Do fairies really exist?

Do fairies really exist?

As stories and tales from around the world tell us, they certainly do – at least in the minds and the imagination of human beings!

What is common to the mythical creatures called ‘fairies’ and the hard-nosed detective, Sherlock Holmes? The well-known author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While his mind breathed unforgettable life into his fictional character, Holmes, it also convinced him that fairies were real.

In 1917, two cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, arrived in England from South Africa. They settled in a house in Cottingley situated in Bradford, Yorkshire. The two girls loved playing near a beck (stream), often getting wet. This annoyed Polly, Elsie’s mother. The girls claimed that they were only playing with fairies.

To convince her, they borrowed Elsie’s father’s camera to take photographs. Mr Wright was a keen photographer and had a dark room. Within an hour, the girls returned excitedly with some pictures.  When developed, they showed Frances behind a bush on which four fairies were dancing. Mr Wright was aware of Elsie’s artistic abilities and was inclined to dismiss them as card-board cut outs. Two months later, the girls produced another photograph with a gnome in it. Mr Wright, now thoroughly put out, refused to lend them his camera anymore.

Mrs Wright however felt the pictures were authentic. She was a member of the Theosophical Society, a group of spiritualists who maintained that humanity was undergoing a cycle of evolution. During a meeting where the discussion was about fairies, Mrs Wright exhibited the photographs.

They generated instant interest, with many holding the opinion that this was clear evidence of psychic phenomena. One of the members, Edward Gardiner, was sent to Cottingley to meet the girls and examine the photographs. Gardiner gave them both cameras and asked them to take more photographs.

The girls did not want to be accompanied, as ‘the fairies would refuse to show themselves’. They produced several photographs of small, female figures with transparent wings. They were sent to Eastman Kodak Company for verification. The Company concluded that there were no signs of faking, but that this could not be taken as conclusive evidence either.

This happened in 1920. Public reaction was as intense as it was mixed, but Arthur Conan Doyle, who had been commissioned by the well-known magazine, Strand, to write a Christmas story, decided to include the pictures in his article. Called the ‘Coming of Fairies’, it was published with the girls’ names changed to ‘Alice’ and ‘Iris’. There was a deluge of letters from people who claimed that they had seen fairies too, but many felt that the pictures were faked. Doyle, a Theosophist himself, believed implicitly that they were real figures and  the girls, gifted mediums.

There were no more photographs and the furore died down after 1921. Elsie later admitted that the pictures were ‘perhaps figments of my imagination’, but believed that she had photographed her thoughts. In 1980, the two admitted in an article, ‘The Unexplained’, that the photographs had been faked with cut-out cardboard figures. Frances however continued to claim that the fifth and final photograph was genuine. Both the photographs and the two cameras that were used are on display in the National Media Museum in Bradford.