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In 1886, Clara, a young peasant girl and prostitute, steals a baby from a rich family in the hope that Henry, the man she lives with will believe the baby his and marry her.
He doesn’t believe her and leaves. Stuck with the stolen child Nellie, Clara has two more children with unknown fathers and spends all her money on drink. One day while Nellie is out looking for food, the police arrest her “mother” because of her neglect of the children, and her “siblings” are taken to the workhouse.
Nellie runs away from her hometown and settles in Ulverston, Cumbria, making a makeshift bed near the canal and boat yards. She eats what she can forage and steals when she must. Nellie meets a rich boy named Charles Nicholson, who left home to become a sailor. Nellie persuades Charles to return home and they become friends.
Nellie becomes employed by a farmer who tries to assault her. The man injures himself on the pitchfork she uses to defend herself and Nellie runs away. The farmer finds her, beats her badly, and leaves her for dead. Charles and his father find Nellie and get her medical attention.
Nellie becomes a kitchen maid in the Warburton household, only to discover that she is the lost baby kidnapped from the Nicholson family so many years before. Could it be that Charles, the man she has come to love, is really her brother?