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Sweet Fanny Adams: The Murder of an Innocent Child

Updated on September 27, 2017
Victorian Childhood Innocence
Victorian Childhood Innocence

There are few Brits who aren’t familiar with the phrase ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’. Over the years it has become common parlance for 'nothing' or something that is worthless. Often shortened to ‘Sweet F A’ or further crudely corrupted to ‘Sweet f*** all’, it trips off the tongue easily and few question its origin. If she were alive today Fanny Adams would probably be shocked and wounded that her name has been so negatively embedded in English slang. The question is, what did Fanny do to deserve being immortalised in this way? The answer, ironically, is nothing. Fanny Adams was simply an innocent child who was cruelly murdered in a crime so barbaric that it shook Victorian England to its very core.

Tanhouse Lane
Tanhouse Lane

Fanny Adams’ last day on Earth had started as a happy one. By no means rich, Fanny’s life as the daughter of an agricultural worker was simple but she was fed, clothed and loved. Fanny lived in a small cottage on Tanhouse Lane, Alton Hampshire. Alton was, and indeed still is, a picturesque market town in the south of England. Its most famous resident before poor Fanny was the celebrated English author, Jane Austen. That fateful Saturday had dawned hot and sultry. Fanny’s father planned to play cricket later in the day and her mother was busy with her younger siblings and household chores. When 8 year old Fanny, her sister Lizzie aged 5 and Fanny’s best friend Minnie Warner asked if they could go and play, Fanny’s mother Harriet, had no qualms about letting them go.

Flood Meadows
Flood Meadows

The three children set off on the short trip to some fields called Flood Meadows where they often played. As they walked they were approached by a man who they had seen in church. That man was Frederick Baker, a 29 year old solicitor’s clerk who had recently moved to the small town. Although the children suspected Baker was drunk, they believed him to be a respectable man. When he approached them, they were probably a little wary but unafraid. What they couldn’t know was that Baker was a paedophile with murder on his mind. Fanny was a particularly pretty child who was quite tall for her age. She clearly caught Baker’s eye and he offered her a ha’penny to go with him into a nearby hop garden.He offered the other two children a further three ha’pennies to play elsewhere.The three children took the money but Fanny stayed close to her sister and her friend. For a time the children played happily in Flood Meadows. Baker hovered nearby picking blackberries which he offered to the girls but he made no move towards Fanny. After an hour or so Lizzie and Minnie, by now tired, hot and hungry, decided to go home. As they made to leave, Baker quickly intercepted them and asked Fanny to accompany him to the next village, Shalden. When she refused he grabbed the screaming child and dragged her into a nearby hop garden.

A Hampshire Hop Garden in Victorian times
A Hampshire Hop Garden in Victorian times

Terrified, the two children who had witnessed the abduction, ran as fast as they could and reported what they had seen to Martha Warner, Minnie’s mother. Whether the poor woman was distracted or the children’s story made no sense, she took no action but shooed them out to play a little longer. It wasn’t until five in the afternoon when Minnie recounted the story to a neighbour, Mrs. Gardner, that the search for poor Fanny began. Alarmed by Minnie’s story, Mrs Gardner immediately fetched Fanny’s mother and the two set off in search of the missing child. As they approached Flood Meadows, they encountered Frederick Baker. The two women demanded to know where Fanny was and why he had given the children money. When Mrs. Gardner threatened to involve the police, he scoffed at the women and suggested that they should go ahead. According to Baker he had nothing to hide and often gave money to local children. He was indeed a respectable citizen in the town and was smartly dressed. Perhaps intimidated by his position and his air of confidence, the two women accepted his explanation and went home.

The Abduction and Murder of Fanny Adams Depicted in The Police Gazette
The Abduction and Murder of Fanny Adams Depicted in The Police Gazette

When Fanny had not returned home by supper time a search party comprised of locals went out to scour the area. Fanny could not be found in Flood Meadows or on the lane that led to Shalden, known as The Hollows. It was only when a local labourer,Thomas Gates, went into a nearby hop garden to tend his crop, that a terrible discovery was made. Gates found Fanny’s severed head impaled on two sticks and tossed into the hop plants. Not only had poor Fanny been decapitated but her body and internal organs had been dismembered and thrown about the area. Fanny’s mother collapsed in shock and her father, who was playing cricket, summoned. Devastated, George Adams rushed home and seized his shotgun to go in search of Baker. His concerned neighbours managed to restrain him and sat with him through the night.

Ye Olde Leathern Bottle
Ye Olde Leathern Bottle

In a move that would shock today’s forensic investigators, scores of people turned up the following day to search for Fanny’s body parts. Retrieving as much as they could, the child’s remains were then transported to a local house now known as Ye Olde Leathern Bottle, to be examined. At the same time, the police went in search of Baker who had gone to work as normal in the solicitor’s offices in Alton. Baker was arrested on suspicion of murder. When he was searched he was found to be in possession of two small knives. On the cuffs of his shirt were small drops of blood but not enough to suggest he had murdered a child. However, two further pieces of evidence were later to be discovered. The first was an entry for the 26th August in his office diary stating, “Killed a young girl. It was fine and hot”. The second was the statement of a young child who had seen Baker leaving the hop garden where Fanny was found. He claimed that Baker was covered in blood and had stopped to wash himself in a nearby pond.


Minnie Warner and Lizzie Adams at Fanny's Grave
Minnie Warner and Lizzie Adams at Fanny's Grave

On 5th December, Baker stood trial for Fanny’s murder. Throughout his trial he denied killing the child and remained calm and collected. His defence however, pleaded that Baker was insane and revealed that other members of his family suffered from violent outbursts.Despite his pleas of innocence, Baker was found guilty. He was hanged on Christmas Eve at Winchester Gaol in front of an angry crowd of 5,000. Determined not to forget Fanny, the local community of Alton raised the money for a headstone which still stands in the cemetery where the unfortunate little girl is buried.This is where poor Fanny’s story should have ended except for a strange turn of events which would see Fanny Adams' name become synonymous with anything worthless.

British Sailor
British Sailor

In1869 tinned mutton was introduced as rations in the British Navy. Far from being a tasty cut of meat, sailors complained their food was so awful they suspected it was the dismembered body of Fanny Adams. Soon the grotesque joke had spread so far that tinned mutton was referred to as a tin of Fanny Adams.To this day British sailors are served their rations in what is nicknamed a 'Fanny'. As often happens with language the slang phrase 'Sweet Fanny Adams' soon filtered into wider society where it became a euphemism for anything not worth having or 'nothing'.Today Fanny's name lives on but her story has faded back into the mists of time.How sad that this is her legacy. Maybe next time we Brits are tempted to use the phrases 'Sweet Fanny Adams' or 'Sweet F.A.' we should just take a moment to pause and remember the poor little girl whose life was cruelly ended on a hot summer day, many, many, years ago.

Tanhouse Lane, Alton

Sources

Fanny Adams : Wikipedia

'Sweet Fanny Adams - the meaning and origin of this phrase : The Phrase Finder

The true story of Sweet Fanny Adams : Hampshire Genealogical Trust

Who was Sweet Fanny Adams? : Hampshire Genealogical Society

Brutal slaying of Sweet Fanny Adams : The Daily Echo

Sweet Fanny Adams : The Urban Dictionary

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    • SClemmons profile image

      SClemmons 2 weeks ago from the Carolina Coast

      Interesting story, I wasn't familiar with it. Too bad her name is used in such a metaphorical manner.

    • profile image

      Moira Renwick 2 months ago

      I had no idea that the term I use quite often was related to this poor child. I will never say it again.

    • anncarcat profile image
      Author

      Ann Carney 2 months ago from UK

      Thanks for your comment Paula. The origin of some of the language we use is fascinating and in this case very, very sad. Take care, Ann.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 2 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Ann...This is a brand new story to me. While it is quite disturbing and egregious, it is surely an interesting tale. I can't help but cringe and be haunted by the horror this precious little girl must have endured. It can be little comfort to know the guilty person was hanged to serve justice.

      It only adds to the sadness to know how this child's name somehow evolved to be used in such a negative manner....

      Thanks for the education. Paula