Today is the anniversary of Fanny Adams’ death (30 April 1859 – 24 August 1867), a young English girl murdered by solicitor’s clerk Frederick Baker in Alton, Hampshire. The expression “sweet Fanny Adams” refers to her and has come, through British naval slang, to mean “nothing at all”.
On Saturday, 24 August 1867, at about 1:30 pm, Fanny’s mother, Harriet Adams, let the eight-year-old Fanny, her friend Minnie Warner (aged 8) and Fanny’s sister Lizzie (aged 7) go up Tanhouse Lane towards Flood Meadow.
In the lane they met Frederick Baker, a 29-year-old solicitor’s clerk. Baker offered Minnie and Lizzie three halfpence to go and spend and offered Fanny a halfpenny to accompany him towards Shalden, a couple of miles north of Alton. She took the coin but refused to go. He carried her into a hops field, out of sight of the other girls.
At about 5:00 pm, Minnie and Lizzie returned home. Their neighbour, Mrs. Gardiner, asked them where Fanny was, and they told her what had happened. Mrs. Gardiner told Harriet, and they went up the lane, where they came upon Baker coming back. They questioned him and he said he had given the girls money for sweets, but that was all. His respectability meant the women let him go on his way.
At about 7:00 pm, Fanny was still missing, and neighbours went searching. They found Fanny’s body in the hop field, horribly butchered. Her head and legs had been severed and her eyes removed. Her eyes had been thrown into the nearby river. Her torso had been emptied and her organs scattered (it took several days for all her remains to be found). Her remains were taken to and put back together in a nearby doctor’s surgery at 16 Amery Street.
Harriet ran to The Butts field where her husband, bricklayer George Adams, was playing cricket. She told him what had happened, then collapsed. George got his shotgun from home and set off to find the perpetrator, but neighbours stopped him.
That evening Police Superintendent William Cheyney arrested Baker at his place of work: the offices of solicitor William Clement in the High Street. He was led through an angry mob to the police station. There was blood on his shirt and trousers, which he could not explain, but he protested his innocence. He was searched and found to have two small blood-stained knives on him.
Witnesses put Baker in the area, returning to his office at about 3:00 pm, then going out again. Baker’s workmate, fellow clerk Maurice Biddle, reported that, when drinking in the Swan that evening, Baker had said he might leave town. When Biddle replied that he might have trouble getting another job, Baker said, chillingly with hindsight, “I could go as a butcher”. On 26 August, the police found Baker’s diary in his office. It contained a damning entry:
24th August, Saturday – killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.
On Tuesday, 27 August, Deputy County Coroner Robert Harfield held an inquest. Painter William Walker had found a stone with blood, long hair and flesh; police surgeon, Dr Louis Leslie had carried out a post mortem and concluded that death was by a blow to the head and that the stone was the murder weapon. Baker said nothing, except that he was innocent. The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder. On the 29th, the local magistrates committed Baker for trial at the Winchester County Assizes. The police had difficulty protecting him from the mob.
At his trial on 05 December, the defence contested Millie Warner’s identification of Baker and claimed the knives found were too small for the crime anyway. They also argued insanity: Baker’s father had been violent, a cousin had been in asylums, his sister had died of a brain fever and he himself had attempted suicide after a love affair. The defence also argued that the diary entry was typical of the “epileptic or formal way of entry” that the defendant used and that the absence of a comma after the word killed did not render the entry a confession.
Justice Mellor invited the jury to consider a verdict of not responsible by reason of insanity, but they returned a guilty verdict after just fifteen minutes. On 24 December, Christmas Eve, Baker was hanged outside Winchester Gaol. The crime had become notorious and a crowd of 5,000 attended the execution. Before his death, Baker wrote to the Adamses expressing his sorrow for what he had done “in an unguarded hour” and seeking their forgiveness.
Fanny was buried in Alton cemetery. The headstone, erected by voluntary subscription, reads:
Sacred to the memory of Fanny Adams aged 8 years and 4 months who was cruelly murdered on Saturday August 24th 1867. Fear not them which kill the body but are not able to kill the soul but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell. Matthew 10 v 28.
In 1869 new rations of tinned mutton were introduced for British seamen. They were unimpressed by it, and suggested it might be the butchered remains of Fanny Adams. The way her body had been strewn over a wide area presumably encouraged speculation that parts of her had been found at the Royal Navy victualing yard in Deptford, which was a large facility which included stores, a bakery and an abattoir.
“Fanny Adams” became slang for mutton or stew and then for anything worthless – from which comes the current use of “sweet Fanny Adams” (or just “sweet F.A.”) to mean “nothing at all”.
This is not the only example of Royal Navy slang relating to unpopular rations: even today, tins of steak and kidney pudding are known as “baby’s head”. The large tins the mutton was delivered in were reused as mess tins. Up until that time, when sailors and Royal Marines lived, ate and slept in their mess decks, wooden buckets were used to collect food from the galley, water for washing crockery etc. and to collect the Rum Ration. The empty meat tins were modified and gradually replaced the wooden buckets. These new buckets were given the slang name ‘Fannies’.
Mess tins or cooking pots are still known as Fannies.