A writer has sprinkled magic dust on a famous photo hoax that claimed to prove the existence of fairies, writes Gwyn Griffiths.

Fiona Maher has revived interest in the bizarre tale of the Cottingley Fairies that even had Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, hoodwinked.

The photos appeared to show cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths playing with fairies at the side of a beck near their home.

At the time they emerged in 1919 they triggered a storm of interest among those fascinated by supernatural phenomena, although to the modern eye the fairies dancing by the girls in the photographs look far from convincing.

The cousins from Yorkshire held on to their secret until the 1980s when they admitted four of the photos taken by Elsie’s father’s quarter plate camera were faked using paper
cut-outs and hat pins, along with a knowledge of double exposure techniques.

That may seem obvious enough today, but to understand why the photos fooled so many people in the first place you have to consider the age. At the end of the second decade of the 20th century those left demoralised by the slaughter of the First World War had very good reason to believe in a spiritual world, perhaps one that was even populated by ‘little people’.

Theosophy, a new age religion of its time, was being adopted by some, and people like Conan Doyle were converts to spiritualism.

“People had outlived their children and were leaving organised religion in their droves. So when the Cottingley Fairies came to the attention of Conan Doyle, he was amazed by the photographs and largely fell for them,” explains Fiona.

“He believed that children can see more than adults, and that is partly true. But he may have also wanted to believe in them too as his father was in a mental hospital and apparently while there he would draw fairies.”

In her book, The Secret of the Cottingley Fairies: Hidden for 100 years the new evidence, Fiona debunks the myth it was the young cousins who were solely behind the fabrication which generated a stream of cash in the direction of their families.

Elsie’s mother, Polly, had ensured the photographs were seen by Edward Garner, a leading member of the Theosophical Society, but Fiona doubts it was a coincidence she had taken along photographs supposedly took two years earlier. Gardner then brought them to the attention of Conan Doyle.

“It is likely the Wright family were paid for the use of their photos, they were reproduced and sold as postcards and the monies increased when Conan Doyle became involved,” adds Fiona. “It was widely accepted it was an elaborate hoax – the girls were the only ones claiming the photos were real. For example, Kodak inspected them and said they were the work of a professional photographer. The motivation was money.”

Fiona researched the evidence again to determine who was tricking who and has published her findings in her book, which coincides with the 100th anniversary of the photographs.

Crucially, she points to the date of the original Cottingley photos and speculates whether they were actually taken in the summer of 1917. She is convinced the adults were in on the conspiracy too – Arthur Wright, Elsie’s father, was also a keen photographer.

“I found two photographs (both showing girls with paper cut-outs of fairies by them) that predate the Cottingley Fairies – one was in a book I bought in Hay on Wye, the second was in a picture library,” revealed Fiona, a creative writing student, who is organiser of the Llangollen Faery Festival where she is known as ‘Tink’.

Fiona’s discoveries convinced her there was a new angle on the Cottingley hoax and as well as her book she has penned a feature for the Fortean Times, an internationally-renowned magazine which catalogues strange phenomena.

Her published works also include a novel with a fairy theme, The Last Changeling, and she has also contributed to the Dare to Shine Anthology, which is raising funds for anti-hate crime charity The Sophie Lancaster Foundation.

“There are people who really believe in fairies. I am not setting out to disprove fairies, but I am setting out to disprove these photographs. I believe I am the only person who is saying the whole family were in on it,” she insists.

“I see it as a bigger conspiracy. For years it was the two little girls who had tricked the world – but I think it was the whole family.

“I’m interested in fairies, my father was Irish and he told me stories about the ‘little people’. I set up the Faery Festival in 2013 and it has been a real success. It is really for the kids, we make wings and wands, but we have live music and on Saturday night there is an adult ball.”

l The Legendary Llangollen Faery Festival takes place on August 12/13 at Llangollen Pavilion. For details visit northwalesfaeryfestival.com