Sweet Fanny Adams..? The horror behind the words…

I was unusually tired when I got back home from work on Sunday afternoon. With plenty of things I was ‘supposed to’ do, I couldn’t settle to anything for once and spent most of the day listening to music. My choice, an odd mix, fell on operatic arias I have loved since childhood and mediaeval music associated with the Templars. I feel I should apologise to my neighbours… not for the music, but for singing along with it. A singer I am most definitely not.

I couldn’t even muster the energy to feel guilty about doing sweet F.A. … then wondered exactly where that euphemistic phrase had originated and headed over to the computer to find out. I have always been fascinated by the origins of old words and phrases and imagined that the name must relate to some indolent lady of leisure or a character from some forgotten book…

Sometimes, you can learn a lot about the mindset, mores and daily life of a time and place by looking at the expressions it has left behind.

Most of the time, ‘sweet F. A.’ now covers a rather more ‘colourful’ expletive in apparent respectability. So, if asked, you can always say it means ‘sweet Fanny Adams’… but just who was Fanny Adams?  I Googled and uncovered the grisliest of tales… one which once struck horror into the heart of the nation, but which has since been largely forgotten…

Sometimes, I wish I had left the old tales well alone…

File:Fanny Adams portrait.jpg

A portrait of Fanny Adams by Illustrated Police News in 1867

Fanny Adams was a pretty and cheerful eight-year old, born in 1859, who lived in the market town of Alton in Hampshire, an area famed for hop growing. On 24 August 1867, a hot and sunny summer day, Fanny and her friends went out to play together.. in an area free of crime and an era less suspicious and alert to danger, this was a common occurence. A solicitor’s clerk, Frederick Baker, newly moved to the area, stopped to talk to them. He picked blackberries for them to eat and gave them money for sweets, then asked Fanny if she would walk with him to the next village.

Fanny refused but Baker swept her up and carried her off. The other girls went home and spoke to one of their mothers who ignored the tale, so the little girls carried on playing. Later that afternoon, a neighbour noticed Fanny’s absence and spoke to the girls, asking where she was. Hearing the tale, the neighbour went to  Fanny’s mother and they set off towards the hop garden to look for the child. There they met Baker, who was pleasant and said he often gave pennies to children for sweets… and his respectable position as a solicitor’s clerk allayed their fears.

It was not until the evening, when Fanny had still not returned, that those fears returned. A group of neighbours accompanied Fanny’s mother to search for the child. In the hop garden, they found her…

Fanny’s head was impaled upon two poles: her eyes were later found in the river. The rest of her body had been savagely, brutally torn and hacked to pieces. I’ll spare you the horrific details…

The grave of Fanny Adams, Alton Cemetery.
Image: Peter Trimming, Flickr (CCL2)

After an investigation that used all the forensic methods available at the time, Baker was arrested, tried and found guilty of Fanny’s murder. He was hanged at Winchester, after writing to Fanny’s family to ask forgiveness for what he had done “in an unguarded hour”.

Almost as grisly was the macabre ‘humour’ of the British sailors, issued in 1869 with unpalatable tinned mutton, which they catechised as probably being the butchered remains of the poor little girl. The expression eventually expanded to mean anything worthless… and, by extension, the wasting of time.

I doubt I will ever use the phrase again.

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
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56 Responses to Sweet Fanny Adams..? The horror behind the words…

  1. anita dawes says:

    Alton isn’t far from where I live, so this unsavoury story hit me squarely between the eyes.
    Hampshire prides itself as being well to do and free from scandalous behaviour, but I shall think of it a little differently from now on… I cannot imagine finding such a thing in the peaceful countryside around here…


  2. That’ll teach you for wanting to educate yourself! I thought I’d read about the origin of the phrase before, but clearly not, because this was new to me.


  3. That’s a hideous story, Sue. Unfortunately, things like that continue to happen. When I think how often we children walked alone to or from school in the 1940s it’s hard to believe no one worried. Now parents would be visited by the social services in the U.S. if they let their children do that in many areas. 😦 — Suzanne


  4. Pingback: Sweet Fanny Adams..? The horror behind the words… — Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo – yazım'yazgısı (typography)

  5. Violet Lentz says:

    Not yet in my vernacular, and less likely to enter it now! Terrifying tale.


  6. queadrian says:

    It is a terrible story! I really don’t want to hear, but it sometimes happened anyway, so be careful!


  7. Mary Smith says:

    What a truly horrible story, Sue.


  8. beth says:

    I’ve never heard that phrase here, so not only did I learn that, but I learned the horrific origin story. like you, I love to find how words and phrases came to be, and what a dark twist this took –


  9. Etymology is a wonderful thing… usually. 😦 I never would have guessed at the tale behind that phrase. Like you, I wouldve figured something a little more hedonistic yet benign.


  10. TanGental says:

    That was one thing dad taught us… and I thought it was some dig at football. Just found out the origin of ‘it gets my goat’ which isn’t gory at all. The beauty of google…


  11. fransiweinstein says:

    If we didn’t have Google at our fingertips you most likely would never have known this story. On the one hand it IS a wonder to be able to satiate our curiosity so quickly, easily and with never having to leave home — and on the other, sometimes we’d be better off being left in the dark.


  12. Anonymous says:

    I’d forgotten the story, thanks for the reminder.


  13. Darlene says:

    OMG! How awful. I think I prefer the more modern use of the term.


  14. V.M.Sang says:

    What a horrific story. And it’s come down to us as so innocuous.


  15. My grandmother’s family all come from around Alton in various villages. From what I could gather at that time they had more than enough to cope with health and food wise without this monster in their midst… terrific post Sue..thank you xx


  16. From the Allman Brothers song
    Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain
    The week before, they all seemed the same
    With the help of God and true friends, I’ve come to realize
    I still have two strong legs, and even wings to fly
    So I, ain’t a-wastin time no more
    ‘Cause time goes by like hurricanes, and faster things

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Oh no that’s awful! Great that you’ve told about this, as I have often used the phrase, but hadn’t a clue what it meant. No I don’t think I will ever use it again.


  18. Jules says:

    You have reminded me of a common praise here ‘Rule of Thumb’ to also mean a general rule or common occurrence. However ‘Rule of Thumb’ was the width of a tree branch that a husband could use to legally beat his wife with (way before women had any real rights) – so I refuse to use that term anymore either.


    • Sue Vincent says:

      I had to look it up 🙂 It seems that belief was probably based upon rumour rather than fact and the judge who was said to have made it lawful was wrongfully accused… and the phrase has been around far longer and appears to have been based on approximating measurements by thumb and eye.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jules says:

        I’m not sure where I learned it… but it bothered me enough to not want to use it just by association. Words transform from different languages over time to mean something completely different from what the origin was.

        “The phrase rule of thumb first became associated with domestic abuse in the 1970s, after which the spurious legal definition was cited as factual in a number of law journals, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published a report on domestic abuse titled “Under the Rule of Thumb” in 1982.” Interesting history. Thanks…


  19. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blogger Daily – Monday February 17th 2020 – #Interview Norah Colvin, #Writing Eloise de Sousa, #Horror Sue Vincent | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  20. joylennick says:

    Poor little Sweet Fanny Adams… How horrific, Sue. We used the expression many times years ago.
    What a monster the murderer was! x


  21. willowdot21 says:

    I am so shocked, I have heard this story before but totally blanked it! It all coming back to me…and so near to where I live ! 💜


  22. Widdershins says:

    It’s not a phrase I’ve used in decades, and I certainly won’t ever use it again. 😦


  23. Norah says:

    What an unpleasant story. I agree with you, Sue. I rarely, if ever, used the phrase but never will again.


  24. Jennie says:

    Yes, perhaps some old tales are better left alone. So tragic.


  25. Ghastly, but thank you for it.


  26. How utterly dreadful.


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