By Victorian times, Bristol’s Golden Age is long past. The city is plagued by corrupt politicians, dilapidated housing, a disease-ridden river and outbreaks of cholera … until a new mayor resolves to restore it to its former glory.
Robert, orphaned at birth, is adopted by the Quarrell family, then apprenticed to a lime-burner, working alongside an idle, deceitful lad who blackmails a wealthy landowner. Robert becomes obsessed with discovering the circumstances of his birth, his mother’s identity and her final resting-place, knowing only that he was born in a Fishponds hovel and that the midwife’s name was Lottie. His fiancée, Alice, longs to help Robert succeed in his quest.
Reverend Jargoyle, forced against his will into the priesthood by his father on pain of disinheritance, is tempted into sin by an attractive parishioner who also succeeds in beguiling several prominent figures in the city into visiting the ironically named Virtue House. His pastoral duties take him to the Workhouse where he hears Lottie’s confession in which she reveals some of the information sought by Robert. Keen to make up for his own fall from the path of righteousness by bringing a little happiness to someone in distress, he agrees to collaborate with Alice in unearthing the truth about Robert’s provenance.
However, before they can do so, Robert is arrested, charged with murder and imprisoned to await trial, at which his own fiancée will be compelled to act as the key witness for the prosecution and thereby send him to the gallows.