Having made his fortune from London's rubbish, a rich misanthropic miser dies, estranged from all except his faithful employees Mr and Mrs Boffin. By his will, his fortune goes to his estranged son John Harmon, who is to return from where he has settled abroad (possibly in South Africa) to claim it, on condition that he marries a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. The implementation of the will is in the charge of the solicitor, Mortimer Lightwood, who has no other practice.
The son and heir does not appear, though some knew him aboard the ship to London. A body is found in the Thames by Gaffer Hexam, rowed by his daughter Lizzie. He is a waterman who makes his living by retrieving corpses and taking the cash in their pockets, before handing them over to the authorities. Papers in the pockets of the drowned man identify him as the heir, John Harmon. Present at the identification of the water-soaked corpse is a mysterious young man, who gives his name as Julius Handford and then disappears.