In Victorian London foundlings Hetty Feather and Gideon Smeed are fostered by the Cotton family until the age of five when they are taken to the foundling hospital, run by the austere Matron Bottomly and separated into different wings for boys and girls. Having sworn that she would look after Gideon Hetty makes efforts to see him, meeting Mathias, an older boy who looks after Gideon and who plans to escape and run away to sea. Hetty helps Mathias craft a letter to the man who will facilitate this and plans to join him and other boys in an escape attempt. However, thanks to the She-Mob, a group of nasty girls who seek to ingratiate themselves with matron, she fails to join the escapees. Following the discovery that three boys have gone the hospital is subject to an even harsher regime.
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