In 1917 Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, two young cousins from the village of Cottingley near Bradford in West Yorkshire, England, took photos of fairies. At the time Elsie was 16 years old and Frances was 10. The girls often played together beside the stream at the bottom of the garden. When Elsie’s mother complained about their wet feet and clothes, Frances and Elsie said they only went to see the fairies. To prove it, Elsie borrowed her father’s camera and returned 30 minutes later.
Elsie’s father, Arthur, was a keen amateur photographer, and had his own darkroom. The picture he developed showed Frances behind a bush on which four fairies appeared to be dancing. The girls borrowed his camera again and this time returned with a photograph of Elsie sitting on the lawn holding out her hand to a 1-foot-tall gnome.
The photographs became public in mid-1919, after Elsie’s mother attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford. The lecture was on “Fairy Life” and at the end of the meeting she showed the fairy photographs to the speaker. As a result, the photographs were displayed at the Society’s annual conference in Harrogate, where they came to the attention of Edward Gardner, a leading member of the society.
Gardner sent the prints and the original glass-plate negatives to a photography expert, who said they were genuine. Gardner used the prints in the illustrated lectures he gave around the UK.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a keen spiritualist. He used the photographs to illustrate an article on fairies in the Christmas 1920 edition of The Strand Magazine. Conan Doyle interpreted the photographs as clear and visible evidence of psychic phenomena.
Gardner and Conan Doyle sought a second expert opinion from the photographic company Kodak. Several of the company’s technicians examined the prints and agreed the pictures showed no signs of being faked.
In July 1920 Conan Doyle sent Gardner to meet the Wright family with two Cameo cameras and 24 secretly marked photographic plates. Frances was invited to stay with the Wright family during the school summer holiday so she and Elsie could take more pictures of the fairies. The girls took several photographs, two of which appeared to show fairies.
The first shows Frances in profile and with a leaping winged fairy close by her nose.
The second shows a fairy hovering or tiptoeing on a branch offering Elsie a posie of harebells.
Two days later the girls took the last picture, showing fairies waking in the sun.
Read Part 2: Cottingley Fairies – Exposed