THE COTTINGLEY FAIRIES
by Frances Brody
Dying in the Wool, my 1920s Kate Shackleton mystery novel, is set in the fictional mill village of Bridgestead, Yorkshire, based on the real life village of Cottingley. Researching my location, I took a train to Bingley, and walked to Cottingley. There, in 1917, cousins Elsie Wright, age 16, and Frances Griffiths, age 10, photographed fairies.
I crossed the old stone bridge and walked by the beck (stream) where the girls once played. Frances Griffiths arrived with her mother from South Africa in 1917. After the heat of Africa, Cottingley in spring enchanted Frances. The water murmured its song. She watched butterflies, dragonflies, and saw fairies. Such sightings were not new. Author William Riley knew the Yorkshire dales well. He talked to several people who had spotted pixies in Upper Airedale and Wharfedale.
The girls were scolded for coming home with wet feet, late for tea. In true the-dog-ate-my-homework style, Frances explained that they had stayed so long by the beck because they were watching fairies. They could prove it, too.
Elsie borrowed her father’s Midg quarter-plate camera. Arthur, a keen amateur photographer with his own dark room, dismissed the fairy photographs as a prank.
In 1919, Elsie’s mother Polly, believing the photographs to be genuine, attended the Bradford Theosophical Society lecture, “Fairy Life”. She showed the photographs to the speaker. The Theosophical Society then displayed the photographs at their Annual Conference in Harrogate. Human evolution towards perfectibility was a central tenet of the Society. According to the editor of Spiritualist Magazine, the photographs showed an example of life forms which had ‘developed along some separate line of evolution.’ Among a war-weary and bereaved public, many wanted to believe that here was a corner of fairyland.
It was too late for Elsie and Frances to admit that Elsie had traced images of fairies from a book and created cut-outs. Their ‘bit of fun’ had fooled too many clever people. They were embarrassed. In the 1980s, the cousins came clean. Elsie said, ‘Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet.’
From the first, there were sceptics. Poet and essayist Maurice Hewlett wrote in John o’London’s Weekly, ‘It is easier to believe in faked photographs than in fairies.’
Frances continued to maintain that the last photograph was genuine. Frances’s daughter shares this view, as does Joe Cooper, author of “The Case of the Cottingley Fairies.”
Did I catch a glimpse of gossamer wing on my visit to Cottingley? Sadly, no. But there is a certain way of looking, from the corner of the eye, while lying very still in long grass, and feeling the earth’s energy. Maybe next time.
For more about Frances Brody and the Kate Shackleton books, visit www.frances-brody.com
Photographs of Cottingley Town Hall, Beckfoot Bridge and the waterfall courtesy of Margaret Krupa
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