Most people who use the term ‘sweet FA’ probably don’t know its origin, or even what it actually means. It does mean ‘absolutely nothing,’ but the FA isn’t an acronym for an expletive. It is a grisly story though, so I warn you. But it’s an interesting tale nonetheless.
In 1867 the small Hampshire village of Alton was a quiet rural place. As such, Harriet Adams probably assumed there was nothing wrong with letting her two daughters and their neighbourhood friend go to a nearby meadow alone. Fanny and Minnie may have only been eight years old and Lizzie, Fanny’s younger sister, only seven, but the meadow was only 400 yards away.
As they walked up the lane they were approached by a respectably dressed man who had clearly been drinking. He offered Minnie three halfpence to go off and spend with Lizzie. Fanny, meanwhile, was offered a halfpenny to accompany him up a nearby road. Fanny took the money but refused to go with him. In response, he picked up the young girl and carried her into a nearby hops field. This was at around 1:30pm.
At around 5pm, tired of playing, Minnie and Lizzie returned home. Mrs Gardiner, a neighbour, upon their return, asked about Fanny’s whereabouts. They explained what had happened with the strange man. The horrified neighbour rushed to tell Mrs Adams of the disappearance. The two women hurried up the lane where they encountered a man coming from the direction of the field. “What have you done with the child?” demanded Mrs Gardiner. “Nothing,” the man calmly replied. As the conversation continued he admitted giving them money, but only to buy sweets. He claimed that Fanny had left unharmed to join her friends. His respectable appearance, calm composure and the fact that he worked for a respected local solicitor convinced the women of his innocence.
At 7pm, with Fanny still missing, a search party was formed. Upon entering the hops field the search party encountered the most horrific of sights. Fanny’s body had been brutally mutilated. Her head had been severed and was found on two poles. It had deep slashes and her right ear had been cut off. Chillingly, the eyes had even been removed. A leg and thigh were found nearby. Surrounding the spot was found her torso, whose contents had been removed and scattered around with internal organs having suffered further cuts and mutilation. The rest of her body was found over the course of several days. Understandably, the crime shocked Victorian Britain. Everyone became aware of the grisly fate of “sweet” Fanny Adams.
Later that evening the man identified at the scene, 29-year-old Frederick Baker, was arrested. He claimed his innocence, but his shirt and trousers were found to be splattered with blood and his boots, socks and trouser bottoms were found to be wet. “That won’t hang me, will it?” he dismissively said. Further searching found a blood-stained knife on his person. Witnesses confirmed that he had left the solicitor’s office after 1pm and returned at 3:25pm. He then went out again at 5:30pm, which was when Mrs Gardiner and Mrs Adams encountered him. It seems likely that he returned to the scene for some unknown purpose. After his meeting with Mrs Gardiner and Mrs Adams he told a work colleague, “It will be very awkward for me if the child is murdered”. He later when to the local pub and commented about having to leave town. After his colleague mentioned that he might struggle to find a job he replied, “I could go as a butcher.” As further evidence, an entry was found in his diary which callously said ‘24th August, Saturday – killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.’
He continued to protest his innocence, but, after only fifteen minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict. He was sentenced to death and hanged before a crowd of 5000 on Christmas Eve, 1867.
This gruesome story would probably have been forgotten if it wasn’t for the dark-humour of British sailors. Served unappetising looking tins of mutton they began claiming that the unpleasant meat could just as well be “Sweet Fanny Adams”. The term spread throughout the armed forces and beyond before eventually evolving to mean “nothing”. The original story has since been largely forgotten, so people began assuming that the term means “fuck all”.