You may imagine that “Sweet FA” stands for “Sweet F All”, but, in fact, it’s derived from a notorious murder that took place in 1867 – and it happened in the little market town I call home.
Fanny Adams was an 8 year old who lived in Alton, Hampshire, with her parents and five brothers and sisters. She was tall for her age and spent a lot of time in Flood Meadows – an area that still exists today beside the River Wey (in fact, very close to its source beneath the chalk downs).
Fanny, her sister Lizzie and her friend Minnie Warner were walking through a hop garden (historically, Alton was a brewing centre) when they met Frederick Baker, a 29 year old solicitor’s clerk.
Baker abducted her and took her into the hop gardens while Lizzie and Minnie ran off to tell Minnie’s mother who, it appears, paid them no attention. Finally, some hours later, Fanny’s mother went looking for her. They found Baker, but he said he’d given her money and sent her on her way.
During the evening, Fanny’s mother and a group of neighbours went looking for her, and they found her dismembered body in the hop garden, though it wasn’t until the following day that all her parts were finally gathered together. Without wishing to go into too much detail, her remains were sewn together at a place called The Leathern Bottle, which was a pub/restaurant in very close to where Fanny lived.
Police superintendent William Cheyney took witness statements that identified Frederick Baker as having been seen with the children that afternoon and, tracking him down to his office, Cheyney found him at his desk, still working, at 9pm. He denied any knowledge of the tragedy, but Cheyney arrested him, bundling him out of the back door to avoid the angry mob that had gathered. He had two small knives on him and spots of blood on his shirt. Cheyney discovered, in the drawer of his desk, a chilling diary entry:
Saturday 24th August 1867: Killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.
Baker remained cool throughout his trial, insisting that he was innocent despite further bloodstained clothes having been discovered. At his trial, his defence argued that Baker was insane. His father had been violent, he had a mad cousin and he had once attempted suicide.
The jury, though invited by the judge to consider a verdict of insanity, returned guilty after only fifteen minutes of deliberation. He was hanged on Christmas Eve 1867 at Winchester Gaol – the last public execution held there. 5,000 people turned up.
Sweet Fanny Adams
Legend has it that sailors who were dissatisfied with the unidentifiable meat in their rations of tinned mutton, suggested they might be the butchered remains of Fanny, so it became the slang for leftovers or anything worthless. This morphed into meaning “nothing” and “sweet FA” got misremembered as something else entirely as time passed.
Fanny’s grave can be found in the older part of Alton Cemetery, standing alone and, to this day, tributes are left there in remembrance. The picture at the top of this post was taken by me when I went to pay my respects. The inscription reads:
Sacred to the memory of Fanny Adams aged 8 years and 4 months who was cruelly murdered on Saturday August 24th 1867.
The stone was paid for by a public subscription. Rest in peace, Fanny.