In Part One of the novel, Grenville takes the reader back in time to William's life in London before his deportation to New South Wales. The section opens with a description of William's impoverished childhood in the slums of Southwark. One of eight children, William grows up in cramped rooms filled with damp air and the noxious smell of tanneries and glue factories. His mother works as a seamstress, and his father flits from factory to factory but is most often unemployed. The Thormhills suffer from constant hunger and freeze in the winter as the wind whips through the broken glass in the windows.
William begins working at five years old, following his father through the streets of Southwark collecting dog feces that they then sell to one of the factories. The whole family engages in petty thievery to put a loaf of bread on the table. William, along with his brothers Rob and James, belong to a local gang of boys who spend their days on the street looking for any opportunity to steal something to eat or sell. Dan Oldfield, who is later indentured to William in New South Wales, is a member of this pack of boys.
Although William runs wild through the streets of Southwark, stealing and fighting, he has a soft spot for Sal (Sarah) Middleton, the daughter of relatively successful waterman. Sal lives in a home on Swan Lane with glass windows and plenty of bread in the cupboard. William idolizes both Sal and her comfortable and loving home. Sal and William escape down to the marshes at Rotherhithe where they made a hideout in the bushes. Away from the dirty, narrow streets and smelly factories, William and Sal find peace and a place to call their own. William feels that he can be himself with Sal, a young boy who wants to goof around, and not the tough street urchin his life demands. Sal is the one good thing in William's life, and the thought of her kind brown eyes keeps him warm in the frozen night.
William's mother and father die soon after each other from illnesses fostered by dampness and poverty. His older brothers leave home - Matty for the sea and James to a life a crime on the other side of the river. William becomes the breadwinner for his siblings. He works in the factories and the tanneries, taking any job available. He leaves Mr. Pott's textile factory after he sees a child crushed under one of the machines. He then finds work down at the wharf, loading and unloading goods. The workers at the wharf earn barely enough to survive and often result to skimming a little off the abundant goods that pass through the wharf. One day, William encounters a group of men prying the lid off one of the caskets in the warehouse. The men quickly fill their bags with sugar, but William is overcome by the sight of so much sugar and begins to eat it by the handful. The men disappear, and William hears the supervisor approaching. He fills his hat with sugar and tries to stuff more into his pockets. He is hemmed in by the caskets and packages, so he tries to hide in the corner. The supervisor does not believe William's story that he found the casket sitting open. The supervisor drags William out onto the quay, strips off his shirt and trousers, and whips him in front of the other workers.
William continues to work on the docks, and his friend Collarbone shows him how to siphon off brandy from a casket by moving one the metal hoops, drilling little holes in the wood, and then putting the metal hoop back into place over the holes. William is fourteen when the Thames freezes over for two weeks. The docks shut down, and the family begins to starve. Sal's father, Mr. Middleton, comes to the family's rescue. Mr. Middleton is a waterman, as was his father and grandfather before him. He owns his own boats and supports his family in relative comfort. After his wife's last miscarriage, Mr. Middleton resigned himself to never having a son to carry on the family business. He offers William the chance to be his apprentice and learn the trade. After seven years as an apprentice, William would qualify as a freeman on the Thames. Mr. Middleton also finds sewing work for William's sisters, Mary and Lizzie.
Mr. Middleton takes William to Waterman's Hall to get official approval of William's apprenticeship - a process called binding. The Hall is grand, the most luxurious place William has ever seen. Six men in robes sit behind a large mahogany table. William is shocked to hear the men address Mr. Middleton informally by his first name. He cringes to see the man who commands such respect in the neighborhood adopt a posture of humility. The strict hierarchy of the world suddenly strikes William. He understands that each man stands on a rung of the ladder with someone above and below him.
William works hard as Mr. Middleton's apprentice, but for the first time in his life he has a warm place to sleep and enough food in his belly. He lives in the Middleton's house and spends his free time with Sal, who painstakingly teaches him how to sign his name. William spends long days on the water, ferrying members of the gentry back and forth across the river. He comes to hate the way they haggle over the price when their purses are full of coins. He resents the way that they look through him and make him wait knee-deep in the icy water while they chat on the dock.
One day, a gentleman and his wife hire William to row them across the river. The man is thin and ineffectual, with nothing going for him except his family's money. He flaunts his wife at William, showing William that he could never possess such a fine lady. The woman must expose the bottom of her leg as she gets into the boat, and William catches a glimpse of green silk slippers. He wonders at a life in which a woman needs no more than a patch of silk to cover her feet. The woman catches William's eye and pulls up her skirt to reveal her leg on the pretext of showing her husband the green slipper, now ruined by the muddy water of the Thames. William sees the sensual teasing in the woman's eyes and feels a surge of anger. He knows that he could beat the young dandy in any test of skill or strength, and yet he must bow and scrape to the man because he is a gentleman by virtue of his birth. The rigid class system condemns William to a life of poverty and backbreaking labor.
As the years pass, William and Sal's childhood affection grows into a deep love. They get married on the day William receives his freedom, and Mr. Middleton gives William one of his rowboats as a wedding present. William and Sal move into rooms of their own in the neighborhood, and William plies his trade on the Thames. Fed up with ferrying the gentry to and fro, William works as a lighterman, rowing loads of coal and timber along the river. When Sal bears him a son, William believes that he has managed to escape the starvation and poverty of his childhood. He feels a sense of pride and accomplishment that he is able to feed and house his family.
Subject to the vagaries of the weather and sudden illness, things soon take a turn for the worse for William and his family. The river freezes solid for a month, putting a halt to all shipping. Then Mrs. Middleton falls on the ice, and her health goes into a steep decline. The money that William and Sal put aside for a freeze soon runs out, and Mr. Middleton spends hand over fist on doctors and potions for Mrs. Middleton. On one of his regular treks to the apothecary, Mr. Middleton returns with a fever and dies soon after. Upon hearing of her husband's death, Mrs. Middleton follows her husband to the grave. William and Sal are left destitute. Mr. Middleton spent all his savings on caring for Mrs. Middleton, and the month-long frost destroyed the business. William learns that Mr. Middleton did not hold the lease on the house on Swan Lane, and they are forced to sell the furniture to pay the rent. Finally, the bailiffs come and take over the house and the two boats, including the one given to William on his wedding day. William is forced to work as a journeyman, pulling the oars for another man. With the loss of the house on Swan Lane and his boat, William feels himself sinking back into destitution.
Sal faces the hardship with a sense of humor and strength of will. She finds them ever cheaper rooms and even learns to steal. No matter how hard he works, William cannot earn enough to feed his family, and he is forced to resort to theft. He returns to the tricks he learned working on the docks and takes every opportunity to skim off one of the loads that he transports. However, it is a dangerous game. William and Sal's childhood friend Collarbone is caught with stolen brandy and sentenced to death by hanging. William takes up a collection to bribe the executioner to give Collarbone a quick death. But the executioner does not measure Collarbone accurately, and instead of having his neck broken immediately, he slowly suffocates in the noose.
William now works for Mr. Lucas, ferrying a wide variety of goods along the Thames. Mr. Lucas treats thieves without mercy, but William cannot feed his family without stealing. One night, William arranges with his brother Rob to steal a few pieces of valuable Brazilian timber from one of Mr. Lucas' shipments. William suspects that it may be a trap, but he goes ahead with the plan anyway. William and Rob are caught in the act. Rob jumps overboard in an attempt to escape and drowns. William is sent to Newgate, where after a cursory trial, he is sentenced to death by hanging.
Despite the death sentence, Sal refuses to give up. She arranges for letters of appeal to be sent to the relevant people, and William's sentence is commuted to deportation to New South Wales for duration of his natural life. Sal is given permission to accompany her husband.
Grenville returns to William's life in London before his deportation to New South Wales to introduce the reader to the major events that formed William's character and that guide his actions throughout the novel. Grenville conveys the dire poverty of Southwark, encouraging the reader to sympathize with a little boy who shivers in the night because the family cannot afford enough blankets. The act of stealing is not presented as a moral wrong but a physical necessity. If the people of Southwark did not steal, they would soon starve to death. Grenville paints a very human and sympathetic portrait of the inhabitants of Southwark to counteract the stereotype of the deported convicts as rough and violent individuals. For decades, Australia battled to shed its image as a land of convicts and played down the role many convicts played in settling the land and advancing the economic prosperity of the country. Grenville wants to the reader to see beyond the stereotype and understand the forces that brought the convicts to Australia and the challenges they faced in their new land.
The merciless class system of 19th century England condemns William and his family to lives of ignorance and hunger. Neither the Church nor the government care about the people crammed into the dank streets. As Grenville says about the grand church that stands on the river, "It was a place with no charity in its grey stones for a boy with the seat out of his britches."
The scene at Waterman's Hall lights the spark of William's rage against the unjust social system and informs his actions in New South Wales - in particular, his obsession with Thornhill's Point. William knows that he is on the bottom rung of the hierarchy of men, and he rails against the system that placed him there. The hot pain in the seat of his pants as he is forced to stand too close to the fire symbolizes the emotional pain and humiliation he experiences on behalf of Mr. Middleton.
The loss of the boats and the house on Swan Lane leaves deep scars on William's psyche. The house on Swan Lane symbolizes William's dream of stability and security. His greatest desire is to provide his family with a decent place to live and enough food to keep the hunger at bay. He does not expect any handouts, and he is willing to work hard, rowing up and down the Thames in all weather. When he realizes the precarious hold on security that even Mr. Middleton possessed, William acutely feels the trap he was born into. Only Sal's love keeps him from giving up. The memory of the loss of the house on Swan Lane haunts William in New South Wales. He is determined to own a piece of land that no one can take away from him. It is this need for security that drives William to participate in the bloody attack on the Aborigines at the end of the novel.
Through Sal's good humor in the face of increasing misfortune, Grenville demonstrates the importance of a stable childhood home in an individual's development. While the reader would initially expect Sal to take the loss of her home and her family's money the hardest, it is William who reels under the blow. Sal takes their ever more miserable living conditions in stride, and she is the one who continues to fight after William is sentenced to death. Sal is able to adjust to her changing circumstances because her stable childhood gave her a solid sense of her place in the world. Unlike William, she does not worry that the rug will be pulled out from under her at any moment. She also does not hate or fear authority because her family was once in a position of relative importance.