Joe Cooper obituary

He got the Cottingley fairy fakers to confess
Joe Cooper
Joe Cooper met the cousins in the 1970s and was far from sceptical about the existence of the ‘little people’

Joe Cooper, who has died aged 87, was the jovial debunker of the celebrated Cottingley fairy photographs (supposedly showing fairies captured on film in a Yorkshire garden in 1917). He remained a firm believer in unexplained phenomena to the end. In spite of finally prompting a confession of fakery by one of the two cousins who took the pictures, Cooper was far from sceptical about the existence of "little people" and thought that something genuinely unusual had happened in the West Riding village.

His engaging and sympathetic approach ended the long deception by the cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, who were in their 80s when Cooper's interview appeared in the magazine The Unexplained in 1983. They described to him how the "fairies" had been copied by Wright from a well-known children's book of the time, The Queen's Gift Book, and then held in place with hatpins.

Such trickery was widely assumed to have taken place by the time the interview appeared, in spite of the early endorsement of the images by photographic specialists and eminent figures, notably the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In a television discussion after Cooper's story had been published, Griffiths explained how she and Wright had seen a childish joke get wildly out of hand, because of people who "believed because they wanted to believe".

In a sense, this was true of Cooper, who combined an academic career with less conventional enthusiasms to which he devoted great zest. He promoted astrology and psychic investigation winningly, believing in Conan Doyle's summary of the fairies: "The recognition of their existence will jolt the material 20th-century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life."

Cooper parted company with mainstream academia in research for his master's degree at Bradford University, which amassed data to suggest links between season of birth and eventual choice of occupation. One of his many other interests was playing the ukulele, and he performed his own astrological composition, Zing Zat Zodiac Zong, on TV after an interview with David Dimbleby in a series on the "beyond".

Cooper was born in Leeds, but the family moved early to Southampton and he was educated at Taunton school. During the second world war he served as a navigator in the RAF.

He tried various jobs after the war and had an early taste of the media when he appeared in a documentary made by the young Lindsay Anderson while working in a drawing office at Wakefield. He wrote material for Frankie Howerd and was an eager member of Leeds Art Centre in the 1950s, appearing in amateur dramatics with another cinema tyro, Peter O'Toole.

It was not until the end of the decade that he settled down to train as a teacher, moving on in the 1960s to become a lecturer in sociology at Bradford University (from where he retired in 1980). This led to wider involvement as the organiser of evening classes in psychic education in Yorkshire, and in the 1980s he wrote a column for the Guardian called Body and Soul.

Cooper met the Cottingley fairies cousins in the early 1970s and got to know them well. He later wrote a book, The Case of the Cottingley Fairies (1990), about the episode which played a part in the 1997 film Fairy Tale – a True Story.

He is survived by his son, David, and daughter, Jane.

Henry Joseph Cooper, sociologist, born 3 February 1924; died 16 August 2011