the gruesome origin of ‘Harriet Lane’ and ‘Fanny Adams’



The Northern Daily Mail and South Durham Herald (Hartlepool, County Durham, England) of 14th July 1894 published an article titled Naval Slang. How Jack Re-christens Things, which contains the following:

The preserved meat served out to him is known as “Fanny Adams” or “Harriet Lane.”

But the term Harriet Lane was also used by soldiers. The author of Volunteering in South Africa, published in The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England) of 4th November 1893, wrote of

canned meat known to soldiers as “Harriet Lane,” otherwise “bully beef.” Its form is convenient for the haversack, its quality thoroughly wholesome, and when cooked with “spuds” it is an excellent field mess.




An article about sailors’ food, published in the South Wales Daily News (Cardiff, Glamorgan, Wales) of 9th December 1892, contains this remark:

One can understand why they term tinned meat “Harriet Lane,” and the gruesome name practically fixes the date when this food became general on board ship.

This refers to Harriet Lane, a milliner’s apprentice who was murdered in September 1874 by her lover (and the father of her two children), Henry Wainwright, at the warehouse he owned at Whitechapel, London. He buried her body in a shallow grave that he had dug beneath the floorboards, but in September 1875, because of his desperate financial situation, he had to sell the warehouse. He unearthed the body, cut it into manageable pieces, which he wrapped into two parcels. He then asked a former employee named Stokes to help him move those parcels. While Wainwright was away fetching a cab, Stokes, appalled by the smell, looked inside one of the parcels and saw a human head, an arm and a hand. He followed the cab on foot and alerted a policeman, who apprehended Wainwright. The murderer was hanged on 21st December 1875.

Similarly, Fanny Adams was a little girl born in 1859 who was murdered and dismembered at Alton, Hampshire, on 24th August 1867 by Frederick Baker, a solicitor’s clerk. The Herts Guardian (Hertford, Hertfordshire, England) of 27th August gave the following details:

The poor girl’s head was found severed from the trunk, the eyes gone, apparently gouged out, both legs and one arm cut off, and one foot detached from the leg; the abdomen slit up, bowels and heart torn out, and the body scored about the back.

Frederick Baker was hanged on 24th December that year.

An anonymous officer gave a different origin of Fanny Adams in the sense of tinned meat in From Wady Halfa to Dongola: A Nile voyage in a nuggar, published in The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of 17th December 1884:

The lady’s name, I may explain, is the service term for tinned beef, arising out of the following story. A girl working at one of the large preserved meat factories in Australia mysteriously disappeared, and was never again heard of. About that time one of her Majesty’s ships on the station was supplied with a quantity of preserved beef, which turned out so very bad that the sailors declared it must be the missing Fanny Adams, who had been got rid of in this way.

However, no precise facts seem to support this story.

The following is a passage from A British seaman on the British Navy: An interview with a gunnery instructor, published in The Dundee Courier (Dundee, Angus, Scotland) of 29th July 1887:

“Are the rations good?”
“Ah! Now, there’s a thing that wants seeing into. We have to turn out at four o’clock on a cold, dark morning and work about among water, washing decks, until seven o’clock, with nothing on our stomachs. All we get for breakfast is a pint of cocoa and dry biscuit. From seven till twelve we get nothing. Dinner at twelve; one pound of beef and a biscuit. The beef is so hard and salt that we cannot eat it, and so leave a third of it back and take it out in pay. The same with the pork on pea soup days; the soup is so badly cooked we would not eat it unless we were forced. Some days we get Fanny Adams [tinned meat], but plenty of the men won’t touch it, and there is no nourishment in it for any man. We get a pint of tea in the evening, and what is left of the biscuit we had served out in the morning. The tea boils for three hours before we get it.”
“Do you get nothing to eat but what you mention ?”
“No, we buy vegetables, and some messes spend more money than others on provisions, but that is not the thing. It was very well when they used to feed the men on grog, but teetotallers want stronger feeding.”

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