Photographs and Fairies

CCL co-founder Dr David Clarke presented a paper on the legend of the Cottingley Fairies at the Royal Photographic Society Research Day held at Sheffield Hallam University on the 16th November 2019.

‘Francies and The Faries’ from ‘The Coming of the Fairies’ by Arthur Conan Doyle pub: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. (1922)

The story of the Cottingley Fairies is one of the greatest photographic mysteries of all time. In the summer of 1917 three images were taken by two young girls using a borrowed camera of tiny fairy creatures playing in and around a small stream in the West Yorkshire village where they lived. When these photographs were added to by two others obtained in 1919, they became the centre of a mystery that lasted more than 60 years, ensnaring many high profile figures who wanted to believe including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes who circulated reproduction of the photographs and in 1922 published a book about the mystery entitled ‘The Coming of The Faries’.

The legend of the Cottingley fairies continues to capture the popular imagination today.  There have been dozens of books about it, two Hollywood movies and numerous TV programmes and documentaries. Many original documents and photographs are preserved in the Cottingley Fairies Collection at the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds and the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford while other copies occassionally appear at auction and even occassionally on ebay.

Currently (June 2020) there is a damaged copy titled ‘Alice and the Gnome’ available for £600 on the auction site – shown below and available HERE

“This is one of the original Cottingley Fairies photographs. Less than 6 are known to have survived and they rarely appear at auction. Taken in 1917. The photographs were championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and sold at theosophical society events. Provenance: This copy was given by Conan Doyle to his close personal friend the Reverend George Owen and passed through the family. The photograph has damage as shown in the images, hence the low price. Undamaged examples sell for £5,000 to £6,000 at auction. Please ask any questions.” Item Description from eBay.

The Firing of the Fenny Poppers

Smoke and shredded newspaper drift across the Leon recreation ground in Fenny Stratford as six loud explosions are heard.

by Andrew Robinson

Every St Martins day (11th November) the windows of buildings across Fenny Stratford near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, rattle and shake while animals scurry for cover as six loud explosions ring out across the town marking the annual firing of the Fenny Poppers.

The Poppers are six miniature cannons in the shape of a tankard, possibly repurposed chambers for breach loading cannons, that are fired in succession at 12 o’clock, 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock in memory of the benefactor of the local church, Browne Willis. The event is organised and maintained by a small informal group of people most of whom are associated with the church and has been led for the last 30 years or more by Peter White. This small English custom, which currently attracts only a handful of people, has a continuous history dating back at least 279 years and follows a well-established procedure.

The poppers are first removed from storage in the church where they are permanently on display. Helpers and interested visitors gather in the nearby cemetery close to the entrance to the recreation ground where the custodian Peter White lays out a selection of materials on the path including newspapers, wood and coal for the brazier, hammers, wooden sticks and gunpowder. The poppers are then brought to the footpath and arranged in order by the numbers on their base. Small wooden pegs are then waxed and inserted in the firing holes before gunpowder is poured into the barrels from six small canisters containing the correct measure for each popper.

Compressing newspaper wadding to seal the poppers on the churchyard path.

Peter then hammers numerous sheets of newspaper into the barrels as wadding until each Popper is filled to half an inch from the top. Friends, spectators and passers by, pause to talk and often to help with the packing of the Poppers. Past participants are remembered and regular attendees catch up on recent news and renew acquaintances. Community news is shared as the Poppers are prepared.

During the preparation Peter likes to explain the history of the tradition in conversation with those present, despite most being familiar with the event. Often visitors are invited to fire a Popper and all who do receive a certificate. Occasionally a Popper is dedicated to an individual, usually someone who has recently passed away.

This process takes upwards of 30 minutes as each cannon is packed with newspaper.

The poppers are then carried the short distance to the recreation ground where small depressions in the earth are created for the cannons to rest in approximately 6 feet apart. A small rest, similar to a fishing rest, is placed behind each Popper before the wooden peg is removed from each in turn and a little powder is added to the firing hole.

Peter adds a small amount of pyrodex after removing the wooden pegs in the poppers prior to firing.

At the allotted time, a long, red hot poker is removed from a nearby brazier and carefully carried in turn to each of the chosen firers by a helper. The firer places the poker on the rest and lowers it until the end touches the firing powder. The charge is ignited, there is a bright flash followed by a very loud bang as the cannon is discharged and a shower of shredded paper and smoke drift across the recreation ground. After all six Poppers have been fired the poker is returned to the brazier. The newspaper which has been blown from the cannons is collected and thrown on the fire and the Poppers are carried back to the car in the graveyard. The firing is over within a couple of minutes and the spectators and organisers disperse to return in just over an hour later to repeat the procedure.

The hot poker is slowly lowered onto the popper leading to a sudden flash followed by a loud explosion and clouds of smoke.

The sequence of events takes approximately 45 minutes in total and was inherited by the current master of ceremonies when he took over some 30 years ago and modified over the years for reasons of safety and practicality. Whilst currently attended by only a small audience of approximately 20 people, the six explosions are heard across the community and the event is often covered by the local press and sometimes the national media.

This year I was lucky enough to be invited to fire one of the poppers and received a certificate to prove it. The experience didn’t last long but my ears are still ringing now!

A special thanks to Peter White for his hospitality and help.

Photographs © Andrew Robinson 2019.

On Photographing a Most Unruly Horse

by Andrew Robinson

I first photographed the Antrobus Soul Cakers some 22 years ago in the November of 1997. On this occassion I was disappointed with my results and was only really happy with one image from the evening, shown below.

The Wild Horse and Driver, Antrobus Soul Cakers, 1997 © Andrew Robinson.

The Soul Cakers enact their variation of a traditional mumming play at a number of pubs and other locations in the vicinity of Antrobus and Cumberbach, Cheshire over six nights during late October and early November as they have done for well over 170 years. Characters include: the Letter-in, Black Prince, King George, Martha, the Quack Doctor, Little Dickie Dairy Doubt, Beelezebub, the Wild Horse and his Driver who all travel from venue to venue in a mini bus.

The play is usually performed at four pubs per night between 8:30 and 11:30pm with each performance becoming increasingly raucous as the evening wears on and more drinks are consumed. The venues are crowded, with poor patchy lighting, where the performers constantly pace up and down, moving from bar to bar whilst reciting their lines. This makes photographing the event, especially with a manual focus, film camera, a challenge. Other photographers have solved this challenge by asking the performers to pose as a group before or after their performance. Of the photographs from the play itself, most, like mine, show the horse and driver.

The Wild Horse and Driver, The Antrobus Arms, 10/11/19.

On revisiting the event this year I had more success, thanks in part to the advantages of digital technology, and I’d like to think greater experience, however again my most successful images, like the majority of photographs of the play, were of the horse and driver. I realise now however that this is largely because, whilst the other characters quickly move on and off stage, constantly pacing up and down and around the pub, the horse and driver remain before the audience for an extended period, over 10 of the roughly 25 mins of performance, and during this time remain relatively still while extended speeches are made. This provides far greater opportunity to capture successful images than the earlier more fluid scenes of the play, aside that is, from the sudden crazed lunges of the wild horse, his escape from the bar and at times the pub and the attempts of the driver to chase him down and bring him to heel with whip in hand.

The Quack Doctor and Martha mourn the passing of the Black Prince, The Antrobus Arms, 10/11/19.

Another challenge for photographers, sound recordists and other observers in attendance is their non-invisibility and the performer’s lack of respect for the fourth wall. Such readily identifiable outsiders often attract the attention of the performers who intentionally pause and pose for their photograph, shout into their microphones or tease or taunt them. This I experienced myself on my most recent visit when performers would stop, pat me on the head, crouch down and pose in an exaggerated manner for my camera until I’d taken their photograph, much to the amusement of the audience.

The Wild Horse and Driver, The Antrobus Arms, 10/11/19.

Also present at these performances was a PhD student, who had been interviewing the Soul Cakers as part of research into disguise and performance. During the final performance of the evening at the Antrobus Arms the horse character pulled the reluctant folklorist from the audience and danced her around the room much to the entertainment of rest of the onlookers.

Photographs © Andrew Robinson 2019

Call for Papers – Deadline: 23rd April 2020

PLEASE NOTE – This Event has been Postponed due to Covid-19 – more info will be posted shortly.

This one-day symposium, hosted by Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Contemporary Legend, seeks to explore the influence and impact of England’s calendar customs on contemporary communities, and what their continued performance means for us today. We actively encourage dialogue between disciplines and areas of study, and welcome speakers from the academy as well as practitioners, collectors, participants and governors of English calendar customs.

Proposals should be 200-300 words for 20-minute papers, and please also include a personal biography of no more than 200 words. We also welcome suggestions for themed or grouped panels. Proposals and any enquiries should be sent to:

Full details on our EVENTS page or download a pdf HERE

Image of Castleton Garland Ceremony, May 29th 2019, © Andrew Robinson 2020.

Happy Halloween by Diane A. Rodgers

Folk horror is a sub-genre that has come to be associated with onscreen use of haunting landscapes and sinister isolated communities. However, it is often the use of folklore itself, with writers and directors drawing on myth and contemporary legend that helps to create an eerie atmosphere in the films and television programmes we love to spook ourselves with. In no particular order, here is a selection of some films using folklore that are personal favourites and ones to watch out for this Halloween. 

1. The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), directed by Piers Haggard. 

An obvious choice to those familiar with folk horror, but for those new to the genre, an absolute must-see. Frequently cited as one of the ‘unholy trinity’ of folk horror films (along with Witchfinder General, 1968 and The Wicker Man, 1973), Blood on Satan’s Claw is my favourite of the trio. A cult favourite of the League of Gentlemen gang also (some of whom recorded an audio version this year), set in early 18th-centry England, the film tells the tale of demonic possession taking over a village. From the start when a deformed skull with bits of fur and an uncanny eye still intact are unearthed, strange events start to occur, including the village children forming a Satanic cult overseen by a cruel teenage girl named Angel. Superb Satanic ritual, murder and mayhem ensue! 

2. Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), directed by Vernon Sewell. 

Starring horror stalwarts Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele, this lesser-known cult movie features black magic against the backdrop of swinging 1960s hedonism. An evil sorcerer invites a young couple to his spooky mansion, with the lure of a hip party masking the black magician’s plans to sacrifice the young man to atone for the evil misdeeds of his ancestors.  Loosely based on a story by H. P. Lovecraft, the film features bizarre and erotic Black Mass ceremonies, spooky ritual masks, groovy 1960s outfits and possibly the best folk horror headdress worn by an evil black magic priestess ever! 

3. Dr Terrors House of Horrors (1965), directed by Freddie Francis 

One of my all-time favourite films, this portmanteau classic has everything: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Donald Sutherland, 60s DJ Alan Freeman and even national treasures Roy Castle and Kenny Lynch. Folkloric stories of werewolves, killer plants, vengeful disembodied hands, vampires and fateful tarot cards abound. My own favourite, however, is where we get to witness Roy Castle performing swinging 60s beatnik jazz numbers on his trumpet, embroiled in a tale of stolen Voodoo music! What more could you possibly need? 

4. Borderlands (2013), directed by Elliot Goldner 

This is one of the final two films in my list that the less you know about in advance, the better. Presented as found footage, it stars the wonderful Gordon Kennedy as a craggy religious brother sent by the Vatican to investigate supernatural goings-on in a remote West Country church. Pagan sacrifice and violent exorcism become entangled in the unfolding tale where events steadily escalate. The atmosphere is palpably thick and creepy throughout, haunting and with a huge twist in the tale – avoid spoilers before watching! 

5. Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made (2019), directed by David Amito and Michael Laicini  

Recently screened at Sheffield’s Celluloid Screams horror film festival, Antrum is a film presented in the spirit of mischievous movie genius William Castle, complete with warnings that, by watching this film, the audience accepts responsibility for any event occurring to them during or after the screening including “illness, injury, mortal danger or death”. The mini-documentary preceding the film explains that screenings of Antrum have their very own folklore and legend, being surrounded by bizarre incidents including the last cinema that showed the film subsequently burning to the ground. The cursed feature, in which a young girl and her brother attempt to dig a hole to hell, shot in 1979, reputedly vanished without a trace, and Else films have located the only known copy in existence. This is that film. I absolutely HAD to see this film. And I haven’t died… yet.  

Happy Halloween! 

Faux Horror Archive – 3


A rare example of the AIRFIX ‘Ghost and Ghouls’ series of HO-OO figures, three sets were released in 1972 with a further three planned for 1973 however they were withdrawn without explanation to be replaced by Robin Hood.

From the Archive of Faux Horror

Weird Derbyshire and Peakland – Richard Bradley

An exhibition of photographs and ephemera at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery by our colleague Richard Bradley exploring “the fascinating folklore and curious customs that can be found throughout Derbyshire and Peaklands.”

St George’s Day Parade, Deby (23rd April) – © Richard Bradley 2019.

“Derbyshire – and the Peak District, which spills over into the neighbouring counties of Cheshire, Greater Manchester and South and West Yorkshire – has one of the highest concentrations of calendar customs in the UK.”

“These encompass everything from rituals of very ancient (possibly Pagan) origin like the well dressings and the Castleton Garland Ceremony; to more modern alternative annual sporting contests dreamed up over a pint or three down the local pub…”

Invesiture of the Mayor of Rainow (July) – © Richard Bradley 2019.

“Since 2015 Richard Bradley (born Sheffield 1980; raised South Darley and Two Dales near Matlock) has been traveling the area documenting these strange rituals. Living in a post-agrarian age, we have become woefully out of touch with the turning of the seasons. Whilst many of our fellow creatures hunker down and hibernate during the long, cold and dark winter months, we humans keep the electric lights blazing and carry on, some suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) ion the process. Could embracing the large array of annual customs, festivals and ceremonies reconnect us to the landscape and the natural rhythms of the passing year?” (exhibition text)

The exhibition continues until November 9th 2019.

If visiting the recently refurbished Museum the new ground floor display celebrating the ‘House of Wonders’ created by Randolph Osborne Douglas in nearby Castleton is worth a visit. Randolf and his wife Hetty ran the ‘Douglas Museum’ in their cottage, which was open to the public from 1926 until 1978, charging a sixpence for entry.

The display includes examples of Douglas’s silversmithing, miniature models and complete display cases from the Museum along with items from his time as ‘The Great Randini’ an escapologist, magician and friend of Harry (‘handcuff’) Houdini including drawings and descriptions of tricks he devised. In fact it was Randolph who showed Harry an upside down straitjacket escape, which became one of Houdini’s iconic tricks.

Andrew Robinson, October 2019.

Faux Horror Archive – 2

Whilst beloved by most children, I-SPY’s ‘Horror’ series proved problematic for many parents and saw only one short print run. Other titles included ‘Haunted Houses’, ‘Murderer’s Graves’ and ‘Instruments of Death’.

Another rare item from the Archive of Faux Horror collected by Andrew Robinson

CCL on Tour – The Burning of the Bartle, 2019.

On the Saturday of August Bank Holiday weekend, along with CCL colleagues David Clarke and Richard Bradley, I travelled north to attend the Burning of the Bartle at West Witton, near Leyburn in North Yorkshire. This short, quiet, yet slightly macabre calendar custom takes place each year on the Saturday closest to St Bartholomew’s Day (24th August). The custom is reported to date back over 400 years (although the church records to prove this were lost in a fire) however first hand testimony exists dating back to the mid 19th century.

During the burning for a moment the flames and smoke parted to allow a glimpse of the burning straw of Owd Bartle’s head looking for all the world like a glowing skull peering out at us all. Photograph © Andrew Robinson, 2019.

At around 8.45pm a small number of townspeople, holiday makers, visiting photographers and folklorists, gather in the half light of dusk at the point where Chantry Lane meets Mesnes Lane (A684) at the west end of the village to await the arrival of ‘Owd Bartle’. The Bartle is a straw effigy of a man carried by two villagers accompanied by a caller carrying a staff. The figure is made and kept in secret during the preceding week, dressed in trousers or jeans and a jumper and often wears a hat and a sheep’s wool beard. He has a Halloween mask over his face behind which two glowing bulbs are positioned to shine through the eyes. Some years the trio are accompanied by a visiting piper, masked and in disguise apparently to avoid any issues with PRS.

The custom has been maintained by at least three generations of the Harker family. This year the Bartle was carried by David Harker and Gareth Robson and the caller was John Harker. A Harker has carried for as long as anyone can remember, John’s father Alan began his Bartle making in the early 1950s while his grandfather Jack was a singer before him. David has been involved for over 20 years while John has been caller for 33 years taking over from John Spencer in 1986. Gareth is a ‘new recruit’ having started in the late 1990s.

At around 9.00pm the main road through the village is closed by members of the organising committee, who have been trained to do so in order to avoid the cost of hiring the police and to prevent irate motorists forcing their way through the crowds as happened a few years back. Shortly after a procession begins during which the Bartle is carried between his escorts through the village stopping at local ale houses (The Wensleydale Heifer, The Fox and Hounds and the Old Star) and with a number of villager’s houses. At each stop the execution party is met by the residents before the caller recites a short story in verse listing a series of nearby locations:

On Penhill Crags he tore his rags,
Hunter’s Thorn he blew his horn,
Capplebank Stee happened a misfortune and brak’ his knee,
Grisgill Beck he brak’ his neck,
Wadham’s End he couldn’t fend,
Grisgill End we’ll mak’ his end,
Shout, lads, shout!

The gathered crowd then responds with a hearty ‘Hurrah!’

The verse is said to refer to the chase and capture of a notorious sheep stealer, (or perhaps a pig or cattle thief) by local farmers and his subsequent execution after a trail at the local village court held on St Bartholomew’s Day. Others believe the custom to be an acting out of a dragon myth linked to the area.

After the recitations drinks (usually a shot of whiskey or glass of wine) are provided to the escorts, brief conversations are held and the procession moves on. As the Bartle and his party approach the east end of the village they turn to the right up Grassgill (Grisgill) Lane and after a couple of hundred yards stop and the effigy is propped up next to a dry-stone wall overlooking fields. Health and safety have seen the introduction of barriers to keep the crowd at a safe distance and once all are gathered the Bartle has his mask and glowing eyes removed before being set alight. The crowd watches as the figure slowly burns while the verse is recited a further two or three times and traditional songs are sung.

This year there was a reasonable crowd, perhaps as many as 50 people, a mix of villagers and holidaymakers staying in the village along with those who’d stayed behind after a fell race held earlier in the afternoon and a small number of people who’d attended specifically to meet the Bartle.

This was my second visit, in 1995 there was no musician, no official road closure and no health and safety barrier at the burning site. In the intervening years one of the carriers, Alan Harker, has retired and fewer songs are sung for which less people know the words however little else has changed. Performed by just three people accompanied by a musician and lasting not more than an hour the custom is relatively small and quiet however the reciting of the doggerel and the sight of the burning effigy can tend to linger in the memory.

Andrew Robinson, Sept 2019.

Andrew, David and Richard about to hit the road after witnessing the burning.