I thought we should start off the year with something to make us smile and I recalled a line from Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy : “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
Where did that notion of fairies at the bottom of the garden come from? I suppose I’d always imagined that to be an idea based on mediaeval folk tales, or at the very least something that derived from Shakespeares Midsummer Nights Dream. But far from it. Although the idea of garden fairies might go back a long way I think the phrase “There are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden” really only dates from 1917… a year which has other fairy and garden significance too as well as having strong connections to Sherlock Holmes.
Intrigued? Read on to find out more
The words are the opening lines of a poem by the prolific but now almost completely forgotten Rose Fyleman. Born in 1877 Fyleman studied singing then became a teacher and wrote over 60 books and plays mainly for children and mainly about fairy folk. In 1917 she sent some pieces to Punch and to her surprise they not only agreed to publish “Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden” but asked for more, and she soon became a regular contributor under her initials RF.
It quickly led to offers from other publishers and the first collection of her poems came out in 1918 and was reprinted more than twenty times during the next ten years.
She carried on writing until her death in 1957 but none of her work achieved the same acclaim as that first piece for Punch.
Its success and longevity probably has a lot to do with the fact that the poem was almost immediately set to music by Liza Lehmann, a celebrated composer of the day, although again now sadly largely forgotten. To my surprise it was sung, within months, at the 1917 Proms, and then 7 more times at the Proms in the years up until 1926, since when it has never been sung there again! It has however been performed plenty of times elsewhere and has become a regular “comic” piece in classical concerts.
The first time I heard it was at Wigmore Hall many years ago sung by Dame Sarah Walker. The performance was recorded and if you listen carefully I’m sure you can hear me clapping from my favourite seat on the end of the back row!
The original printed music says it was sung by Madame Galli-Curci but I am told by music critics that it was made famous by Beatrice Lillie in 1934. However there are plenty of recordings by many other singers since then, including Julie Andrews in 1972, Tami Petty, Elizabeth Connell in 2011 and perhaps most unusually Michael Aspinall, “the surprising soprano” .
A quick search on YouTube revealed dozens more! They range from the deadly serious to the over-the-top camp versions, but almost all are worth a listening.
Intriguingly it was also in 1917 that more fairy-related goings on in the garden were recorded. This time in Yorkshire. Virtually nothing was said publicly at the time and it wasn’t until Christmas 1920 that they came to more widespread notice. It was then that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes but also a prominent spiritualist, wrote an article about photographing fairies for Strand Magazine.
Doyle had had a longstanding interest in all things mystical and paranormal. Nor was he the first in his family who was interested in such phenomena as both his father, Charles and his uncle Richard were famous for their fairy paintings.
So when Doyle was shown two photographs purportedly showing little folk he was excited. The first taken in July 1917 showed a group of fairies dancing in front of a young girl.
Doyle wanted to believe in the picture’s authenticity, but he was also aware that it would be challenged by those he saw as non-believers and so instead of trying to play Sherlock Holmes and investigate himself, he called in the services of outside experts.
His first port of call was the pioneering photographic firm of Eastman Kodak. Having shown them two prints they could find no signs of obvious faking, but did not rule out the possibility of a hoax by camera or photography experts.
That opinion must have been music to Conan Doyle’s ears because the photographs had not been taken by an expert, but instead by two Yorkshire schoolgirls “of the artisan class” and “such tricks would be entirely beyond them.”
Next he enlisted a man named Edward Gardner to visit the children and their family. Gardner was not exactly an impartial investigator: he was a leading member of the British Theosophical Society and believed in the existence of fairies and other “little people”, often giving lectures about them. It had long been his ambition to find photos of “fairies, pixies, and elves, and if possible of brownies and goblins.”
However, as Gardner told the children’s mothers, fairies “are very shy of showing themselves or approaching adults, and it is only when one can obtain the help of their ‘friends’ that one can hope to obtain photographs and hence lead to a better understanding of Nature’s ways than is possible otherwise.” So he was preconditioned to believe in the genuine nature of the photographs even before he had met the girls.
The story he was told was simple, and Conan Doyle reported it in two articles in the Strand. The first in December 1920 and the second the following March.
These were followed up by a book The Coming of the Fairies which incorporated the same material but also added other “evidence” which he published in 1922.
The two girls, Elsie and her cousin Frances had shown Gardner the little valley with its waterfall on the edge of the village of Cottingham where they had first seen, and then later returned, to photograph the fairies. Elsie told him that the fairies had coloured wings in “the palest of green, pink, mauve,” while “the gnome wore a reddish brown jersey, a red pointed cap and black tights. The gnome also had what appeared to be wings but in fact these were a set of pipes which produced a high but faint sound.”
Given what he already was conditioned to believe Gardner told Doyle of the girls “transparent honesty and simplicity” and reassured him that the images were indeed of fairy folk.
Now the pressure was on. Gardener and presumably Doyle wanted more photographs. That caused a problem because Frances had moved away and Elsie insisted the fairies only appeared when they were both there, Gardner persuaded both sets of parents to allow Frances visit Cottingley again that summer. She did, and lo and behold, to Gardener’s delight three more photos were taken, two of fairies and one of “a fairy bower” or ‘sunbath”. This led to a second Strand article, in March 1921, and then to Doyle’s book The Coming of the Fairies in 1922 in which claimed these photographs proved “there is nothing scientifically impossible… in some people seeing things that are invisible to others.”
Doyle went on: “Victorian science would have left the world hard and clean and bare, like a landscape in the moon,” but these photographs mean “the experiences of children will be taken more seriously. Cameras will be forthcoming. Other well- authenticated cases will come along. These little folk who appear to be our neighbours, with only some small difference of vibration to separate us, will become familiar.”
The photographs and glass plates are now in the special collections of Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds.
With the centenary of Conan Doyle’s book this year the library is holding an exhibition about the Cottingley fairies which runs until November 22nd so, with any luck, the pandemic will be over by then and allow lots of people to see it. It transpires that what they hold are not the original images and negatives but second, third or even fourth generation copies. The original plates were thought to be underexposed and so they were later “touched up” and rephotographed by Harold Snelling one of the photographic experts called in by Gardner and Doyle. Prints and lantern slides were made from these enhanced versions and used by Gardner in his lectures and Doyle in his articles and book.
[There is an on-line lecture by Dr Merrick Burrow guest curator of the exhibition.]
Unfortunately, as was revealed many years later by Elsie and Frances, the photos were complete fakes. Elsie found the models for the fairies from the illustrations for “A Spell for a Fairy” by Alfred Noyes, in Princess Mary’s Gift Book published in (1915). Once drawn she painted them in watercolours, cut them out and arranged them in front of Frances, keeping them in place with hatpins. The bobble on the end of one of them is visible in the photo showing the gnome but Garner and Doyle thought it was a navel and prove that such creatures were born live like humans. Using her father’s plate camera Elsie photographed and then developed the plates in her father’s darkroom. This was probably the most impressive feat of all, given how difficult early photographic techniques could be, and she showed remarkable skills of composition.
Of course the big question is how and why Elsie and Frances got involved in such an extraordinary thing in the first place. It certainly didn’t start as an intentional hoax. Instead it began when Frances then only 8 or 9 had come back from playing in the beck that ran through the valley behind the village. Her shoes were soaking wet which annoyed her mother who demanded to know what on earth Frances was doing down by the beck anyway especially as there was nothing there. Frances replied, perhaps saying the first thing that came into her head, that there indeed things there and she had seen fairies. Even when Elsie backed her up neither none of their parents believed them. Neverthless, after some considerable persuasion her father, who was an amateur photographer, lent the girls his camera and gave them a single photographic plate. Following the shock of seeing the resultant image a second attempt was made and it revealed the winged gnome in front of Frances.
After that no-one was quite sure what to believe. The parents remained sceptical but couldn’t see a way the girls could have made fake images. The girls were anxious to forget the whole thing and so the matter gradually subsided and was almost forgotten about until the two mothers attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Leeds and were overheard talking about the photographs. From then on matters were almost entirely out of their hands.
The girls avoided talking about what happened and vowed not to say anything further until both Conan Doyle and Garden were dead, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that they admitted the truth: it had all been unintentional and ran out of control when they found themselves in too deep to retreat.
There’ll be more on fairies and the Victorian and Edwardian garden at some point, but in the meantime if you want to know more Conan Doyle’s articles in The Strand and his book are easy reads, and there’s the Cottingley village website which has lots more info as well as links to books and articles about the fairies.
The girls’ talents were underestimated!
Indeed they were!