In the slums of Hull, at the turn of the 18th century, lived Will and Maria Foster, constantly fighting a war against poverty, disease and crime. Will was a whaler, wedded to the sea, and when tragedy struck, crippling him for life, it was John Rayner, nephew of the owner of the whaling fleet, who was to rescue the family. Will had saved the boy's life on an arctic voyage and they were offered work and a home on the headlands of Holderness, on the estate owned by John Rayner's wealthy family.
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Sarah Foster's parents have been fighting a constant battle with poverty, disease and crime. When her father, Will, is involved in a terrible accident at work, their lives became even harder. But Will's good deeds of the past pay off as John Rayner decides to rescue the Fosters. John provides them with work and a house on the estate owned by his wealthy family.
Annie Swinburn had killed a man - the killing was timely and well-deserved, for Francis Morton had been evil in every possible way. But Annie knew that however justified her crime, only the rope and the gibbet awaited her if she remained in the slums of Hull. And so she ran - up river, along the wild and secretive paths of the great Humber - a new and unfamiliar territory which was to lead her into a new and unfamiliar life.
It is the late 1850s, and a tired woman holding a baby walks from Hull to one of the big houses in Anlaby - the home of the wealthy Rayners. She knocks at the door and shoves the baby at young James Rayner. The father was 'young Mr Rayner', and the mother is dead. Then she vanishes. The respectable shipping family of Hull are shattered.