It is a cold January morning in the West Ham shelter of the Salvation Army. The cold has stung two diners at the lunch table into "vivacity"—the sly, young Snobby Price and hard-worn, middle-aged Rummy Mitchens.

They introduce themselves to each other. Price remarks that they share the misfortune of having unpronounceable names due to their parents' class pretensions. Rummy asks why Price is unemployed. He explains that he is intelligent and sees through the capitalists, drinks for happiness, leaves the available work to others out of class solidarity, and steals like a capitalist. When he learns that Rummy is married, he jokes about her being another respectable woman feigning vice to get rescued by the Army. Price himself tells of his blasphemy, gambling, and beating his mother to win the Army's favor. The worse you appear, the more satisfying your salvation to the Army staff.

Jenny Hill, a pale, overwrought Salvation lass, enters leading Peter Shirley, a worn-out elderly man, to the table. She runs off to fetch him lunch. Shirley recounts how he has lost his job to a younger man. He weeps with shame before the prospect of taking a free lunch but does so when Jenny assures him that he will be able to pay them back someday.

Suddenly Bill Walker, a rough young man, appears and menacingly flings Jenny toward the door of the shelter. Apparently Jenny took his girl from him, and Bill has come to reclaim her. Rummy runs to Jenny's aid, and Bill cracks her across the face. Price withdraws in fear, fleeing into the shelter with Rummy to fetch Major Barbara.

Shirley rises and confronts Bill, asking what kind of man terrorizes women, the elderly, and the starving. Bill would never dare face his son-in-law's brother, the wrestler Todger Fairmille. In response, Bill taunts Shirley for taking a handout and Shirley bursts into tears. Shirley warns the young tough, however, against taking on the Major. She is the Earl of Stevenage's granddaughter. Bill skulks into the corner.

Barbara enters briskly and addresses herself to Shirley. Bill sits cowed with his back turned to them. Barbara takes Shirley's vital information. He bristles when she asks about his faith. An unperturbed Barbara notes that their Father must have known what He was doing in making Shirley a Secularist. She turns to Bill, noting mockingly that he certainly must not fear God, otherwise how could he have struck a girl?