Exploring the lives of three children living rough on the streets of Victorian London.
1. Maddy’s story: finding the ‘pure’
Maddy introduces herself and describes how she came to be sleeping rough at Billingsgate. She used to work with her father, a pick-pocket.
One day they are at a public execution outside Newgate prison when Maddy’s father picks a pocket too many and is caught. Maddy escapes from the scene and goes to find her grandfather.
Maddy’s grandfather explains that her father will probably be transported - taken to Australia. If Maddy wants to stay with him she will have to earn her keep, helping him to ‘find the pure’.
‘Pure-finding’ was a popular Victorian occupation and involved collecting dog faeces to sell to the tanneries that used it in the process of making leather. The job required no skill and so became very popular…leading to a dramatic fall in the value of a bucket of pure.
Maddy has no choice other than to do as her grandfather urges. However, when he dies suddenly she is left homeless and goes to join the other children on the street.
2. Jacko’s story: dogs and rats
Jacko is another of the children sleeping rough in Billingsgate Market. He recounts how he used to work with a rat-catcher called Vic. Their job is to keep the granaries in the London dockyards free from vermin.
Jacko’s job is to attract the rats out of their hiding places a steer them over to Vic, who places them in a large basket. Jacko describes how Vic was very particular about catching the rats alive and not harming them…because the rats will later be taken to a pub in Soho where they will be slaughtered in a dog pit - and the best rats achieve the best prices.
One day Jacko arrives at the granary to find Vic convulsing. Jacko decides to continue with the Soho trade, but when he is paid off with a fraction of the usual price he decides to pick a punter’s pocket. He is nearly caught and now, without any occupation, arrives at Billingsgate to join the homeless children.
3. Gyp’s story: mudlarking
Gyp recalls how she used to work with her uncle Dick ‘mudlarking’ on the shore of the River Thames - that’s to say, picking up any items they can find to sell (usually pieces of coal). It is dirty, smelly work. But it gets even dirtier...
One day Dick tells Maddy that he’s met a man called ‘Tosher’ who works in the filthy sewers underneath the city...and that they’ll do the same. Tosher shows them how to prod in the filth to find anything valuable that has been washed into the sewers.
Unfortunately one day they stray up one of the tunnels washed out by the opening of the sluice gates: Tosher and Dick perish in the flood, but Maddy is somehow miraculously carried back to the bank of the Thames.