In December 1879, Annie Taylor, deserted by her husband, enters the Paddington workhouse on Harrow Road in London with her three children: Victoria, Edith, and her baby son, Edward. She is separated from her girls, stripped and bathed, and assigned a workhouse uniform. The food is inedible, the bed infested with lice, and every waking hour is regulated by the tolling of the workhouse bell. She is put to work in the laundry, a hell-hole of steam and sweat, and forbidden to speak to her fellow inmates. A confrontation with the Matron results in a terrifying night in the “Black Hole”, after which Annie realizes if she is going to survive she must conform to the rules.
Annie’s back story is told in alternate chapters that describe her childhood in the slums of Marylebone, her life as a “domestic”, and her ill-fated marriage to a newspaper compositor who eventually absconds to South Africa. The other two stories are those of Edith, who dreamed of a career on the stage, and Edward, who grew up in a home for orphans and eventually emigrated to Quebec as one of Canada’s “home children.”