The expression ‘Sweet F.A.’ or ‘Sweet Fanny Adamas’ has been used since late Victorian times, though the meaning of ‘Sweet F.A.’ has altered over the years. It actually originated in the brutal murder of Fanny Adams by Frederick Baker in 1867 in the normally quiet town of Alton in Hampshire. A few decades earlier, Jane Austen had written some of her best-loved novels in the nearby village of Chawton, and she frequently walked to and from Alton to do shopping.
In the early afternoon of Saturday 24th August 1867, 8-year-old Fanny Adams was with her friend Minnie Warner and her sister Elizabeth Adams, who was a year younger. The three girls, according to the Hampshire Chronicle newspaper, were ‘of respectable parents, residing in Tan House-lane, Alton, [and] were playing in Flood Meadow, at the back of Mr. Jefferie’s tan yard, distance from their residences about 400 yards’. At the inquest and subsequent trial, many witnesses gave sometimes contradictory statements. What seems to have happened is that Frederick Baker went up to the girls and gave Minnie some coins to take Elizabeth away. At the same time he offered Fanny ‘a halfpenny to go with him up a hollow, or old road, leading to the village of Shalden, by the side of a hop-garden’. Fanny became upset and refused, but Baker ‘laid hold of her hand and took her away crying’.
Instead of seeking help, the other two girls wandered about the fields, returning home three or four hours later, when they met a neighbour, Mrs Gardener, who asked where Fanny had gone. She immediately told their story to Mrs Adams, and both women set out to look for the missing girl:
‘After going a short distance, they met Baker returning to the town, close by a gate which separates the hop-garden from the meadow. Mrs. Gardener asked, “What have you done with the child?” and he replied, “Nothing.” She then said, “Did you not give Warner three halfpence to return, and leave you with Fanny? – at least she has told us so.” Baker said, “No, I did not, I gave her 1½d. to buy some sweets, which I often do to children.” Mrs. Gardener then observed, “I have a great mind to give you in charge of the police.” Baker rejoined she might do as she liked.’
Baker was a solicitor’s clerk in Alton, working for the firm of Messrs Clement & Son (one son had been the Trafalgar hero Benjamin Clement, who lived in Chawton, knew Jane Austen and died in 1835 – see our blog post here and Roy’s Trafalgar book, p. 188). Because Baker held a respectable position and because he spoke quietly to both women, they ‘went home under the impression that [Fanny] was playing about some of the neighbouring fields, and would return before long’.
By eight o’clock Fanny had still not returned, and so a party was assembled from the neighbourhood to search for her. On entering the hop garden, her severed and mutilated head was found. She had been hacked to pieces and the body parts were scattered. The awful news quickly spread:
‘The mother on learning what had occurred, became nearly frantic, and rushed off to communicate the sad intelligence to her husband, who was engaged at a cricket match on the butts, but before she got far she fell from the excitement, and had to be conveyed home. Messengers were immediately despatched to the father, who instantly returned home, and as soon as he realised the melancholy affair, and on being told that Baker was the guilty party, seized a loaded gun, and hastened to the hop-garden with the intention of shooting him. Not seeing him there, he returned home, when the gun was taken from him and two persons sat up with him the night.’
All evidence pointed towards Frederick Baker being guilty, and he was arrested at the solicitor’s office. Some of his clothing was damp or wet and the cuffs of his shirt had been recently washed, though they still had spots of blood. A partially hidden diary was discovered with the entry: ‘Killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.’ Baker admitted the crime, but claimed he had not meant to do it but had been intoxicated. At his trial, his defence was one of insanity, but the jury ignored his plea and found him guilty of murder.
Such was the notoriety of the case that it received extensive coverage in local and national newspapers. A crowd of several thousand people attended his execution by hanging outside Winchester gaol on Christmas Eve 1867, and an effigy of Frederick Baker was added to the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s waxworks exhibition in London.
Residents of Alton started a subscription to provide a memorial for the young girl, and in April the following year, 1868, the Hampshire Chronicle was able to report:
‘THE ALTON MURDER – The inhabitants of this town, having completed the subscription list for raising a memorial to Fanny Adams, who was so brutally murdered by Frederick Baker, have erected a neat head-stone over her grave. The stone was placed in the cemetery on Saturday last, and bears the following inscription:–
“Sacred to the memory of FANNY ADAMS, aged eight years and four months, who was cruelly murdered on August the 24th 1867. ‘Fear not them which kill the body, but rather fear him who is able to kill both soul and body in hell.’”’
The grave of Fanny Adams at Alton in Hampshire
Men serving in the military forces have always used derogatory names and black humour for the food supplied to them, including ‘salt horse’ or ‘salt junk’ for the salt beef or pork that the Royal Navy provided – ‘junk’ was a term for worn-out lengths of old rope (see our book Jack Tar). By the time of the murder of Fanny Adams, canned mutton and beef were being imported from Australia, and the seamen joked that the dubious-looking contents might be the remains of the murdered girl Fanny Adams and adopted her name as slang for canned meat. One rumour even spread that a button had been found in one can.
A few years later, in 1874, another sensational murder took place, in Whitechapel, London, this time of Harriet Lane, whose decomposing body was dug up the following year, cut into pieces and wrapped up for disposal. Her murderer (Henry Wainwright) was caught trying to dispose of the packages, and the horror that this crime caused meant that her name was also used for cans of chopped-up meat. All too often naval slang passed into everyday usage, and ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’ or ‘Sweet F.A.’ became a widely used expression, meaning ‘something useless’, ‘worse than useless’ or ‘nothing at all’.