This post was most recently updated on March 15th, 2019
English hoaxes have ranged far and wide in the subject of their pranks – from pretending to be foreign royalty to offering evidence of mystical creatures and alien life. It seems there’s nothing some people like more than pulling the wool over each other’s eyes. We take a look at some of the most famous tall tales concocted through the decades.
The Cottingley Fairies
Proof that even the most cerebral of people can be fooled by a simple hoax is provided by the case of the so-called Cottingley fairies.
In 1917 nine-year old Frances Griffiths and her sixteen-year old cousin Elsie were playing, as they often did, near the stream at the bottom of Elsie’s garden in Cottingley, Yorkshire. It was a pastime that wasn’t popular with their mothers, the girls often returning to the house with wet shoes and clothes. This time, though, they had their alibi at the ready: the reason they played there, they said, had nothing to do with the joy of splashing in the water; it was simply that they went to see the fairies.
One might suppose it wasn’t the kind of story any parent would fall for, but Frances and Elsie had proof – a series of photographs taken with a camera borrowed from Frances’s father. When two years later Elsie’s mother took them to a lecture on “Fairy life” and showed them to the speaker, the story assumed a life of its own.
The Cottingley fairies were the talk of the country. The photographs were examined by experts and pronounced genuine, and when the girls were given another camera and asked to reproduce their results, out popped another three images. Of course, the photographs had to be taken while the girls were alone – as they said, the fairies would not show themselves otherwise.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and himself a committed spiritualist, was convinced. He wrote in The Strand magazine, “The recognition of [fairies’] existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life.”
Eventually, public interest in the story died down but for decades Elsie and Frances denied having faked the photographs. In 1966, Elsie suggested in an interview that she might have imagined the fairies and had somehow managed to photograph her thoughts.
The truth finally came out in 1983. Elsie and Frances confessed to having taken the photographs using cardboard cut outs of the “fairies” secured by hat pins. The reason they had stuck to their story for so long? They were too embarrassed to do anything else. As Elsie said, “Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet.”
It seems, though, that the fascination with fairies is an enduring one. In 2007, prop maker Dan Baines posted pictures online of what he claimed to be the corpse of a dead fairy. It was a lucrative plan: he netted nearly £300 for the tiny “creature” on eBay. Although Baines later admitted it was an April Fool’s joke, some still believe the item to have been genuine.
The Dreadnought Hoax
Whilst Frances and Elsie never intended to fool the establishment, other hoaxers deliberately set out to pull the wool over the eyes of those in authority.
Horace de Vere Cole, a member of the Bloomsbury Set (profiled here) was well known as a prankster. When in 1910 the crew of the naval ship Hawke wanted to play a trick on their counterparts on the rival ship Dreadnought, one of Cole’s friends turned to him for help.
Cole and five Bloomsbury Set friends, including the writer Virginia Woolf, dressed up as members of the Abyssinian royal family, complete with turbans, skin darkeners and flowing robes. Cole enlisted an accomplice to send a telegram to the Dreadnought, purportedly from the Foreign Office, telling its officers to prepare for a royal visit.
The group travelled by train in a VIP carriage to Portsmouth where the Dreadnought was docked. There, they were welcomed by a guard of honour – though the Navy was apparently lacking in Abyssinian paraphernalia so instead flew the flag and played the national anthem of Zanzibar.
Once on the ship, the group had great fun, talking in a mixture of Latin and Greek which was translated by their “interpreter”, asking for prayer mats, and attempting to bestow fake military honours on some of the officers.
When the hoax was uncovered in London, Cole contacted the press and sent a photo of the costumed group to a national newspaper. The Navy’s embarrassment at having been fooled by a bunch of writers and artists was exacerbated by the fact that the Bloomsbury Set were pacifists – and that two of their number were cousins of one of the Dreadnought’s officers, Commander Willie Fisher.
Huffing and puffing, the Navy demanded that Cole be arrested but to no avail – the “Abyssinian princes” had not broken any law.
Proof that the proud tradition of hoaxing is alive and well in England today is provided by the phenomenon of crop circles.
Appearing in ever greater number since the 1970s, the shapes formed in fields of cereals were attributed to bizarre natural phenomenon, ghosts and spirits or – as the patterns became more elaborate – alien intelligence.
Strange then, that the aliens were so consistent in their choices of location. Whilst crop circles have appeared all over England, they are almost always situated near roads and towns. With the odd exception, they have also sprung up overnight.
In 1991, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley came clean as the creators of almost all the circles that had appeared across England since the 1970s. An aghast array of ufologists and self-proclaimed experts in the paranormal cried foul: such complex patterns, they insisted, could not be the work of human hands.
And then Bower and Chorley showed them how it was done.
Watched by a gathering of global media, they worked methodically in a field of wheat for over two hours using nothing more than planks of wood. The end result was a perfect crop circle: the aliens would have been proud.
The two men explained that they had come up with the idea over a couple of pints of beer in 1976, inspired by mysterious circles that had appeared in Australian sugar cane fields (now widely accepted as having been caused by whirlwinds). They had travelled across country to produce their patterns, but focussed primarily in the area around the town of Warminster in Wiltshire, which had become well known for UFO sightings of the “lights in the sky” variety.
It’s clear that they found their shared secret a source of endless amusement. The pair approached “experts” telling them they were wildlife enthusiasts who often wandered the fields in the region and would be happy to keep an eye out for new circles – ensuring a ready audience for their latest works.
And when meteorologists trying to debunk the whacky theories around alien or supernatural entities suggested that downward winds were to blame for the circular patterns, Bower and Chorley added a set of geometric shapes to their repertoire.
“They called us ‘superior intelligence’,” chortled Chorley, “And that was the biggest laugh of all.”
Whether our apparent visitors are foreign royals, fairies or alien life forms, the success of English hoaxes suggests that many of us, like Fox Mulder, “want to believe”. Today, crop circles are still appearing regularly in the fields of Wiltshire, a fact that does no harm to its tourist industry. If you find yourself in the west of England, why not take a look – and perhaps take the opportunity to sample some of the local “Croppie Ale” whilst you’re there.