An expression known to all meaning ‘nothing’ – and often said to be ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’. Yet it is also a term having a most interesting etymology, albeit a sad and macabre one.
In 1867 three girls from Alton in Hampshire took a walk. Fanny Adams, aged 8, her 7-year-old sister Lizzie, and their 8-year-old friend Minnie Warner were given permission to head towards Flood Meadow by Harriet Adams, mother of the sisters. Around two in the afternoon on Tanhouse Lane they met Frederick Baker, a 29-year-old solicitor’s clerk. The man offered four halfpennies to the girls, one for each and an extra one for Fanny to accompany him to Shalden some two miles away. They all took the coins but Fanny refused to go with him. It made no difference. Baker carried Fanny Adams into a field of hops. She was never seen alive again.
It was three hours before the other girls returned home. In their naivety they saw no reason to raise an alarm and it was only when a neighbour, a Mrs Gardiner, asked about Fanny that their story came out and Mrs Adams was informed. Both women retraced the girls’ steps and soon met Baker. They spoke to him and while he admitted he had given them money he denied anything else had happened. In Victorian Britain a man in his position was considered completely trustworthy and his version was accepted.
Another two hours and still no sign of Fanny and every available hand went searching. They soon found what they were looking for in the hop field. What they found was horrific for the body had been horribly mutilated. Arms and legs were severed, the eye sockets were empty, and the torso was empty. Her eyes later found in the river, with the internal organs strewn across the countryside. Over a matter of days the remains were recovered and taken to the local doctor’s surgery where they were reunited.
Later that evening Baker was arrested at the office of his employer, William Clement. Police had to protect him from the mob who, on seeing the blood on his clothes, were increasingly aggressive. There was so much evidence against him – two blood-stained knives on his person, a witness to Baker leaving Alton and a new career “as a butcher”, the statements of the Lizzie and Minnie, and a diary entry in Baker’s own hand “24th August, Saturday – killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.”
Sent for trial at Winchester it was revealed Baker had murdered her by a blow to the head with a sizable stone. His counsel tried to show he was insane, there being several cases of such in the family, they also tried to show diminished responsibility with medical evidence of epilepsy. There was no question as to his eventual guilt, the only question whether the police could protect him long enough for him to die at the hands of the executioner. On Christmas Eve 1867 Baker was hanged outside Winchester Gaol, the last person executed in the city.
Today we see the origin of the phrase as insensitive, to say the least. However it took just two years for this notorious case to enter the language, for it was then the Royal Navy introduced tinned mutton to their rations. Sailors did not care for the new protein source and suggested it must be produced from the remains of the murder victim. It has been speculated the two stories were linked by the local of the Royal Navy yard at Deptford, where there was an abattoir and a bakery and within touching distance of Alton. In reality the two were several miles apart and this explanation was almost certainly created several years afterwards. The same is also true of the abbreviation “Sweet FA” used for “sweet f**k all” when certainly from much later. The tin containing the meat was later reused as a mess tin. Recycling nineteenth century style led to the mess tin being known as a Fanny as it still is today
Shortly after the use of Fanny Adams to refer to something as ‘worthless’ or ‘nothing at all’ the Australians began referring to canned chopped meat as Harriet Lane. Despite this also being the name of Fanny’s mother, the two are unrelated except by the circumstances of their respective murders. As with Fanny, Harriet Lane (for that was her name) was murdered and butchered, the latter by a man named Henry Wainwright. However this was not in Australia, as we would presume, but in London.
As usual I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.