COTTINGLEY - A BIT OF A FAIRY STORY
There are only two places in Britain named Cottingley and, for some bizarre reason, they’re just fifteen miles apart from each other in Yorkshire. If you’re planning a visit, make sure you get the right location.
One Cottingley is a large council estate on the edge of Leeds, the other is a little suburb off the A650 next to Bingley, a few miles northwest of Bradford. The original old village is on the southern side of this, a lovely cluster of sandstone terraces and buildings around a wooded glen with a rocky stream of cascading water. Just over a century ago, this woodland beck provided the place with worldwide recognition.
Just as it’s difficult to think of Loch Ness without thinking of the word ‘monster’, or Boris Johnson without thinking of the word ‘twat’, most folk can’t think of Cottingley without adding a certain word to the name. I hadn’t visited the place for a few years, so I called there recently to take some photos - and photographs are the main reason for Cottingley’s fame.
In 1917 two very famous black-and-white pictures were taken beside the stream, followed by a further three in 1920. These were published, firstly in the Strand magazine, and then in newspapers and periodicals around the world. They were, of course, the wonderful pictures of the Cottingley Fairies, supernatural sprites that lived in the woodland around the tumbling water.
The later three taken in 1920.
These fairies were quite friendly and on first name terms with their photographers, Elsie Wright, a 16 year-old girl, and her 9 year-old cousin Frances Griffiths, who was staying with the family in their end-terrace house on Main Street. Cottingley Beck ran along the bottom of the garden and the two children borrowed Mr Wright’s camera to go photograph the fairies that they saw there all the time. A rare shot of Elsie and Frances taken by the water WITHOUT any fairies.
The Wright family home on Main Street, the rear of the house, and the attic bedroom shared by the two girls.
The pictures were fakes, unfortunately, a sweet little joke conceived by the children using small cut-out pictures and hat pins, but they convinced many photographic specialists and other intelligent ‘experts’, including the spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who became certain that here was conclusive proof of the ‘other world’ that he’d always dearly wanted to believe in.
Although it was a hoax, it was a light-hearted one, and Elsie and Frances had never intended it to go any further than making their family smile. Sherlock Holmes author Conan Doyle was the problem. The moment this great man claimed the pictures were genuine and published his book, the Coming of the Fairies, the girls couldn’t back down.
Embarrassed and guilty, they couldn’t possibly admit to their prank and make such an important and revered writer look foolish. Consequently they decided to stick with their ‘fairy story’ for decades.
In the 1970s Professor Joe Cooper became involved. Joe was a Yorkshire writer, astrologer, psychic investigator and sociology lecturer at Leeds University. He befriended Frances and Elsie, who were now elderly ladies, and became obsessed with their story. He wrote his own books on the fairies and eventually, in 1983, famously got the two women to admit their prank to him. The shock of discovering it was all a hoax pretty much ruined his health and marriage. It led to some weird headlines such as: ‘the Curse of the Cottingley Fairies’ and ‘the Cottingley Fairies Killed my Father’.
I met Joe a few times in the 1980s and he always seemed a really nice character. We were once in a house where he went around a large room of strangers ‘guessing’ everyone’s star sign and pinpointing their date of birth, either exactly or to within a day. He claimed this was no trick, but simple astrology. Now I’m sure Derren Brown could probably do something very similar, but this is still the one and only bizarre thing I’ve ever seen that I couldn’t explain (and I’ve seen quite a lot).
Coincidentally, the house is now owned by the fantasy artist and graphic novelist Luke Horsman. Although he’s painted a few fairies in his time, he was completely unaware of the house’s history when he bought it a couple of years back.
The photographs have now been immortalised as an excellent series of large metal sculptures which you can find in the small park on Manor Way by the village community centre.
The best way to see Cottingley Beck and the site of the photographs is from the bridge on Lysander Way and the surrounding woodland. There are some great street names in the new housing development next to this, although it helps if you’ve read A Midsummer Night’s Dream.