Fooled by fairies – how did the creator of the astute detective Sherlock Holmes get deceived by two girls from Yorkshire?

11th May 2022

Fooled by fairies – how did the creator of the astute detective Sherlock Holmes get deceived by two girls from Yorkshire?

Just over one hundred years ago Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the literary genius behind the detective mastermind Sherlock Holmes, published the world-famous Cottingley Fairies photographs in The Strand Magazine.

The University of Leeds Special Collections holds nearly all of the most important documents and artefacts relating to the Cottingley fairies. These are the focus of an exhibition at the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery, guest curated by Dr Merrick Burrow, Head of English & Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield.

The greatest hoax of the twentieth century began in July 1917 when Elsie Wright took a photograph of her cousin Frances Griffiths with a group of dancing fairies next to Cottingley Beck in West Yorkshire. After getting in trouble with her mother for having wet shoes Frances was asked why she was playing by the beck. Frances replied, “I go to see the fairies.” Elsie came to her cousin’s aid and borrowed a camera from her father to get proof.


For 3 years these fantastical photos remained a puzzling family anecdote, until 1920 when these photos found their way to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle via Edward L. Gardner of the English Theosophical Society. By this point Conan Doyle’s long-standing interest in spiritualism had hardened into a blinkered obsession, which led him to risk his reputation by endorsing the fairy photographs as genuine in his December 1920 Strand article.

Frances and Elsie continued to deny that they had faked the photographs out of a sense of pity for Doyle. For the next sixty years, the Cottingley fairies retained the interest of the public and the media. Elsie finally wrote a letter of confession in 1983. In an interview in 1985 Elsie admitted that she and Frances were too embarrassed to tell the truth after fooling Doyle: “Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet.”

Dr Merrick Burrow said of the University of Leeds Special Collections Cottingley artefacts:

“The Cottingley fairies archive is a unique and extensive collection of private correspondence, negatives, prints and publications relating to the photographs, which casts light on the relationships that developed between Conan Doyle and the other people involved. It illuminates in the most fascinating detail how his tentative interest developed into an unshakable, but mistaken, confidence in the authenticity of the images.”

Highlights from the Collection:

The first two fairy photographs 

“Frances and the Fairies” was taken by Elsie in July 1917 to “prove” Frances’ claim of playing with the fairies at Cottingley beck. Later in the summer Elsie proposed that they take a second photograph, which would show that she too could see fairies. Frances took “Elsie and the Gnome” in September 1917.

The Strand Magazine, December 1920

Doyle published the first two fairy photographs in the Christmas issue of The Strand Magazine. He referred to Frances and Elsie as “Alice” and “Iris” in the hope of sparing them unwelcome publicity.

‘Epoch-making’ letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 22 June 1920

Doyle wrote to Edward L. Gardner to ask for information about Frances, Elsie and their families.  He describes the fairy photographs as “epoch-making”, and requests a copy of them for “private use”.

 The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception is on display in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery until 17th November 2022.