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Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies

cover of the strand magazine with illustration of a snow covered Strand with cars, buses people and Christmas decorations

‘The Strand Magazine’, December 1920. Image credit: Special Collections, University of Leeds

How could the creator of Sherlock Holmes believe in cardboard fairies made by children? The University of Leeds Collection has some of the answers

One hundred years ago this December Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the literary genius behind the detective mastermind Sherlock Holmes, published the world-famous Cottingley Fairies photographs in The Strand Magazine.

“Fairies Photographed – an Epoch-Making event described by A. Conan Doyle” trumpeted the Christmas edition of the popular monthly magazine, which in December 1920 carried what might be termed further fictional delights, from stalwart contributors PG Wodehouse, W.W Jacobs and others.

But the story of the Cottingley Fairies eclipsed everything else inside the Christmas edition and ensured the magazine quickly sold out – as public and journalists alike either chose to believe or doubt the photographs.

The debate about the fairies rumbled on throughout the next year but story actually began three years earlier in 1917 when Elsie Wright took a photograph of her cousin Frances Griffiths with a group of dancing fairies next to Cottingley Beck in West Yorkshire.

a handwritten letter written letter across two sheets

Letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Edward L. Gardner, June 1920. Image credit: Special Collections, University of Leeds

After getting in trouble with her mother for having wet shoes Frances was asked why she was playing by the beck. Frances replied, “I go to see the fairies.” Elsie came to her cousin’s aid with a group of cardboard fairies and a borrowed a camera from her father to get the proof.

The girls’ hoax lasted for three years as their various encounters with the fairy kingdom were captured on the family box camera.

These fantastical photos remained a puzzling family anecdote, until 1920 when they found their way to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle via Edward L. Gardner of the English Theosophical Society. By this point Conan Doyle’s long-standing interest in spiritualism had hardened into a blinkered obsession, which led him to risk his reputation by endorsing the fairy photographs as genuine in his December 1920 Strand article.

Conan Doyle published the first two fairy photographs in the Christmas issue but referred to Frances and Elsie as “Alice” and “Iris” in the hope of sparing them unwelcome publicity.

The University of Leeds Special Collections holds nearly all of the most important documents and artefacts relating to this curiously enduring episode, including the photographs, manuscripts, typescripts, printed material and a tape recording.

old photo of a young girl in a white frock and floppy hat with a cardboard cut out of a winged gnome

Elsie and the Gnome, September 1917. Image credit: Special Collections, University of Leeds

Among the fascinating haul is the letter Conan Doyle penned to Gardner in June 1920, opening with the lines, “I am very greatly interested in the fairy photographs, which really should be epoch making if we can entirely clear up the circumstances.”

He goes on to enquire if he may reproduce the photos in the Strand Magazine for an article he was already writing on fairies and for which he had “already accumulated quite a mass of evidence.”

Dr Merrick Burrow, Head of English & Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield, who is the guest curator of a forthcoming exhibition on the Fairies at the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery says “The Cottingley fairies archive is a unique and extensive collection of private correspondence, negatives, prints and publications relating to the photographs, which casts light on the relationships that developed between Conan Doyle and the other people involved.

“It illuminates in the most fascinating detail how his tentative interest developed into an unshakable, but mistaken, confidence in the authenticity of the images.”

Frances and Elsie continued to deny that they had faked the photographs out of a sense of pity for Doyle.

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 and in an interview in 1985 admitted that she and Frances were too embarrassed to tell the truth after fooling Conan Doyle: “Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet.”

photo of a young girl with flowers in her hair and a series of dancing fairies in front of her

Frances and the Fairies, July 1917. Image credit: Special Collections, University of Leeds

Dr Burrow will be giving a free online talk about the Cottingley Fairies collection on December 10 2020.

The exhibition, ‘The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception‘, will be on display in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery in 2021. 


Treasures of the Brotherton

Leeds, West Yorkshire

The Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery is a public exhibition space housed by the University of Leeds, rooted in Yorkshire and open to the world. The Gallery is the public face of the exceptional Special Collections held at the University of Leeds.

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