A writer from the north of England, Ann enjoys writing about the unexplained and the paranormal, as well as historical crimes and mysteries.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
www.pastonpaper.com : Christian Mayne
Questions & Answers
Question: Why was Fanny Adams murdered? Was any reason given it supposed? Had the man been implicated in his past? What evidence was presented of insanity? Whatever happened to the other children and how did her family fare after?
Answer: Thank you for your question. I think poor Fanny was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was a pretty child and today we would probably call her murderer a paedophile. He had certainly seen Fanny before. I am not sure what happened to Fanny's family. I imagine they remained in the area. The terrible circumstances of Fanny's death and the following publicity must have made life very hard.
Riffat Junaid from Pakistan on July 12, 2020:
I am feeling very bad for Fanny Adams. She was just a child how could anyone do, this is so horrible.
Fran on April 11, 2020:
I’m 63 and was brought up with my sister in Lancashire and remember the term Sweet Fanny Adams. Although we’ve not heard it for a while we heard it’s use many times. We never for one minute knew there was a history like this. Thankyou so much for writing this piece it was extremely interesting
Ann Carney (author) from UK on August 02, 2019:
Thank you so much!
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on August 02, 2019:
Sweet and Talented Writer, Ann . . .you are so welcome. But you only need to look inside your sweet imagination to find your next piece. WOW, is how I see your writing. As you can see in my initial comment . . .Amazing. I should have said that too.
Write me anytime you like.
Ann Carney (author) from UK on August 02, 2019:
Thank you Kenneth. You have spurred me on to write another article. Kind regards, Ann
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on August 01, 2019:
Your writing such hub needs to be written in novels.
Write me anytime.
Lilac1961 on July 11, 2019:
I have heard this expression many, many times in Australia. I suppose it made it's way to Australia with the first convicts.
MaryWestVirginia on May 13, 2019:
I have never heard this expression, probably because I’m an American, but we have crazy origins of slang here, too. Like “if I get caught doing that, my name will be Mud!” ...”my name will be Mud” comes from Dr Mudd, the doctor who tended to John Wilkes Booth’s injuries after he shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln.. Even though Dr Mudd was just doing what any doctor would do, he was more or less ostracized from the community and his profession and he spent time in prison. He was later pardoned.
Ann Carney (author) from UK on May 12, 2019:
Thank you for your interest. I really enjoyed reading the information your research has uncovered.
Riele Reagan on May 12, 2019:
Wow. More people should read this - I'll never hear the phrase the same. Luckily, I live in the States, but still... There were no dates in this article so I looked it up, (on chance Fred Baker might have been a suspect of Jack the Ripper ::shrug:: you never know).I did find that Fanny's killer was hanged in 1867, the year of Fanny's murder, although a stone or proper grave marker couldn't be afforded or placed at her grave until 1874. Minnie and Lizzie were 6 and 7 respectively, and Fanny was 7 at the time of the murder. The children in the photo were likely only "tourists' taking a photo beside it as a macabre momento or momento mori, in the Victorian way. The years between Fanny's murder and when the stone was placed mean the children in the photo could not have been Minnie Warner and Lizzie Adams. They'd have been entering their teens by the time the stone was finally placed. It's still a great photo, if very sad and the meaning of it a bit changed knowing those children could never have known Fanny, but were probably aware of her story and made to pose at her grave. It would have served as a "lesson" on "stranger-danger". Ah, well... cemetaries in those times were made for that sort of thing, a memory and communion with the dead, not a fearing of death, (even if this sort of thing likely did spook many Victorian children, especially when thinking of it late at night - hence their Victorian anxieties). I do think it adds to the atmosphere and gives a good idea of the people and the age. The children pictured would've been about the same age as the girls at the time of Fanny's murder, and being of the same period, it gives a chilling image.
I did see a photo online that people reported was of Fanny, herself, although I doubt it only because so few could afford their photos taken, and when a family cannot afford a grave marker in Victorian times, when mourning was an absolute and whole-hearted endeavor, it speaks so much.Then, yet to disregard teams of horses with plumes, parades of people and special clothing and accessories down to jewelry and stationary - even when you couldn't afford it was considered to be disrespecting the dead. it's hard to think they'd have forgone the stone if they could at all manage to purchase one, on top of bread and black dye for their clothing. So sad, the entire thing.
Donna Sophia on May 10, 2019:
Is that an actual photo of Fanny, or a stock photo from Internet?
Sophia on March 08, 2019:
Bob jack on January 31, 2019:
I live opposite the cemetery where she lays. On a clear night her grave stone glows white. We often walk through flood meadows.
K on January 30, 2019:
She was a beautiful little girl
RoseMcP on January 15, 2019:
I have often used this expression, and never known it's origin. Thank you for your article it was so interesting to read, tho the circumstances which surround this phrase are so very sad.
Shazay on January 13, 2019:
Have used poor Fanny's name in vane for years - even more so the 'Sweet F.A' version. The origins of this made for very sad r
Diane Mercer on November 05, 2018:
Thank you so much for your article. I have often said "sweet f- - k all" not realizing what I was referring to. I will no longer use this phrase. I feel so sorry for this poor child regardless of the length of time she has been gone.
Ann Carney (author) from UK on October 18, 2018:
I agree, it is very sad. A few people have told me they no longer use the phrase 'sweet Fanny Adams' now they know how it originated. Thanks for your comment
Travel Chef from Manila on October 18, 2018:
I have no idea about Fanny Adam's story. So sad that generations of today aren't aware of the true story of this poor little girl. As she deserves some respect from other people.
Ann Carney (author) from UK on September 29, 2018:
Will do and thank you.
Stormie on August 01, 2018:
Bless her soul. People are so mean, very disturbing & sad.
Ann Carney (author) from UK on July 11, 2018:
Thank you for your comment. I agree it is a very sad story. Take care Ann
black butterly 2 on July 11, 2018:
I had never heard that story, its a vey sad story :(
Your article is very well written :)
Black Butterfly2 on July 11, 2018:
I have never heard this story, it is very sad. :(
is very well written :)
BleedingHeart from Georgia on March 23, 2018:
You are very welcome, and this to is true. So sad there are people out in this world willing to hurt children as well as each other.
Ann Carney (author) from UK on March 23, 2018:
Thank you so much for your kind comments. I too love history. This story is particularly poignant though and sadly, as we know, history is still repeating itself.
BleedingHeart from Georgia on March 22, 2018:
Thank you for the wonderful story. I had never heard of fanny before, but I am intrigued by history. Your article was beautifully written.
SClemmons from the Carolina Coast on November 06, 2017:
Interesting story, I wasn't familiar with it. Too bad her name is used in such a metaphorical manner.
Moira Renwick on September 16, 2017:
I had no idea that the term I use quite often was related to this poor child. I will never say it again.
Ann Carney (author) from UK on September 14, 2017:
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.
Suzie from Carson City on September 13, 2017:
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