Case Histories : Photo Hoaxes> [prev ¦ 1 ¦ 2 ¦ 3 ¦ 4 ¦ 5 ¦ 6 ¦ 7 ¦ 8 ¦ 9 ¦ next]


The Alex Birch photograph

“...There is no doubt that the photographs are completely authentic. It is inconceivable that the youngster or parent could have perpetrated a hoax.”
Leonard Cramp, on the Birch photos in Flying Saucer Review. (26)

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 the industrial Yorkshire city 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 unannily 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 saucer-shaped 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 Cumbrian predecessor, visiting London to address the inaugeral meeting of the British UFO Research Association in Kensington on September 22, 1962. A contemporary account of the meeting described hoe the schoolboy addressed a crowd of more than 200 members of UFO socieites 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 a newspaper, the Yorkshire Post. 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 [and] both Mr Birch and his son were prepared to talk about it [the photograph] at length.” (35) »

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