A Yorkshire fairy story brought fame to Cottingley
Do you believe in fairies? If you'd been around in 1917, you may well have done. A lot of people did, particularly those in Cottingley, a village in West Yorkshire, between Shipley and Bingley. It is known for the Cottingley Fairies, which appeared in a series of convincing photographs taken there during that year.
In the summer of 1917, nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her mother came to stay with their relatives, the Wright family, in the village.
At the bottom of the Wright’s garden was the small wooded valley through which Cottingley Beck flowed, and sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright and Frances soon got into trouble for returning home wet and untidy after playing together in and around the beck.
When told off, they said they went there “to see the fairies”.
Their families probably scoffed at the excuse, and so Elsie borrowed her father’s camera and went in search of proof. The girls were back within the hour, and when the photographic plate was developed it showed Frances, gazing off just to the right of the photographer, in front of her several winged fairy figures dressed in diaphanous clothing are dancing.
The photographs and others taken by the girls over the next few months were shown to the local Theosophical Society, attracting the interest of influential members. The girls’ bit of fun turned into an international sensation, with figures as prestigious as Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle taking them seriously, and staking his reputation on their authenticity in The Strand magazine in 1920. Conan Doyle had converted to spiritualism in 1917, which was on the rise at the time, following enormous loss of life in the Great War.
Debate raged over the photos for decades, with Elsie and Frances only revealing how they faked the photographs in 1983, when the girls admitted what Elsie’s father had always suspected. That the “fairies” were cut out from magazines, and hung from bushes with hat pins.
The village retains a festival to celebrate the story (Cottingley Fairy Fest), and in 1997, parts of a film inspired by the story, FairyTale: A True Story, were filmed in the village.
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