Cottingley Fairies
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In The Beginning...

It was July 1917 and Frances knew she was in trouble for coming home wet after slipping on rocks and falling into the water. She scrambled up the side of the bank with her cousing Elsie, crept into the house and sure enough as soon as her mother, Annie, saw her she was scolded. In an attempt to explain why her dress was soaked, Frances said that she had fallen into the stream after playing with the fairies at the beck. On hearing this wild excuse her mother sent her up to the attic bedroom she shared with Elsie.

Frances was upset by this and in an attempt to cheer up her cousin, Elsie suggested they take a picture of the fairies and persuaded her father to lend them his Midg quarter plate camera. Thinking that this would put an end to the ludicrous story, Arthur Wright agreed.

Butcher Midg No 1 Magazine Type Falling Plate 1/4-plate camera

(from left to right), Midg front view; Midg rear view with box open; top view; side view

The Midg was made by W. Butcher & Sons of London 1902-1920 with Rapid Rectiliner lens, rotating apertures, mirror finders and room for 12 plates (31/4" x 4"). The plates where held in place by metal sheaths in a spring loaded rack and when the shutter was released a lever mechanism would lay the exposed plate face down in the light proof chamber at the bottom of the camera. It was said that Arthur Wright set the camera at 1/50s at f/11 and provided one glass plate for the first and most famous image..

When the case book opened again in 1971 when Lynn Lewis from the Nationwide television programme reported on a study of the photographs by Kodak photography experts. They concluded that the pictures could not have been taken by a Midg camera set at 1/50s. They seemed to have been created by someone with "a feel and composition" for photography.

As the prints were not the originals but "cleaned up" copies retouched by Harold Snelling for sale at 1s 6d (small prints) and 2s 6d (large prints). It stands to reason then, that the findings should highlight anomalies between that which should have been produced by the Midg and that which was actually being examined.

The camera was eventually sold at Sotherbys to S.J.Robinson in 1972 and now rests in the Kodak Gallery at the National Photography Museum in Bradford.

Arthur loaded up a glass plate into the camera, set the speed to 1/50s and gave it to Elsie. The pair trundled off down to the beck again, this time camera in hand with a view to catch their spritely friends on film.

A while later, the girls returned home and Arthur took the plate out to expose in his under-the-stairs darkroom. As the image slowly appeared through the solution, Arthur wondered what the strange outlines could be. He asked Elsie why there were "bits of paper" in the picture and whether it was a discarded sandwich wrappping. Elsie said it was the fairies that they played with by the waterfall but her father promptly dismissed the odd reply.

He was aware of his daughter's artistic ability (she attended Bradford Art College from the age of 13) and knew she had been drawing fairies for some time. Annie and Polly trusted their children who were honest and forthright but even with a great interest in spiritualism (eventually Theosophy) they cast aside the tale and the matter was considered closed. Little more was spoken of the images.

The immortal image of Frances and the Dancing Fairies was born.

The Investigators

The First Images