David Clarke and Andy Roberts
Magonia 75, July 2001
In 1962 Alex Birch was one year older than Stephen Darbishire had been when he took the photographs that changed his life. His single black and white picture has since entered the UFO mythology as one of the best-known photographic hoaxes – or was it? Alex’s family were considerably less financially well-off than the Darbishire’s; the Birch parents lived in a modest house at Mosborough, at that time in Derbyshire but actually on the outskirts of Sheffield.
Like Stephen Darbishire, Alex had a Catholic upbringing and it is clear that his parents Margaret and Alex senior had an open mind on subjects such as spiritualism and flying saucers.
Alex also had the backing of additional witnesses who initially pledged to stick by the story through thick and thin. They were Alex’s schoolpal David Brownlow aged 12 and an older friend, Stuart Dixon, then 16 years. of age. The instrument of ufological alchemy was a one-year-old box Brownie 127 camera which Alex continues to treasure, despite a recent bid from the Roswell Museum in New Mexico, who wanted to turn it into one of their exhibits. (27)
It was a grey Sunday morning in March and the trio were fooling around in a field near the British Oak pub five miles from Sheffield City Centre. Today the pub is surrounded not by trees but by modern housing developments. In uncannily similar circumstances to those described by Stephen Darbishire, Alex was taking experimental pictures with his new camera – snaps of a dog, of Stuart jumping into the air, of a stone being thrown and then, lo and behold… a formation of flying saucers! Five in all, hanging in the air, with dazzling white blobs emerging from their dark saucershaped fuselages. “I got my camera up and took a shot of them,” Alex told the Derbyshire Times. “A second or so later they disappeared at terrific speed towards Sheffield.” (28)
Alex soon became the centre of a whirlwind of publicity. His photo appeared first in the Yorkshire newspapers, then in the nationals during the summer of 1962, whilst the part played by the other two boys faded into the background. Alex’s father and his English teacher Colin Brook, both sympathetic to ET visitations, played a similar role to Dr Darbishire, promoting the pictures and playing heavily upon the naivety and natural honesty of young Alex. His father in particular played a major part in the promotion of the picture to newspapers and UFO societies. In a letter to Flying Saucer Review published in 1963, Birch senior wrote: “…I myself was a non-believer in these objects … [but now] I am firmly convinced that we are being visited by flying saucers of other planets.” (29)
Within months 14-year-old Alex was retracing the steps of his Cambrian predecessor, visiting London to address the inaugural meeting of the British UFO Research Association in Kensington on September 22, 1962. A contemporary, account of the meeting described how the schoolboy addressed a crowd of more than 200 members of UFO societies from across the country “… he seemed dwarfed by the speaker’s stand as he spoke faultlessly for four minutes.” (30)
BUFORA enthusiastically endorsed his pictures following an analysis conducted by one of their ‘experts’, Alan Watts. He concluded his report with the comment: “If we want the truth I would say we couldn’t do better than take these to be fairly normal Adamski-type saucers and argue it out from there.” (31) The editor of Flying Saucer Review, Waveney Girvan went further suggesting the saucer pilots were interested in Sheffield because “if there is life of any sort inside these flying objects it presumably needs water to sustain it …and Sheffield is surrounded by reservoirs.” (32) Predictably, the publicity that Alex’s photo received sparked a major flap in the Sheffield and Yorkshire region during the autumn of 1962 with dozens of others ‘seeing’ UFOs above the city. (33)
But the real highlight of the year was Alex’s visit to the very seat of power – Whitehall. Official interest was encouraged by Alex’s father who took it upon himself to contact the Air Ministry in July 1962. He informed them of the existence of his son’s photograph and said he was “awaiting instructions.” (34) After declining to make a field investigation, the Air Ministry slowly and reluctantly agreed to take a look at Alex’s photo in the face of mounting publicity. Alex and father subsequently paid a visit to Whitehall in a trip sponsored by the Yorkshire Post newspaper.
When the group arrived at the Ministry building the journalist was carefully separated from the Birch family and taken to visit the Public Relations office. Meanwhile, Alex was questioned by the two senior RAF officers whose job it was in 1962 to monitor UFO reports. These were Flight Lieutenant R.H. White of S6 – a predecessor of Nick Pope’s Secretariat (Air Staff) 2A – and a “technical consultant”, Flight Lieutenant Anthony Bardsley of the more shadowy Air Intelligence department DDI (Tech). An internal MoD account described the atmosphere at the meeting as “cordial (andl both Mr Birch and his son were prepared to talk about it [the photograph] at length.” (35)
Mr Birch senior seemingly had another agenda. In Flying Saucer Review he claimed his son was “sick with fear” when the interview began and said the officials “started what I will call a brainwash… asking him wasn’t it any reflection that he saw and what was the weather like, what were the formations of cloud… the questions they must have repeated at least thirty times…” (36)
In the re-telling the length of the interview at Whitehall increased from two hours to three (in FSR) and then to seven hours when recalled by Alex in 1998. He remembered walking up the steps of Whitehall with his father where the pair “met a man in a tweed jacket, flannels and a dickie-bow. We went down long corridors into a room where there were some men and a doctor. They took the negative and the camera and kept them overnight, taking the camera apart. They asked me all these questions for so long I got muddled, telling me they were not flying saucers but Russians,” (37)
Reading the Air Ministry file on the Birch case, preserved at the Public Record Office, it becomes clear that White and Bardsley did not believe the boy’s story but could not say so publically. In an internal memo dated September 24, 1962, released in 1993 under the ’30 year rule’, Bardsley writes to a colleague in S6: “…it is a relatively simple task to reproduce an identical photograph to the one we were shown… the sequence of exposures on the two strips of negatives we saw do not exactly fit the boy’s story.” Bardslev summed up his exasperation: “…perhaps this brief outline of these doubts will assist you in deciding what on earth you can write to Mr Birch.” (38)
After much deliberation, S6 decided on a classic fudge. In a letter sent to Mr Birch senior, and subsequently released by the family to the Press, the Ministry suggested the objects shown in the photograph were “ice particles in the atmosphere” an explanation that was rejected by just about everyone including the editor of Flying Saucer Review, Charles Bowen, who questioned whether the Air Ministry really believed their own explanation, which of course they didn’t!
To many observers, including Alex Birch senior, the Air Ministry statement simply confirmed their belief in an official cover-up. Birch claimed it was this statement that actually led him to believe flying saucers were extaterrestrial “and what is more, the Air Ministry knows also but won’t admit it.” (39)
"I decided to claim that it was a fake in hope that it would all go away and the pressure would be taken off me. But it didn’t work out like that"
Alex Birch had his brief moment of fame, and by 1972 the bubble had burst. By that time he had moved home several times but was still pursued by people he describes as “nutcases” and their endless questions about the saucers. Newly married with his first child on the way, continual ridicule led him to phone the Daily Express and admit the ‘flying saucers’ were simply cut out shapes pasted on a sheet of glass and re-photographed. According to his story, his father only learned the truth the day before the newspapers carried the story and begged him not to go ahead with the plan. The Sheffield Telegraph quickly tracked down another of the trio, David Brownlow, who confirmed the whole thing was a joke which snowballed.(40)
And there it stood until 1998 when, in the midst of short-lived UFO revival that accompanied the popular TV series The X-Files, Alex – now in his mid-50s and a successful antiques dealer – courted publicity once again. This time his story followed a familiar route taken by Stephen Darbishire as a result of his 1959 ‘confession’: it was the hoax that was in itself a hoax – the photograph was genuine after all!
“I did become internationally famous but I also faced a lot of ridicule and pressure,” Birch told Pete Moxon of Sheffield-based White’s Newsagency. “I decided to claim that it was a fake in hope that it would all go away and the pressure would be taken off me. But it didn’t work out like that… the UFO fraternity didn’t believe me, and they even called a conference in London and came to the conclusion that my change of story was due to pressure (from the Government)!” (41)
Why had Alex waited until 1998 to tell the whole truth? “The reason I’ve decided to let the real story be known now is because I think it is important that the public should know.” Unfortunately. Alex’s two former schoolpals didn’t see it that way. David Brownlow and Stuart Dixon were still resident in Mosborough and both were contacted by the Sheffield Star before Alex was able to speak directly to them. Both men independently dismissed Alex’s new claim, although Stuart Dixon was later to retract his original statement but only after meeting his old friend for the first time since 1962.
Brownlow, however, was having none of it. “It was a hoax,” he told us. “Alex has always run with it more than we have. It was painted on glass. We were just messing around in Alex’s dad’s greenhouse when we had the idea to do it. We were all into Quatermass and War of the Worlds at the time. It was Alex’s idea to take the photo but then his dad and a teacher at the school got hold of it and we all got swept along with the hoax which just snowballed. Itwas an incredible experience and we had our ten minutes of fame, but I just want to forget about it now.” (42)
The most recent, and amusing, revival of the Alex Birch saga came via the pages of Flying Saucer Review. When, in the closing year of the 20th century, Birch’s latest claims reached the grand old man of British ufology, Gordon Creighton could not conceal his delight. The Birch photograph, Creighton assured the dwindling band of FSR subscribers, long dismissed as a schoolboy prank was genuine after all. It had been examined by none other than Kodak, who had pronounced it genuine and it was known also that the British Air Ministry and the Pentagon had received copies of the print “and conducted their own enquiries.” (43) Not only that, when Birch and his father visited the Air Ministry “the main preoccupation of the officials was to get both of them bundled rapidly out of London and back to Yorkshire before the journalists could discover their presence in the city.” In making this statement, he overlooked the fact that Alex’s visit to London had been made possible by the Birch’s own newspaper, the Yorkshire Post, a fact reported in FSR at that time!
Creighton’s obsession with the British Monarchy and his belief that they hold ‘secret knowledge’ of extraterrestrials denied to the public was woven into this latest twist in the tale. “Although I have no proof of this,” he wrote. “It seems pretty likely that Birch senior and his son were also invited to visit Buckingham Palace to discuss their case either with the Duke of Edinburgh himself or with his equerry.” (44)
Alex’s 1972 confession, Creighton added, had “little if any effect” upon what he called “the serious UFO research fraternity” but it clearly impressed FSR’s then editor, Charles Bowen. The implication was that it was not as easy to pull the wool over the eyes of the current editor. Large amounts of energy and money had been put into campaign to ridicule and denigrate witnesses such as Alex who had produced “dangerous photographs” and as a result were coerced or forced to put out “confessions.”
FSR’s editor could not resist the opportunity to pull out the ace from his sleeve, a case which supported his claims about the Birch photos in every respect. “Much has been done to try to destroy the authenticity of the other famous schoolboy photo, the Darbyshire [sic] one of 1954,” wrote Creighton. “But so far as we know, never without any success, and Stephen Darbyshire [sic] never issued a ‘confession’ and still asserts that his photo was totally authentic.” (45)
Like the saucers themselves the stories never stop spinning. For every person who ‘believes’ that Birch and Darbishire captured `structured objects of unknown origin’ on film you can easily find an equal and opposite sceptical view that both photographs were simple hoaxes.
In between there is every shade of belief and tortuous justification such as this example from the LUFORO Bulletin of July 1962. Using the logic of the believer the writer suggests that:
“on a cloudy day in February 1954, one of these objects sought out Stephen Darbishire who had a camera with him, and that in February 1962, on a cloudy day (giving cover) a group sought out Alex Birch who had a camera with him. This is a relationship or a group of relationships and is evidence for the following possibility: after the disbelief that greeted Adamski, how logical of these space visitors to give evidence of their actuality to boys of an age not to be considered quite knowledgeable enough to have fabricated evidence, yet old enough to be recipients of it. Both Stephen Darbishire, at the time, and Alex Birch had the intelligent presence of mind to point the camera, click the shutter, and move on the film. How many adults would have done so well; were these boys selected’?” (46)
Join the dots time. From Adamski to Darbishire to Birch, the saucer neatly squared in just a few words. ‘Objects’ without objectivity, unexplained photographs as evidence of ‘space visitors’, schoolchildren promoted as unconscious harbingers of the invaders. Neither Birch nor Darbishire are teenagers any longer, but they can’t escape from the monsters they helped create. Birch chose to follow his calling throughout his adult life whilst Darbishire retreated as quickly as possible from his creation. Like many others in the UFO cottage industry Alex Birch launched his own website, www.ufo-images.ndirect-co. uk. Yet in the same mercurial fashion as Birch’s sighting, the web site was there one day gone the next.
However, its existence and content gave further clues as to just how deeply Birch’s ‘UFO’ photograph had affected his life and maybe some clues towards his original motivation. On his “fantastic site for UFO buffs and everyone else,” the web surfer could read about the Birch sighting, see and order copies of the photograph and purchase copies of the Air Ministry report. The experiences of the father have now been passed down to his son, Adrian, who advertises quality hand-crafted wooden models of classic UFOs, based upon those reported by 1950s contactees George Adamski and Howard Menger. It was an uncritical site, designed to market the case and to inform people about the sightings and how Alex saw mankind in the cosmic scheme of things. Echoing the apocalyptic fears expressed by many UFO witnesses and contactees, Birch wrote: “Perhaps we are in the infancy of our species. We peer into the Dark, fearing it, yet seeking within it a reassurance that we are not alone. Perhaps in the black void are beings not unlike us, but maybe wiser, better, who will tell us secrets that will save Us from Ourselves.”
“The human mind cannot bear very much blankness - where we do not know, we invent and what we invent reflects our fears of what we do not know.”
Perhaps. But whether Birch’s ‘dark’, his `black void’, refers to deep space or the deeper spaces of the human mind is open to conjecture. As Diane Purkiss writes in her history of fairies and fairy stories, “The human mind cannot bear very much blankness… where we do not know, we invent and what we invent reflects our fears of what we do not know.” (47) Birch’s evocations from the dark have remained with him since that day in 1962 and now form a mainstay of his world view. Like his UFOs, over the past 39 years he has flickered in and out of the public eye trying to make sense of nonsense, trying to get us to see it his way.
Stephen Darbishire, child artist extraordinary, is now a sought after artist, living in remote rural seclusion. Our afternoon spent with him was more an exercise in semantics and verbal strategy than a witness interview, as the quotes in Part One this account demonstrate. He said he didn’t really want to talk about his experience, but evidently couldn’t bear not to. Darbishire had, by his own agency, been to the heart of the ufological labyrinth and returned safely, able to relax in his farm house kitchen and play games with the past. He was luckier than most. He knew that we knew that he knew. But none of us could say it outright. Birch, on the other hand, was more evangelical, still trapped, still justifying, pleased to pose with the original camera and prints.
In 2001 the problems surrounding Birch’s photograph are no more resolved that in 1962. Indeed, the case is more complicated not least because of Alex’s claims of a lifetime of paranormal phenomena, experiences shared to some degree by his wife, children and other independent witnesses. (48) If the photo is a fake, then is Alex lying about these experiences too? If so are his family also lying? Why would anyone create such a web of deceit around themselves for no discernable reason? Yet what are the alternatives? Questions tumble over themselves in desperation to be asked, but any answers merely beg further questions. Only blind acceptance or outright accusation seem to offer any relief from the tension they created through the cameras lens.
Maybe it’s all as true as both Birch and Darbishire originally claimed, and five strange light emitting objects and one translucent domed Adamaski craft were really, objectively there in the physical sense, visible to the naked eye, trapped on film.
What then? We are still no nearer to divining what either boys actually caught on film. Or maybe – and this is certainly our belief, borne out by the interviews and evidence available – the photographs were both faked. But does that reduce them to mindless schoolboy pranks which got out of hand, or must we look deeper and acknowledge they were the outward expressions of Alex’s saucer-haunted life and Darbishire’s immense artistic and creative talents? These two photographs have taken on lives of their own, shaping the lives and beliefs of many UFO buffs, leading individuals further into the saucerous labyrinth which is ufology.
The parallels with the Cottingley fairy photographs are almost too obvious to mention. Again children – two cousins – were involved and again their stories were accepted by adults who wanted to believe. The two girls corroborated each other’s story and once it had become an article of faith, they found it impossible to confront the ‘truth’. In the Cottingley case it was only 60 years after the event when one of the girls, by then in her 80s, was confronted with undeniable evidence, finally admitted the they had faked the photographs. Even then, the other cousin swore that although most of the fairy photographs were hoaxes they were produced to prove to others the reality of the beings seen at Cottingley Beck. One of the group of pictures, she maintained, did show real fairies! (49)
The Peter Pan nature of childhood can convince us that our beliefs are as objectively real as the world of grown-ups. Or more importantly that they should be real enough for the adult world to see. So why not a little photographic alchemy to help things along, create a`rcality’ of vicarious experience.
Consider also the role of svengali like figures in at least one of the cases we have considered. Whilst the Cottingley Fairies led Conan Doyle, hard-headed contriver of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, up the garden path, Stephen Darbishire had Desmond Leslie. Leslie comes across as a trickster figure manipulating both witnesses and the subject itself, making random links between imconnected sightings.
Ultimately, no one knows the truth behind the Birch and Darbishire photographs but themselves. And, as we’ve shown they are no longer in charge of their own teenage narratives, having had them taken away by the adult world of the media and ufology, cut up and fed back to them so many times that their experiences are no longer their own. The original negatives are long gone and both Alex and Stephen have, by their own admission, intentionally blurred the line between reality and fantasy, asking, at various times for both, to be accepted as the truth. As investigators in these cases we find ourselves caught up in the dilemma that anything we write will also affect what others choose to believe, but won’t change what happened – and is still happening – to either Birch or Darbishire.
So, be warned. If your children claim to have photographed UFOs or any other mythical phenomena at the bottom of the garden, or if like Moses they return from the mountains bearing emulsion coated saucer scrolls their lives, and possibly yours, will never be the same again.
We prefer leave the last word to one of the three witnesses to the Birch case, Stuart Dixon, who said in 1999: “I find it far better and simpler to let people think what they want to about that photo. I don’t care anymore”
The authors wish to thank Stephen Darbishire, Alex Birch, David Brownlow and Stuart Dixon for granting interviews. Thank you also to Nick Redfern for copies of the PRO file on Alex Birch and Peter Hough for allowing access to the tape recording of his 1993 interview with Darbishire, conducted with Dr Harry Hudson. We wish to make it clear that the views expressed in this article are not shared by Hough or Hudson.
26. “Alex Birch tells his story,” Flying Saucer Review vol 9/1, 22 (Jan/Feb 1963)
27. Sheffield Star, 9 February 1999
28. Derbyshire Times (Chesterfield), 22 June 1962
29. “The Censors at Work,” Flying Saucer Review vol 912, 7 (March/April 1963)
30. FSR vol 911, 22.
31. Report by Alan Watts in BUFORA case file, 620009 dated 21 September 1962.
32. “Flying Saucers: The evidence runs on straight lines,” by Waveney Girvan, Sheffield Telegraph Weekend Magazine, 1 September 1962
33. See Clarke, Randles & Roberts, The UFOs that Never Were. London: London House, 2000, p 129-30
34. PRO Air 2116918, letter from A. Birch (snr.) to Air Ministry, 2 July 1962
36. PRO Air 2116918
36. Interview with Alex Birch, 6 Nov. 1998 37. PRO Air 2116918 38. FSR Vo19/2, 7
39. Sheffield Telegraph, 6 October 1972 40. Yorkshire Post (Leeds), 5 March 1999
41. Interview with David Brownlow, 3 December 1998
42. File 7824 Project Blue Book, National Archives, Washington D.C. contains a b/w print of the Birch photo and brief details of the 1962 sighting. The conclusion reads: “Insufficient data for evaluation. Negatives not with prints. No request made for photo analysis.” The photo was also reproduced in an article by CIA Chief Historian Gerald Haines “A Die Hard Issue: CIA’s role in the study of UFOs, 1947-90″ Studies in Intelligence, summer 1997, p. 70.
43. FSR vol 45/2 (summer 2000), 9-11
44. “Air Ministry Examines Saucer Photograph,” LUFORO Bulletin, Vol , JulyAugust 1962.
46. Purkiss, Diana. Troublesome Things, Alan Lane, 2000, p.11.
46. See David Clarke and Andy Roberts “Flash, Bang, Wallop – Wot a Picture,” in The UFOs that Never Were, p 136-41
47. See Cooper, Joe. The Cottingley Fairies (London: Robert Hale, 1990) and Sunday Telegraph (London), 12 July 1998.
48. Interview with Stuart Dixon, 6 April 1999.