IN a new regular series in the T&A - 'Object of the Week' - we're highlighting artefacts with a story that can be found in the collections of museums across the district.

Here we look at the world famous story of the Cottingley Fairies hoax - and the cameras used to take the eerie photographs 103 years ago this month.  

It was an overcast August afternoon in 1917 when Frances Griffiths and her cousin Elsie Wright wandered down to Cottingley Beck with a small quarter plate camera, a magazine and a box of hatpins.

What happened next was intended as a bit of mischief. Frances, 15, and Elsie, nine, took photographs of what appeared to be fairies dancing near the beck, to fool the grown-ups. The fairies were cut-outs from Elsie’s copy of Princess Mary’s Gift Book, secured to the ground and to tree branches with hatpins. Little did the cousins know that their photographs would become a world-famous hoax - fooling scientists and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Elsie Wright in a fairy photograph. Picture: Dominic Winter Auctioneers

Here in Bradford, the National Science and Media Museum has a number of artefacts relating to this remarkable story in its collections, including original prints of the fairy photographs taken by Frances and Elsie, correspondence written by them and watercolour sketches of fairies by Elsie.

Last year the museum acquired a third camera used by the girls - the folding quarter-plate Cameo camera, manufactured by W Butcher & Sons, which was one of two gifted to the cousins by Conan Doyle in 1920. The museum also has the other Cameo he gave the girls and the original Midg camera belonging to Elsie’s father, used to take the first two fairy photographs in 1917.

More than a century after the Cottingley Fairies photographs were taken, visitors will be able to see the artefacts when the National Science and Media Museum re-opens on Wednesday, August 19, with Covid-19 safety measures in place.

The photographs of the ‘Beck Fairies’, as Elsie and Frances called them, became one of the most famous examples of image manipulation in photography. The fairies were drawings by Elsie, copied from her magazine. But by the 1920s, Conan Doyle, creator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, had publicly declared that he believed in the fairies and the ‘truth’ of the images.

The first of the fairy photographs, titled ‘Alice and the Fairies’, was taken by Elsie and shows Frances gazing at a group of dancing fairies, with a waterfall tumbling into the beck. The girls’ second photograph was of a gnome greeting Elsie.

After the images appeared in public ‘experts’ demanded further proof. Edward Gardner, a leading Theosophist, gave the cousins a new camera, with secretly marked photographic plates to detect any tampering, and asked them to take more fairy photographs. The result was ‘Fairy Offering Flowers to Iris’ - a fairy on a branch offering flowers to Elsie. The fairy’s hairstyle attracted much comment at the time, with sceptics arguing that the fairy kingdom was unlikely to be in step with the latest fashions.

The Quarter-plate Cameo camera manufactured by W Butcher & Sons, London, used to take this second set of fairy photographs between 1918 and 1920 is on display in the Museum’s Kodak Gallery, along with the quarter-plate ‘Midg’ camera (also W Butcher & Sons) which Elsie and Frances used for their first two photographs in 1917.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Quarter-plate `Cameo’ camera used for a second set of fairy photographs. Picture: Science Museum Group Collection

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Quarter-plate `Midg’ camera used for the 1917 images. Pic:Science Museum Group Collection

It was in 1919 that the fairy photographs began to draw public attention, after Elsie’s mother presented the first two at a Bradford Theosophical Society lecture. They were later exhibited at the Society’s conference in Halifax, and confirmed as genuine by photography experts, sparking the interest of author and spiritualist Conan Doyle, who discussed them in an article on fairies for The Strand.

Frances and Elsie famously kept the secrets of the fairies for over 60 years. It was in the early 1980s, by which time they were elderly woman and had long since fallen out, that photographic journalist Geoffrey Crawley wrote a series of articles in the British Journal of Photography about ‘That Astonishing Affair of the Cottingley Fairies.’ It prompted Elsie Hill, nee Wright, to write to Crawley, expressing her desire to reveal the truth, in her words. The Museum’s collection includes the first page of Elsie’s letter, dated February 17, 1983. Also in the collection is Elsie’s colourful drawing of a fairy, created in 1983, during her discussions with Crawley.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Elsie drew this fairy in 1983, when she revealed the photos were fake.Science Museum Group Collection

While Elsie insisted the images were all fakes, Frances claimed the final photograph, of a ‘nest’ of fairies she took at Cottingley Beck, was genuine.

The Cottingley Fairies story has long been of fascination and inspired the film FairyTale: A True Story, which premiered in Bradford in 1998. National Science and Media Museum Head Curator, Geoff Belknap said: “The Cottingley Fairies are one of the most enduring stories in photographic history, to this day shrouded in speculation and mystery. The Cottingley Fairy objects remain some of the most enquired about in our collection, it seems these images continue to capture the public imagination as they did over 100 years ago. We’re pleased to preserve this remarkable story for generations to come.”

* To pre-book tickets for the National Science and Media Museum visit

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Head Curator Geoff Belknap holds the camera given to the girls by Conan Doyle