How the Cottingley Fairies cost my parents their marriage

As the centenary of the Cottingley Fairies approaches, Jane Cooper tells Sarah Freeman how one of the most famous hoaxes of the 20th century came to rule her father's life.

Jane Cooper whos dad Jo was the leading expert on the case of The Cottingley Fairies. Picture by Simon Hulme.

Jane Cooper is a Gemini. She was almost a Taurus, but her Dad Jo, who carefully planned his family so his children would be born under compatible signs of the zodiac, wouldn’t hear of it.

“Dad had a theory that people who had birthdays within 60 days of each other would get on. Mum was born on February 3, Dad on April 3 and he wanted my brother David and I to fit in. When it looked liked I was going to be born a few days early it didn’t please Dad at all. In the end I hit my due date. I was blue with the umbilical cord around my neck, but Dad was just relieved that I was Gemini.”

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Jo’s determination to have a family which was astrological aligned was just the start of it. He also lectured in sociology, was interested in the paranormal and much of his life he was obsessed with the Cottingley Fairies.

Elsie Wright (left) and Frances Griffiths (right), the two girls responsible for The Cottingley Fairies photographic hoax.

Next year marks the centenary of those famous photographs taken by Yorkshire schoolgirls Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths and for Jane it’s a poignant reminder of how one of the most talked about hoaxes of the 20th century cast a shadow over her own childhood growing up in Leeds.

“It all began with a book sale one cold January morning in the early 1970s,” she say. “Dad told one of the women in charge that he was interested in the Cottingley Fairies and asked if she has any books on the subject. One thing led to another and soon Dad had an address for Elsie and decided to write to her.”

So began a long correspondence which for the best part of a decade was conducted on the basis that the photographs were real. By then it was more than 50 years since the story had made national and international headlines, but despite repeated doubts over the authenticity of the pictures, the girls had always kept to their oridingal story.

“It was 1981 when Elsie decided to drop her bombshell,” says Jane, who now lives in Ilkley. “They met in a cafe near Canterbury Cathedral and Dad was saying how interested he was in what looked like ectoplasmic whiffs about her head in one of the photographs and that’s when she told him. She pointed out the hat pins holding up the figures and said how surprised she was that anyone had taken it seriously. Dad later said that in that moment his world shifted a little. He had no words.”

Some of Jo Cooper's correspondence with Elsie Wright.

That same summer, with the rug having been pulled from under everything he believed in, Jo walked out on his young family.

“Looking back I think he had a bit of breakdown,” said Jane. “He had met my mum at the first dance she ever went to and when he left for teacher training college he wrote to her every day. They had been very much in love, but she always said it was those fairies which cost them their marriage.”

“Dad really wanted her to believe, but mum was far too down to earth. She would be trying to get David and I ready for school and Dad would want to talk about some new theory. When Elsie revealed it had all been a hoax he even blamed my mum. He said it was her fault for not believing.”

Despite those hat pins, Jo never gave up on the idea that fairies existed and clung to Frances’ version that while four of the five photographs were fake, the fifth which doesn’t include either of the girls, was genuine.

One of the pictures of the infamous Cottingley Fairies showing 15-year-old Elsie Wright.

“Dad refused to think badly of anyone. He didn’t blame Elsie for leading him on and in his book The Case of the Cottingley Fairies he argued that the only reason that they had stunted up the pictures was because they had been unable to capture them on camera. That fifth image gave him hope I suppose.”

Jo wasn’t alone in his unshakable faith in otherworldly creatures. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock and committed spiritualist, was also convinced the Cottingley Fairies were genuine, publicly supporting a book by Edward Gardner, national secretary of the Theosophical Society, which declared that fairies worked inside the stems of flowers and were only visible when relaxing.

Jo too had no shortage of tales of other sightings. In an early interview with the Yorkshire Post he talked of how a gnome snatched a sandwich from the hand of sailor picnicking on a Gibraltar hillside and of a fairy being rescued from a spider’s web by a little girl. Most memorably of all was the tale of the nurse who said she had spotted a 60ft tall fairy in Strid Wood - he was apparently wearing a pale green jerkin and large clumpy shoes.

“Dad knew that it could have made him a figure of ridicule, but he didn’t mind,” says Jane. “He said that a lot of people didn’t talk about their own experiences for fear of being labelled a crank, but he thought the more we shared about these things, the more we could understand about life.”

Jane Cooper whos dad was caught up in The Cottingley Fairies hoax, pictured with her cat, Tinkerbell. Picture by Simon Hulme.

While Jo always said that he had believed in fairies from childhood, his family are convinced that it was his experience of serving as a navigator with Bomber Command during the Second World War that cemented his thinking.

“He was 19 years old and he was shot at night after night. I can’t believe that didn’t have an effect,” says Jane. “He had a lot of near death experiences, but he always said what he called his ‘Number Two’ was looking after him. One night his plane was running out of fuel and he was heading straight towards Scafell Pike. That’s when he heard voices and he changed direction. A few days later a couple of his colleagues weren’t so lucky...”

Jo also wrote a couple of books on telepathy and insomnia, but it was the Cottingley Fairies which came to define his career. He was an advisor on the 1996 film Fairytale: A True Story starring Peter O’Toole, he appeared in Vanity Fair under the headline ‘Real men believe in fairies’ and he became the go to man when anyone wanted to write about what happened in 1917.

“When anyone questioned him his response was ‘it’s not about whether you believe in fairies, it’s whether they believe in you’,” says Jane. “He wasn’t afraid of poking fun at himself. He never tired of telling the story of how he had once gave a talk to the Young Physicists Society at Leeds University. At the start when he asked how many of them believed in fairies five people put their hands up. He presented his evidence and at the end when he asked the same question only three hands went up.”

Jane says her father, who died in 2011, never made a penny from his association with the Cottingley Fairies and while she doesn’t share his believes she does own a cat called Tinkerbell who was born on his birthday.

“The truth is Dad was a bit of a Willy Lomax figure. He had a fatal flaw and that was fairies. It never left him. In the last year of his life he was very poorly and he suffered a number of strokes. He once said to me, ‘Don’t worry Jane, they are just fairy strokes’. It turned out they were something altogether more serious. Dad died a believer, but with the centenary approaching I just want people to remember the kind and incredible man he really was.”

Part of the photographic archive relating to the celebrated Cottingley Fairies hoax which went up for sale in 2001. PA Photo: Johnny Green.
Elsie Wright (left) and Frances Griffiths (right), the two girls responsible for The Cottingley Fairies photographic hoax.
Some of Jo Cooper's correspondence with Elsie Wright.
One of the pictures of the infamous Cottingley Fairies showing 15-year-old Elsie Wright.
Jane Cooper whos dad was caught up in The Cottingley Fairies hoax, pictured with her cat, Tinkerbell. Picture by Simon Hulme.
Part of the photographic archive relating to the celebrated Cottingley Fairies hoax which went up for sale in 2001. PA Photo: Johnny Green.