The Fairy Investigation Society, dedicated to tracking down modern accounts of the Little People, must rank as one of the strangest British organisations ever to come into being. SIMON YOUNG tells the story of this curious enterprise through five key episodes – from a Fairy Census to a tabloid scandal – in its eccentric and largely forgotten history.
1. SLEIGH AND CRAUFURD MEET (1927)
It was the kind of moment over which flies queue up for wall space. Two of the most eccentric men in Britain in one room – and they had come to talk about fairies. On the one hand, there was Quentin A Craufurd, a retired British naval officer of aristocratic lineage. Craufurd had not only been a talented seaman during his years in the Royal Navy, but also, before his retirement, a talented scientist. He had carried out, in fact, in 1907, the first wireless broadcast in Britain from HMS Andromeda.1
But Craufurd had long had an interest in the paranormal. He was convinced that psychic communication with animals was possible, particularly during dreams; his advice to anyone who had found a fledgling or a stray cat would have been to sleep in the same room as the animal.2 Then, he began to experiment with spiritualism. Of course, in the 1920s, this was practically de rigueur among the metropolitan middle classes. But Craufurd did things, as always, his own way. He took messages from the dead with an ‘ether box’ – i.e. a radio – and soon became known in spiritualist circles as ‘the wireless man’.3
The second individual was Bernard Sleigh. Sleigh was an artist, based for much of his career in Birmingham. In 1897, he had had a brain operation and had subsequently experienced peculiar visions: in later years he described himself as “psychic”.4 Sleigh specialised in wood engraving – his surviving pieces are often phenomenally beautiful – and published several works centred on illustrations of elfish fantasy: many of these works are available in the British Library. Most notable was The Gates of Horn, which had been published in London in 1926, the year before the meeting. It was, as it happens, The Gates of Horn that had brought Sleigh and Craufurd together.
The subtitle of The Gates of Horn was “Sundry Records from the Proceedings of the Society for the Investigation of Faery Fact & Fallacy”. Sleigh had created a brilliant frame for modern fairy stories, a society dedicated to the investigation of fairies with various singular members and a hinterland of powerful fairies beyond: sell an idea like this today to HBO and you’d make a mint. Nor were the stories the twee, moralising gunge of late Victorian children’s fiction: “little Billy Bee-Yellow slipped on his green and red hat and flew zig-zaggedly to the door…” They described the dangerous and often tragic encounters between mortals and the fey. They involved death and they are overtly sexualised to a degree that is quite jarring for someone expecting Wee Willy Winky with gauze wings.
Craufurd had, in any case, been given The Gates by a friend and had decided to act: he made an appointment with Bernard Sleigh. We do not know where the meeting took place, but we do know the result. Craufurd and Sleigh agreed to create a real-life Faery Investigation Society (the spelling would change with the years). The Society took some time to really come to life. However, by 1929, when the energetic Claire Cantlon, a psychic with a criminal record, took over as secretary, the London Lodge printed its first newsletter: there were also membership certificates and FIS letter-heads.5 The Society had some 50 members and was able, in 1929, to host five lectures with such speakers as EL Gardner (who probably dragged out the Cottingley photos for the nth time), fairy mystic and artist, Tom Charman (with his 25 ‘automatic’ fairy pictures) and a certain Madame Zanoni.6 The meetings took place at Five Smith Square, though occasionally the group met at the Green Salon on Chandos Street and we know the names of about 10 of the 50 members. There were also certain anonymous establishment figures: “We heard accounts from members who wished to hide their identity since they held high official positions.”7
2. MUCKING ABOUT WITH MARSH FAIRIES (1927-1932)
Sleigh may have been a founding member, but nothing is subsequently heard of him in connection with the FIS: he eventually retired to Gloucestershire, where he lived an idyllic rural existence. Craufurd, however, remained at the heart of the FIS until his death in 1957. His work was, in part, organisational. He wrote, for example, the editorial to the first FIS newsletter. He seems also to have been an ambassador for the organisation, making contact with non-members: including apparently Arthur Conan Doyle, who also corresponded with Claire Cantlon about fairy sightings.8 But he was true, too, to his scientific roots. He continued to experiment and, Craufurd being Craufurd, he experimented with the radio. In 1927, in fact, he was messing around with some form of wireless device when he heard a harmony: “I began with an electrical apparatus of my own design and a nearly worn-out torch-battery, and one day I heard fairy music, the sound of harps and bells.”9
Craufurd then proceeded to ask questions and entered into a dialogue with these fairies (for so he believed them to be), as spiritualists in the 1920s typically did with the dead. The voices informed Craufurd that the only way to talk to the fairies was to “tune in”.
There is actually a good chance that this episode took place before Craufurd’s meeting with Sleigh. Craufurd claimed in his later writing that these bizarre communications convinced him of the existence of fairy life. Perhaps he read The Gates of Horn only after the experience. Certainly, when he met Sleigh he seems to have been a believer, or enough of a believer to have wanted to found an organisation dedicated to fairy studies.
The question is of only relative importance, because Craufurd and the marsh fairies – he reported that there were nine – had a five-year relationship. The marshies would make their presence known, and Craufurd, who was so talkative that a spirit had once refused him access to a seance, would ask questions.10 Many people, he reported later, came to his rooms to test the truth of his communications, presumably members of the FIS among them. What is now unknown is the way in which Craufurd communicated with these marsh fairies. Was it with the apparatus mentioned above (whatever that apparatus was)? Or was it by a more conventional spiritualist trick like automatic writing? We know that Craufurd used automatic writing with fairies on other occasions.11 He gives a clue in his brief account when he recalls how: “[The marsh fairies] also gave evidence of their knowledge. They would write for us and use strange words of ancient Saxon for which we had to find the meaning” (my italics).12
In any case, the experiments, by whatever means, continued. The fairies were challenged to pass through solid walls and doors, to make flowers dance in time to music and they even gave information about buried archæological objects, “in some cases confirmed where it was practicable.”13 Craufurd evidently enjoyed himself. He later recalled the late 1920s as “the halcyon days” of the FIS.14
3. THE GREAT FAIRY CENSUS (1955-1956)
The FIS withered and died some years before World War II: “We had not all the same motives and the same language, and the Society disintegrated like the walls of the Tower of Babel,” Craufurd wrote years later.15 Many of the records, too, were “scattered” in the war by “enemy action”, presumably the London blitz or German bombing elsewhere: these records apparently contained fairy accounts from all over the country, a major and now lost folklore source.16 However, by 1947, Craufurd, aged 72, started up a Fairy Investigation Society again:17one that would include about 100 men and women, including such luminaries as Walt Disney, Ithell Colquhoun, Hugh Dowding, Walter Starkie and June Kynaston, author of Nude Dancing for Health.18
In 1950, Craufurd made a certain Marjorie T Johnson secretary of the Society and she ran the FIS for much of the next 15 years. Pre-war members like Sleigh and Craufurd came from the Edwardian middle classes and most were connected with London. However, Marjorie Johnson had a different profile. She was born and was to spend all her life in the English Midlands. She came from a professional background in Nottingham and worked as a secretary in a solicitor’s office. She had, though, many virtues that her more privileged predecessors had lacked, and she transformed the organisation. First, and this is apparently what caught Craufurd’s eye, she had been collecting accounts of fairy sightings independently for many years: she had herself seen fairies since infancy.19 And, second, while sensitive and introverted, she had the energy to write the dozens of letters required for the running of the Society. She also had the energy to organise the Fairy Census of 1955-1956…
In 1955 a letter appeared in Folklore from Scottish folklorist Alasdair Alpin MacGregor. It is the first clue we have that the Fairy Census was underway.
“Sir, I am collaborating with Marjorie Thelma Johnson in a serious work dealing with contemporaneous accounts of Fairy Vision. A great mass of acceptable material is already in hand; but it would be a pity to go to press without seeking supplementary bona fide evidence known to exist. If any reader would care to submit an authentic account of his or her having seen, or been aware of the presence of, a fairy or fairies, we would certainly give it sympathetic consideration.”20
Marjorie Johnson greatly admired MacGregor, a fellow FIS member. In fact, one of the first articles she collected on fairy sightings had been published by the Scottish author before the war. At some point in the mid-1950s they had evidently decided to work together in collecting other fairy accounts for a book that Marjorie was planning. Marjorie reports in one letter visiting MacGregor at his Chelsea home on several occasions: MacGregor was, meanwhile, overjoyed with the project, dedicating his Ghost Book (1955) to Marjorie: “Oh Marjorie! This book, at last, is ready for the printer, thanks largely to you, and to the Little Folk, whose aid on its behoof you were able to invoke.” Strong stuff for a mainstream folklorist.
Marjorie Johnson’s decision to enlist MacGregor was an intelligent one. MacGregor was not only a good writer, but also a canny self-publicist, as the letter to Folklore hints (and he wrote similar letters to many different publications in 1955). Any manuscript with his name would have been given serious consideration by a London publishing house and, once published, would have reached a far wider audience than Marjorie could have managed alone.
The result of these appeals were, in any case, a windfall of letters not only from the United Kingdom, but from the British dominions and the United States. As it happened, MacGregor abandoned the project sometime in 1956: he wanted to go abroad and Johnson was not prepared to wait. She said in one letter that she could not “stand any more delays”; which is somewhat ironic as Fairy Vision was only finally published, as Seeing Fairies, in 2014!21
The collaboration was carried out and dissolved amicably – and the census had served its purpose, albeit the fruit would only be reaped 60 years later: a large proportion of the fairy sightings recorded in Seeing Fairies date to the appeals made by MacGregor in 1955. In the history of paranormal studies it should stand with some of the great 19th-century surveys, not least the Census of Hallucinations (1894), though it lacked their stringency.
4. THE CASE OF THE GREEN WOOD ELVES (1955-1956)
The pre-war Fairy Investigation Society had lectures, a rudimentary library and fairy stationary. The post-war FIS was, instead, a postal organisation, kept alive by letters and occasional newsletters. A membership list published in the FIS newsletter invited members to make contact with each other: and we know of some get-togethers, including four FIS members meeting for a holiday on Iona at the home of Lucy Bruce; Iona was seen as a fairy nature reserve in the 1950s.22 There were also field trips, and green wood elves…23
One of the letters to land on Marjorie Johnson’s doormat in Nottingham in 1955 came from a certain L Verdoye MA, FRGS. Verdoye was a teacher in a Lincolnshire school who had recently heard of some fairy sightings in the nearby wood. The sightings are interesting because they are so raw, without any obvious gloss from folklore. In fact, the description reads more like something from Lovecraft’s Cthuhlu mythos, as a picknicking family, the son of one of Verdoye’s pupils, find themselves confronted by the elves that time forgot.
Feeling bored at sitting, they rose and walked about together until, they found themselves in a clearing, and there they all saw some green shapes dancing in a circle, hand-in-hand. As far as L Verdoye’s pupil could estimate, they were not more than nine or nine-and-a-half-inches [23-24cm] high. No expression or features could be seen on them but all had pointed green hats, long legs and arms, ‘and there was,’ recounted the boy, ‘a sort of ‘king’ in the centre of the ring, with a light in his hand.’ While the family stood petrified with fright, the ring of shapes opened and the ‘king’ went out and sat under a large dock-leaf. He curled his legs up like a human being and fanned himself with a little leaf. Mr X, the boy’s father, could stand it no longer. He moved forward, and the figures all ran with incredible swiftness over towards a bank and vanished. The family searched frantically for some time then, but nothing remained.
This letter particularly excited Marjorie Johnson, and she entered into correspondence with Verdoye. He had himself done some research in the area and had found a further witness who claimed to have seen these amorphous elves on Midsummer’s Day 1943. Inspired, the schoolteacher, who described himself as a botanist, chose to spend two nights in the woods and discovered leaves laid in a curiously ordered fashion in some holes under trees. He visited the wood again in June 1956 and saw, on that occasion, that twigs had been tidied up, again in an unaccountably ordered fashion.
Ordered leaves and twigs… It’s not exactly the Angels of Mons. But Marjorie Johnson and her sister Dorothy were intrigued and decided that they would visit the wood of the green elves at Whitsun 1956. They caught cross-country buses and arrived with a hand-drawn map from Verdoye. The long journey meant that they had little time. But Marjorie saw “a green, shapeless, ectoplasm mass, which may have been an embryo elf” and her sister “caught sight of a little figure crossing [a lane]”. What is more, a photograph taken of a fairy mound later came out negative and the branches above their heads were rudely shaken. Never a dull moment in the FIS.
It would be interesting to know where in Lincolnshire this event took place. The location is never named, which is a practice that Marjorie Johnson often followed in order, as she saw it, to protect fairy life from inquisitive outsiders. Even the name of the informant, Verdoye, sounds as if it is assumed: it is placed in inverted commas in Seeing Fairies. The only clues we have are that it was next to a coniferous wood run, in 1955, by the Forestry Commission. Verdoye, in one of his letters, also wrote about “mounds that an Elizabethan manuscript said are the fairies ‘closed houses'”, a suspect-sounding reference and one that I’ve been unable to track down.
5. MARJORIE AND THE GREAT FAIRY SEX SCANDAL (1960)
The biggest problem that the FIS faced was not indifference from the general public, but ridicule. Quentin Craufurd had noted in 1929 the “unsympathetic attitude of the general public” and had to make sure that some members, who cared more for their reputation than he did, were protected.24 Marjorie Johnson, too, had experience of sceptics, who sometimes drove her to uncharacteristic irritation. But she had also seen the good that the press could do in the Fairy Census. It was perhaps some misplaced gratitude or hope of further help that led her into an interview in October 1960 with a tabloid newspaper, The Sunday Pictorial. Tabloids, fairies, eccentric Nottingham lady… It was, of course, a massacre. The article that subsequently appeared was entitled ‘She Does A Kinsey on Fairies’ and focused on Marjorie’s views on fairy-sex.25Perhaps the opening bullet points are enough to give a flavour. The journalist, Tom Riley, claimed that Fairy Vision would reveal:
How fairies make love and reproduce their own kind.
How they tend their babies in fairy ‘maternity wards’.
That fairies are bisexual and polygamous, sharing each other’s wives, husbands and children.
And then followed:
“Here on earth most people think that a man should have only one wife” Miss Johnson added. “But there are tribes in some part of the world where husbands and wives are shared.”
This was 1960. The Lady Chatterley trial was just getting underway. This was an England where maiden aunts would swallow their dentures on hearing a word like ‘bisexual’ or ‘polygamous’ (in the unlikely event that they understood them). Marjorie Johnson, photographed in the article, comes across as a sex-crazed loon, which was extremely unfair as she was herself, in the best sense of those words, a maiden aunt.
The views given were presumably a caricature of one small part of the interview, where Johnson had offered a theosophist take on fairies. But the writer, odious as his strategy might have been, had written an article that worked. It quickly found its way around the world and was syndicated in newspapers as far away as Florida and Australia. Journalists camped out to talk to Marjorie Johnson on her doorstep 26 and even many years later, Marjorie could report that Dorothy, her sister, dreaded “sensational publicity and visits from reporters”. 27 In a lower middle class quarter of Nottingham, an event like this must have been mortifying. What did the neighbours say?
Marjorie Johnson adopted a two-pronged strategy. First, she badgered the Sunday Pictorial to publish a letter in which she dissociated herself from the article. This was published at the end of November, but, of course, could not materially change the fact that her name and that of ‘the Fairy Lore Society’, as the Pictorial called the FIS, had been traduced.28 Second, she wrote an FIS newsletter in which she criticised “false reporting”‘.29 The damage, though, was done. Marjorie Johnson, remembered by another member for her extreme sensitivity, began subsequently to withdraw from her involvement with the FIS and she only wrote one more newsletter, published three years later in 1963.
The history of the Fairy Investigation Society is difficult to trace at the best of times. But as Marjorie Johnson retreated from an active role in the early 1960s, the FIS all but vanishes from our records. One postwar member, Leslie Shepard, reported in 1978, in an added vox in Lewis Spence’s Encylopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology that “although reports of unidentified flying objects received tolerant public notice, reports of fairy sightings encouraged press ridicule.” He reveals too that the FIS “is at present quiescent, but is planning to reorganise on a basis which will protect members from undesirable notice.”30 The great sex scandal of 1960 evidently cast a long shadow.
It was, in fact, Leslie Shepard, a gifted British historian, who seems to have put the FIS back on some kind of active footing, taking over from Marjorie Johnson as secretary. Based in Blackrock, Dublin, Shepard was advertised as being head of the FIS in publications. But he apparently did little. David Boyle wrote a letter to Shepard c. 1990 asking about the FIS and received an incredible reply. “[David] wrote to their last known address outside Dublin… and had a strange letter back. It was from a man claiming that he knew the Society’s secretary, but [the secretary] said he didn’t want to talk to anybody.” As Boyle noted: “Not only the fairies had disappeared, but the fairy researchers seem to have fled as well.”31
Marjorie Johnson, who was now in her late 80s, was still trying to publish her fairy book and was still in contact with Shepard. She reported, however, in 1996, in the last draft of that work, that the FIS was “defunct”.32 It seems reasonable to assume that the FIS had ceased to operate at about the time David Boyle received his letter, though really it had never recovered from Johnson’s departure as secretary in the early 1960s.
If anyone can shed any light in the history of the FIS from c. 1960 to c. 1990, or for that matter in any other period, then the author would love to hear from them.
To take part in the new fairy census, visit: www.fairyist.com/survey
1. Brian Hennessy, The Emergence of Broadcasting in Britain, 2005, p17.
2. Experiences of Thought Communication with Animals’, New Frontiers 1, 1947, pp25-29.
3. Anon, Spiritualistic Experiences of a Lawyer, London, Psychic Book Club, c.1937, p173.
4. Roger Cooper, ‘Bernard Sleigh, Artist and Craftsman 1872-1954,’ Journal of the Decorative Arts Society, 21, 1997, pp88-102.
5. Simon Young, ‘A History of the Fairy Investigation Society, 1927-1960’, Folklore 124, 2013, pp139-156 at p144.
6. The Faery Investigation Society Journal, 1929, unnumbered page.
7. Craufurd, ‘Foreword’ to Marjorie Johnson Seeing Fairies, Anomalist Books, 2014, p8.
8. ‘Fortune Telling Case’, Nottingham Evening Post, 24 Jul 1928.
9. Craufurd, ‘Foreword’, p6.
10. Anon, Spiritualistic Experiences of a Lawyer, Psychic Book Club, c.1937, pp110-111.
11. Ibid. p72, p78.
12. Craufurd, ‘Foreword’, p6.
14. Ibid, p8.
17. Craufurd, ‘Experiences of Thought Communication with Animals’, New Frontiers 1, 1947, pp25–29.
18. Simon Young, ‘A History of the Fairy Investigation Society, 1927-1960’, Folklore 124, 2013, pp148-149.
19. Craufurd, ‘Foreword’, p8.
20. Letter to the Editor, Folklore 66, 1955, p302.
21. Letter to Ithell Colquhoun, 30 Aug 1957.
23. For all this section, Johnson, Seeing Fairies, 2014, pp115-120.
24. The Faery Investigation Society Journal, 1929, unnumbered page.
25. Sunday Pictorial, 23 Oct 1960, p3.
26. Pers. Comm. Heather Guy, 16 Nov 2012: ‘She woke up to reporters from all over the world camped out on her doorstep, poor Marjorie.’
27. Johnson, Seeing Fairies (2014), 239.
28. Sunday Pictorial, 20 Nov, p31.
29. FIS Newsletter, no 5, p1.
30 Spence, Vol I, p321.
31. David Boyle, ‘A Bit of Magic’, The Idler 41, 2008, pp125-129, at p127.
31 Johnson, Seeing Fairies, p5.
SIMON YOUNG is an historian based in Italy and a regular columnist for FT. He has written extensively on fairylore and is presently organising a new fairy census (www.fairyist.com/survey/) and helping to recreate the FIS for those interested in fairy folklore.
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