Return of the fairy-hunters

An eccentric English tradition acquires some new academic firepower

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

If like me you get all your news from the Cornish Guardian, you may have spotted an article announcing that the Fairy Investigation Society is conducting a survey. They’re seeking information from anyone who has seen any pixies, elves or sprites — all on a strictly anonymous basis. I rang the man behind the research and he told me that in just three months, he’s had over 400 replies. An example: ‘I was walking down a field in Scotland when I noticed a winged being leaning up against the side of a sycamore tree. He was as tall as the trunk, maybe 15 feet.’

You might laugh it off, but the man was deadly serious — as are his informants. Well into the 21st century, beneath the radar of a popular culture obsessed with vampires and aliens, elements of traditional British folklore have inexplicably survived.

A century ago, discussion of the little folk was quite common. The Fairy Investigation Society was founded in 1927 by a group of spiritualists and, legend would have it, attracted such illustrious members as Walt Disney. Its true believers were delightful eccentrics of a very English stripe. Marjorie Johnson, eventually secretary of the society, encountered an elf in her bedroom as a child and grew up to be a committed fairy-hunter. In the post-war years, she assembled a remarkable archive of sightings — including a family of gnomes in Wollaton Park who were observed driving about in small racing cars. Miss Johnson intended to publish her magnum opus but was undone by some unguarded comments to a tabloid. ‘It has taken me years of study to win their friendship and discover the secrets of their sex life,’ she told the Sunday Pictorial. ‘But anyone who is admitted to the circle of fairy friendship is very fortunate. Through billions of years fairies have learned the secrets of universal love.’

It is thought that this tabloid scandal encouraged this sweet lady to retire from public life, and her fellow fairy-hunters to retreat into the closet. What little research took place thereafter gained scant attention. We owe much of what we know about Hikey Sprites thanks to the dedicated investigations of one Ray Loveday, who travelled East Anglia asking strangers at bus stops if they had ever seen any. A reviewer of his excellent pamphlet, The Hikey Sprites: the Twilight of a Norfolk Tradition notes that Mr Loveday’s research was sadly restricted by the limitations of the local bus route.

Disney With Donald
Walt Disney was a member of The Fairy Investigation Society Photo: Getty

Though Britain stopped openly talking about fairies, faith in them remained. Dr Simon Young, the academic conducting the fairy survey, says that sightings still occur even though the look of fairies changes according to popular tastes. Until the Victorian era fairies were flightless and often regarded as amoral — even mischievous. Indeed, when I told a Catholic academic friend about the Fairy Investigation Society he insisted that fairies were demonic. ‘The best thing you could do if you encounter a fairy is step on it,’ he said, ‘or lay down slug pellets.’

Since Disney began to do PR for fairies, a significant number of sightings feature creatures who bring a sense of peace; however, there are also reports of gnomes, a walking tree and ‘a group of creatures, maybe 25cm tall, humanoid, hairless, with spindly limbs and slightly shiny leathery skin’ that ‘wore nothing but Oxford commoners’ gowns (no mortarboards)’. The best encounter is that of a teenager camping on the moors who went behind his tent to relieve himself only to discover that he was not alone: ‘when I looked down [there] appeared silhouetted a small shape with his hands on his hips, I could see it by a faint light coming through a large hole behind him in the hedgerow. I got the impression of someone very angry. This scared me and needless to say I could not do what I intended. Slowly backing away I quickly apologised (sincerely believed I had almost pissed on a wee folk).’

Are some of these stories are tongue-in-cheek? Maybe. Nevertheless, there’s charming sincerity to many of the tales and to the work of Dr Young in general. ‘I don’t know what’s going on,’ he told me. ‘But perhaps it indicates in part that the countryside has a presence.’ I think he’s right. I very much doubt that hedgerows are home to thousands of magical creatures, but it’s true that the countryside is magical and that the British relationship to it goes well beyond the physical and into the spiritual — which is why should preserve it as passionately as the fairy-hunters seek to preserve our folklore.

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  • Polly Radial

    Tim still first with the big stories around here.

    • prospero’s child

      Ah, c’mon. cut him some slack!
      I work with some Irish women – sort of middle aged – from country districts and they insist that when they were young, a belief in little people and the like, was still very strong and very common.

      • Polly Radial

        I know women like that. They’re laughing at you.

        • prospero’s child


  • C.U. Jimmy

    I’d say looking for fairies is as good a way as any of spending your time. However, like so many things in life (including life itself, if you’re of that turn of mind), it is pointless. If you look for fairies, in an actively-looking kind of way, you certainly won’t find them. They’ll simply appear when the time is right.

    • nozodurendozuuo

      unless by “searching” you are collecting reports of witnesses then, no. It’s not pointless.

    • Sheshetb

      Fairies have been seen. There’s a whole underworld that most are unaware of. It’s opening your mind to a vast universe beyond our compression

  • Dodgy Geezer

    …Are some of these stories are tongue-in-cheek? Maybe. Nevertheless, there’s charming sincerity to many of the tales and to the work of Dr Young in general….

    If you ask a bunch of humans about ANY strange phenomenon, you will get some claiming that they have seen it.

    They are not nutters – it’s just the way humans are made. Our capacity for self-deception is great, and it is enhanced when we are put into crowds. Charles Mackay wrote his famous book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” about it.

    You really can get most people to believe ANYTHING if you present it in the right way, with lots of social pressure. Look at the Climate Change scam. The notion of running Britain off windmills is equally as fantastic as belief in fairies – indeed you can show mathematically that it can’t be done – but the President of the Royal Society believes in it…

  • Stephen Milroy

    fairies? Go to Brighton, there’s loads of fairies there…

    • nozodurendozuuo

      I see what you did there! Are you like a stand up comedian? Shouldn’t you be off the internet and writing new jokes? Because, you know, how much you suck at jokes.

      • Stephen Milroy

        I read the spectator, obviously I am too right wing to be a leftist stand up comedian. As for my ‘suck at jokes’, well forgive me for trying to lighten up some discussion board.

  • Richard Eldritch

    There are places, gateways if ya like, where certain people can interact. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t been there though…….

  • chump23

    You know the icelandics called in a fairy consultant before building an aluminium refinery?

  • montague_stjohn

    A shame that the article doesn’t deign to provide a link for the Cornish Guardian. http://www.cornishguardian.co.uk/Fairy-sightings-Cornwall-sought-new-census/story-24541867-detail/story.html

  • black11hawk

    I saw about 15 on my way to work today. I also live with a goblin called Dave that does my ironing.