompted Conan Doyle to point out the fairy's 'navel', actually the appearance of the hatpin to which the fairy was pinned. 
Photograph 4: Fairy offering a posy to Elsie (Original)
 
At this stage, Frances believed that they had nothing more to worry about, but her aunt Polly had other ideas. 'I do remember how my heart sank when Aunt Polly said very firmly... that we MUST take some more photographs seeing how much money had been spent on the cameras and plates Mr Gardner had sent us... the second week went by with Aunt Polly complaining that we were ungrateful.'

So the girls went out once more to the beck with no further cut-outs, calling it 'a hopeless task.' Impulsively, Frances pointed her camera at a bird's nest and took a photograph, with Elsie telling her that she had wasted a plate. It was this photograph that later sparked an argument between Elsie and Frances as to who had taken the photograph but, at the time, they all believed it to be a wasted plate.

'Uncle duly developed it and we weren't surprised it was a dud. It looked very queer. A face in a bird's nest and some faces in the background, one with what looked like dark bobbed hair and other unfocused faces in odd places. This was discovered long after I left Cottingley and we all thought it a waste of a plate.'
In September 1920, Conan Doyle received a letter from Gardner on the results:
I have received from Elsie three more negatives taken a few days back. I need not describe them, for enclosed are the three prints... the most amazing that any modern eye has ever seen surely!... I went over to Harrow at once, and Snelling without hesitation pronounced the three as bearing the
 The Fairy Bower (Original)

same proofs of genuineness as the first two, declaring further that at any rate the 'bower' one was utterly beyond any possibility of faking.

In November 1920, Conan Doyle wrote an article on the Cottingley Fairies which was published in the Christmas edition of The Strand. Opinions on Conan Doyle's article varied greatly, with considerable interest from Yorkshire reporters who made 'elaborate inquiries and... that photographers for a considerable radius from the house were cross-questioned to find if they were accomplices.' The magazine, Truth, published an article expressing their opinion that it was nothing more than a deception, ending it with a prayer to Elsie that she should own up as to how it had been done. The best attack, in Conan Doyle's opinion, came from the Westminster Gazette, published on January 12, 1921, which expressed the opinion that the whole episode was indeed faked, although no proof was found to prove this opinion.

Conan Doyle later wrote, '...Elsie could only have done it by cut-out images, which must have been of exquisite beauty, of many different models, fashioned and kept without the knowledge of her parents and capable of giving the impression of motion when carefully examined by an expert. Surely this is a large order.' He did not, for a second, realise how right he was.

In August 1921, Frances and Elsie were brought together again in one final attempt to photograph the fairies, only this time Mr Hodson, a so-called psychic and friend of Gardner's, went with them. He apparently witnessed the many fairies for himself, much to the girl's amusement. 'In the end our normal selves came to the surface and one of us, I think it was Elsie, said she saw... a fairy which she described as looking just like Cinderella's fairy godmother... Yes, yes, Hodson said eagerly, and added that it was materialising. So we played up to him and we 'saw' things we would never have imagined under other circumstances.' Conan Doyle later writes, 'I have before me the reports, which are in the form of notes made as he actually watched the phenomena... Seated with the girls, he saw all that they saw, and more, for his power proved considerably greater... The whole glen, according to his account, was swarming with many forms of elemental life, and he saw not only wood-elves, gnomes, and goblins, but the rarer urdines, floating over the stream.'

In 1982, the dispute between Frances and Elsie about who took the final photograph arose, probably due to the comments made by Illingworth, the photographic manufacturer that supplied the marked glass plates used to take the photographs. Gardener, in a letter to H. Watt (Messrs A. P. Watt and Son), wrote, 'You may be interested to learn that apart from Mr Snelling who has been positive as to the genuineness all through, I interviewed Illingworth's late yesterday, and they conceded that the Bower negative was utterly unfakeable. It was quite amusing to see their Manager give way for he consistently held the non-committal position concerning the others.' Frances claimed that she was the one that took the photograph. Elsie, however, gave two differing versions of her taking the photograph, first saying she had done so with a tripod in Frances' presence and then saying that it was taken whilst Frances was absent. 

Professor Joe Cooper, author of The Case of the Cottingley Fairies, apparently wrote to Frances in 1984 telling her that Elsie, at this point, now had four differing versions of events. However, a letter written by Polly to Gardner in 1920, gives confirmation that it was indeed Frances who took the fifth and final photograph. 'And the third one [the Bower photograph] Elsie can't quite make out the circular shape in the middle, the one at the left hand corner Elsie thinks has some slight draping on, as Frances was quite near only did not focus her camera.' That this final photograph has no sign of forgery adds a little mystery to the events that took place.

In 1983, it all came to a head, with Frances writing a confession article for The Times. 'I'm fed up with these stories... I hated those photographs and cringe everytime I seem them. I thought it was a joke, but everyone kept it going. It should have died a natural death 60 years ago.'

Despite this final confession, Frances maintains that she did see fairies during her stays at Cottingley. In her book, Frances writes of her sightings of the fairies, calling them her 'little men' and that 'This was my secret – mine alone – and I didn't want to share it.' By the time Mr Hodson came to them, Frances was fed up and felt that she was too old to sit and wait for nothing. '...for I'd made up my mind that if I saw my little men or the others [the 'conventional' fairies], I wouldn't tell them. Let them see for themselves! I thought. I didn't like this charade and would much have preferred spending my holiday in Scarborough.' In 1986, Frances passed away, still believing in fairies and, whilst admitting that the first four were, indeed, fake, she always maintained that the final photograph was genuine and that the fairies did exist.

Next time: I'll tell you about Tir na nOg and the Tuatha De Danann.