The action covers a period of roughly four months -- from August to November -- around the time of Queen Victoria's Jubilee. Liza Kemp is an 18-year-old factory worker and the youngest of 13 children, now living alone with her ageing and incompetent mother. Very popular with all the residents -- both young and old -- of Vere Street, Lambeth, she cannot really make up her mind as far as her love life is concerned. She very much likes Tom, a boy her age, but when he proposes to her she rejects him ("I don't love yer so as ter marry yer"). Nevertheless she is persuaded to join a party of 32 who make a coach trip (in a horse-drawn coach, of course) to a nearby village on the August Bank Holiday Monday. Some of the other members of the party are Tom; Liza's friend Sally and her boyfriend Harry; and Jim Blakeston, a 40-year-old father of nine who has recently moved to Vere Street with his large family, and his wife (while their eldest daughter, Polly, is taking care of her siblings). The outing is a lot of fun, and they all get more or less drunk on beer. On their way back, in the dark, Liza realizes that Jim Blakeston is making a pass at her by holding her hand. After their arrival back home, Jim manages to speak to her alone and to steal a kiss from her.
Seemingly without considering either the moral implications or the consequences of her actions, Liza feels attracted to Jim. They never appear together in public because they do not want the other residents of Vere Street or their workmates to start talking about them. One of Jim Blakeston's first steps to win Liza's heart is to go to a melodramatic play with her on Saturday night. Afterwards, he succeeds in seducing her (although we never learn where they do it -- obviously in the open):
But in the end they do "slide down into the darkness of the passage". (The reader never learns whether at that time Liza is still a virgin or not.) Liza is overwhelmed by love. ("Thus began a time of love and joy.")
When autumn arrives and the nights get chillier, Liza's secret meetings with Jim become less comfortable and more trying. Lacking an indoor meeting place, they even spend their evenings together in the third class waiting room of Waterloo station. Also, to Liza's dismay, it turns out that people do start talking about them, in spite of the precautions they have taken. Only Liza's mother, who is a drunkard and a very simple sort of person, has no idea what is going on.
Liza's friend Sally gets married, has to stop working at the factory because her husband would not let his wife earn her own money, and soon becomes pregnant. Liza feels increasingly isolated, with Sally being married now and even Tom seemingly shunning her, but her love for Jim keeps her going. They do talk about their love affair though: about the possibility of Jim leaving his wife and children ("I dunno if I could get on without the kids"), about Liza not being able to leave her mother because the latter needs her help, about living somewhere else "as if we was married", about bigamy -- but, strangely, not about adultery.
The novel builds up to a sad climax when it gradually turns out that all men -- maybe with the exception of Tom -- are alike: They invariably beat their wives, especially when they have been drinking. Soon after their wedding Harry beats up Sally just because she has been away from home chatting with a female neighbour of theirs. What is more, he even hits Mrs Cooper, his mother-in-law. Liza, who happens to drop by and stays a little longer to comfort Sally is late for her meeting with Jim in front of a nearby pub. When she finally gets there Jim himself is aggressive towards her for being late. Without really intending to, he hits her across the face ("It wasn't the blow that 'urt me much; it was the wy you was talkin'"). Nevertheless on the following morning she has a black eye.
Soon the situation deteriorates completely. Mrs Blakeston, who is pregnant again, stops talking to her husband at home -- this is her way of opposing his affair with Liza. Then she goes on to indirectly threaten Liza: She tells other people what she would do to Liza if she got hold of her, and the other people tell Liza. Liza, a "coward" according to the third person narrator, is frightened because Mrs Blakeston is strong whereas she herself is weak. One Saturday afternoon in November, when Liza is going home from work, she is confronted with an angry Mrs Blakeston. In the ensuing fight between the two women, Mrs Blakeston first spits in Liza's face and then attacks her physically. Quickly a group of spectators gather round the two women -- none of them even tries to separate the fighting women ("The audience shouted and cheered and clapped their hands."). Eventually, both Tom and Jim stop the fight, and Tom walks Liza home. Liza is now publicly stigmatized as a "wrong one", a fact she herself admits to Tom ("Oh, but I 'ave treated yer bad. I'm a regular wrong 'un, I am"). Despite all her misbehaviour ("I couldn't 'elp it! [...] I did love 'im so!"), Tom still wants to marry Liza, but she tells him that "it's too lite now" because she thinks she is pregnant. Tom would even tolerate her condition if only she could decide to marry him, but she refuses again.
Meanwhile, at the Blakestones', Jim beats up his wife. Again people nearby -- this time those who live in the same house and who are alarmed by Polly Blakeston -- choose not to interfere in other people's domestic problems ("She'll git over it; an' p'raps she deserves it, for all you know").
When Mrs Kemp comes home and sees her daughter's injuries all she can contribute to mitigating the situation is to offer her daughter some alcohol (whisky or gin). In the course of the evening they both get drunk, in spite of Liza's pregnancy. During the following night, however, Liza has a miscarriage. Mr Hodges, who lives upstairs, fetches a doctor from the nearby hospital, who soon pronounces the hopelessness of Liza's condition. While her daughter is dying, Mrs Kemp has a long talk with Mrs Hodges, a midwife and sick-nurse. Liza's last visitor is Jim, but Liza is already in a coma. Mrs Kemp and Mrs Hodges have switched the subject and are talking about the funeral arrangements (!) when Liza's death rattle can be heard and the doctor, who is still present, declares that she is dead.
Liza of Lambeth is clearly not a muckraking novel. People seem to be content with what they have; their poverty is not depicted as unbearable, and it does not prevent them from being fervent patriots ("Every man's fust duty is ter get as many children as 'e bloomin'well can") or from enjoying their spare time (which is often spent in pubs; also Liza drinks a lot). The scene at the theatre where Liza shouts out loud during the performance to warn one of the characters on stage is reminiscent of the Elizabethan theatre.
At one point the narrator deplores the "newish, three-storied buildings" of Vere Street which are "perfectly flat, without a bow window [...] to break the straightness of the line from one end of the street to the other". As the lodgings are rather crowded with people, the residents of Vere Street spend as much time as possible outside, in the street -- something which has changed completely in the course of the last hundred years.
It is not mentioned what the factory Liza and Sally work at is producing. What we do learn though is that work at the factory starts at 8 a.m. If you are late you are shut out, do not get a token and, accordingly, do not get any pay for that day. On Saturdays, work is over around 2 p.m. The August Bank Holiday -- the day of the excursion -- enables the workers to have two days off in a row, something which is quite unusual for them.
There is not even an allusion to the women's or at least the suffragette movement. Every character in the novel -- both men and women -- knows their place, and the traditional stereotypes of gender roles are repeated over and over again. For example, Sally is absolutely submissive and blames herself when she is beaten up by her husband Harry. Beating your wife seems like a national pastime.
Apart from Jim Blakeston's illicit affair with Liza Kemp, which is about to lead to an unwanted pregnancy, there is just one quick mention of illegitimate children, and no mention at all of abortions. The question of morality is not really pursued, neither by the characters in the novel nor by the third person narrator.
From an early 21st century point of view, the way the characters regard death could almost be called fatalistic. People do not believe there is anything they can do about sudden or premature deaths. Infant mortality is very high.
The language used by the characters (i.e. everything in direct speech) is probably the most difficult aspect of the novel. This concerns both (a) the phonetic spelling (the typical Cockney phenomenon of "dropping the aitches" - and vice versa) and (b) the innumerable slang expressions.
The musical style is predominantly music hall, but the show includes a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan, a church choir arrangement with some completely incongruous lyrics (A Little Bit On The Side), and some touching ballads.
The Tart With A Heart of Gold was cut from the West End production, and is also missing from the original London cast recording (Thames THA 100), despite it describing the entire raison d'être of one of the main female characters.
The musical has not been officially published for amateur performance, but it is occasionally licensed for amateurs. The world amateur premiere was performed at the Erith Playhouse in Erith, Kent, in June 1977, and was attended by members of the London production team. The rights to this musical are currently held by Thames Music in London.