Born at the turn of the century near the Liverpool docks, Nellie Williams endures a childhood of ill treatment before she escapes into domestic service with a kindly employer. But when he dies, she is taken on by Joshua Leadbetter, JP, who rapes her. Shaken and upset, Nellie flees home and is quickly married to Sam Meadows, a seaman who once befriended her. The rape is concealed from Sam and when Nellie's son is born eight months later. The child, Tommy, is the pride and joy of both his parents, but Nellie's ambition for their son make Sam feel that the boy is growing away from him. False friends fan these insecurities and after a prolonged drinking bout Sam sails for America. How will Nellie cope on her own, and will the mystery of Tommy's parentage ever be revealed?