In 1994 the beautiful tale of Elsie and Frances entered our imaginations in FairyTale: A True Story and had us all screaming, “Yes, I believe!” at the top of our lungs — the film was just that magical.
One of the few ’90s children’s movies that could bring even the most hardened of cynics to tears with its whimsical ways, the story followed the two young cousins as they spend time in Yorkshire, England and discover fairies in a nearby meadow and are suddenly thrown into the midst of a media circus.
Starring Florence Hoath and Elizabeth Earl alongside the likes of Peter O’Toole, Bill Nighy and Harvey Keitel, FairyTale has stayed in the hearts of viewers thanks to it’s stellar cast and moving storyline — but did you know the film is actually based a real life story?
The Cottingley Fairies
1. The photographs
In the summer of 1917 two cousins, a 16 and 9-year-old Frances and Elsie, would frequently play in the stream which flowed at the bottom of Frances’ aunt’s garden in West Yorkshire, constantly returning with wet feet and soggy clothes to the dismay of their elders. Their excuse of frolicking in the waters was so they could see the fairies, and borrowed Arthur’s (Elsie’s father) camera to prove it.
In Arthur’s dark room, the picture that developed showed Frances behind four dancing fairies (above) — but was dismissed as a fabrication. The girls tried a second time, a few months later, taking a picture of Elsie sitting with her hand out to a gnome:
Two years later and the images were on display at the Theosophical Society’s annual conference in Harrogate after Elsie’s mother attended a meeting. The images caught the eye of leading member Edward Gardner, who sent them off to photography expert Harold Snelling for examination.
The results of said examination confirmed the girls claims, with Snelling writing:
“The two negatives are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs … [with] no trace whatsoever of studio work involving card or paper models.”
The confirmation lead to contact from prominent spiritualist author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing about the images for the Christmas issue of The Strand Magazine and asking the girls to take a second set of photographs, including Frances and the Leaping Fairy (below), among others.
2. Public Reaction
Despite the photograph confirmations, the public response was mixed to say the least. Though a few comments praised the “wonderful gift” of the photographs, most were highly sceptic with one novelist, Maurice Hewlett, writing:
“And knowing children, and knowing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has legs, I decide that the Miss Carpenters have pulled one of them.”
A Sydney based newspaper exclaiming,
“For the true explanation of these fairy photographs what is wanted is not a knowledge of occult phenomena but a knowledge of children.”
And photographer and medical researcher, Major John Hall-Edwards, scathing,
“On the evidence I have no hesitation in saying that these photographs could have been “faked”. I criticize the attitude of those who declared there is something supernatural in the circumstances attending to the taking of these pictures because, as a medical man, I believe that the inculcation of such absurd ideas into the minds of children will result in later life in manifestations and nervous disorder and mental disturbances.”
3. The Real Reveal
After subsequent investigations and 70 years after the first photographs were taken, in 1983 the cousins admitted that they had faked the photographs — Elsie had copied illustrations from a book of dancing girls, drawn wings on them and held them up with hatpins. After the pictures were taken, they threw the drawings in the river to get rid of the evidence. So sneaky!
Pretty amazing they managed to keep it secret for so long though, right?
Regardless, it’s still a great story and FairyTale: A True Story is still one of the best, and most underrated, children’s movies of the ’90s.
Do you believe in fairies?
Staff Writer at MP. Lover of bad puns, nostalgic feels and all things Winona. Email: [email protected]