Joseph Chapman is a young denizen of late 18th century London, who must contend not only with being orphaned and consigned to an execrable charity school, but also with the sense he is different in important ways from other boys. At the Little Eastcheap Free School for Unfortunate Boys, Joe encounters the predatory headmaster, Mr. Peevers, and a boy, Chowder, who becomes the one person he can trust. When they are separated for their apprenticeships, Joe does well. He becomes apprenticed to a prominent progressive bookseller, but Chowder must contend with the drunken greengrocer Tobias Cudworth and his wife, Dulcibella. With some help from his bookseller, Joe reconnects with Chowder, intending to resume their relationship. Chowder is eager to do the same, but due to treachery, Joe and Chowder soon find themselves in Newgate Prison, facing trial for the capital offense of sodomy.