Dr Merrick Burrow, Head of English & Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield is our guest curator for the next exhibition at the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery. Here he tells us about one of the greatest hoaxes of the twentieth century. 

In July 1917, sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright took a photograph of Frances Griffiths, aged nine, with a group of dancing fairies next to Cottingley Beck in West Yorkshire. Two months later Frances took another image, of Elsie with a gnome. 

It had all started with a tall tale. Frances got into trouble for coming home with wet shoes. When asked why she was playing by the beck Frances replied, “I go to see the fairies.” Her mother and aunt reacted with disbelief. But Frances’s cousin Elsie came to her aid. She said she too had seen fairies. A few days later Elsie said they would prove their story if her father lent them his camera. Half an hour later the girls returned with an exposed photographic plate. When Arthur Wright developed the negative, he was stunned to see the image of his niece surrounded by small, winged figures.  

BC MS Cottingley Fairies/6/10 Fairy offering a posy of harebells to Elsie. Image credit Leeds University Library

The adults were far from convinced so the girls asked to borrow the camera again. They returned with the photograph of Elsie with a gnome. Their parents demanded an explanation, to which Frances and Elsie replied that they really did see fairies.   

For three years the photographs remained a puzzling family anecdote. Then one evening in early 1920 Frances and Elsie’s mothers attended a lecture about fairies at the Theosophical Institute in Bradford. They mentioned the photographs from three years earlier, which aroused considerable interest. By June, Edward L. Gardner, General Secretary of the English Theosophical Society, was showing copies of the negatives in his public lectures in London.  Soon afterwards, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle asked to see them for an article he was writing.   

The two fairy photographs were on the brink of becoming one of the greatest hoaxes of the twentieth century. Under pressure from the adults around them Frances and Elsie took a further three images of fairies. 

How was it that Doyle, creator of the most celebrated fictional detective in the world, was taken in? Faking the photographs was simple. Elsie used her artistic skills to draw fairy figures and cut them out. She attached the figures to hatpins, posed them in various locations in Cottingley Glen, and then the girls took the pictures.   

Frances and Elsie continued to deny that they had faked the photographs out of a sense of pity for Doyle and Gardner. For the next sixty years, the Cottingley fairies retained the interest of the public and the media. Elsie finally wrote a letter of confession in 1983. In an interview in 1985 Elsie admitted that she and Frances were too embarrassed to tell the truth after fooling Doyle: “Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet.” 

In the same interview Frances said of the fake photographs, “I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in – they wanted to be taken in.” But she continued to assert until her death that she really had seen fairies by the beck in Cottingley Glen.  

Dr Merrick Burrow with fairy cutouts, still from a video. Image credit Science Museum Group.

Special Collections at the Brotherton Library holds nearly all of the most important documents and artefacts relating to the  Cottingley fairies. This is the first time an exhibition has been curated using this material, and we are delighted to be allowed to borrow, from the Science Museum Group, one of the cameras gifted to Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1920 after he took interest in their original photographs from 1917. The camera is held in the collections at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, alongside other Cottingley Fairies objects including two further cameras used by Elsie and Frances; correspondence between them; original prints; and watercolour sketches by Elsie.

Now, you can discover the secrets behind the greatest hoax of the twentieth century in this special online exhibition and curator’s talk.

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