There are few Brits who aren’t familiar with the phrase ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’. Over the years it has become common phraseology for ‘nothing’ or something that is worthless. But where did it come from?
Fanny Adams was an eight-year-old English girl who was murdered by solicitor’s clerk Frederick Baker on 24 August 1867. If she were alive today Fanny Adams would be shocked her name has been so depressingly embedded in English slang. The question is, what did Fanny do to deserve to be 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. Not rich, Fanny’s life as the daughter of an agricultural worker was simple, but she was fed, clothed and loved. On that dreadful day three little girls went out to play together, not knowing their innocent lives would change forever and one girl would not return home alive.
Baker offered Little Minnie three halfpence if she would take herself and Fanny’s sister Lizzie away somewhere else to play. He offered Fanny a halfpenny to go with him to ‘The Hollow’, which led to the village of Shalden. But when he gave her the money, she refused to accompany him. Annoyed, Baker picked her up and carried her off into a hop field and out of sight.
Several hours later Minnie returned home without Fanny and told their mother about the meeting with the man in the black coat. Worried, Mrs Adams went to look for Fanny with the help of her neighbour.
Whilst searching they spotted a man in a black coat walking back to the village from the direction of The Hollow. They accosted him and demanded to know what he had done with Fanny. The man shrugged them off claiming ‘nothing, I gave the girl’s money, but only to buy sweets which I often do to children.’ The two women remained unconvinced, but then the man told them he was the clerk to a local solicitor. Deciding him to be respectable, the women let him walk away.
A search party was created, and they swiftly came across Fanny’s remains. They found her head stuck up on two poles; the eyes missing. It would take several days to find the rest of the body which the killer dismembered and scattered nearby, her eyes were later found in a nearby river.
That same night an investigation into the murder was launched and the prime suspect Frederick Baker, Clerk to William Clement, was arrested. Baker claimed his innocence, despite his clothes being bloodstained and being found carrying two bloody knives. Evidence mounted. The entry in Baker’s diary for the 24th August read: ‘killed a young girl.’
Police feared the local community would attempt to lynch Baker and his initial hearing and trial were carried out at top speed, with his trial starting on Thursday 29th August, just days after the murder. The judge urged the jury to consider Baker’s poor mental health and consider Baker irresponsible for his action through reason of insanity, but the jury took just 15 minutes to convict him guilty. The judge had no choice but to give a sentence of death.
In 1869 the British Navy introduced a new ration, mutton in a tin. The food stuff was hardly mouth-watering, and sailors started a running joke that the mutton was actually the remains of ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’. These jokes continued and soon the contents of the tin became to be known as ‘sweet FA’ This trickled into popular phraseology and still is today. Although it wasn’t until later that ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’ came to mean ‘nothing’. The term ‘f*** all’ has long been with us with that meaning. Although how long isn’t clear as politeness caused it not to be recorded in print until the 20th century.
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