Meet me, meet me at Midnight,
Among the Queen Anne's lace
Midnight is not a moment,
Midnight is a place--
Joan Aiken has a habit of writing about the horrors of Victorian-age (or shortly prior to that) England, and this book is no exception. The industrial revolution provided a lot of urbanisation, sooty air, and bad working conditions, and that makes for good fiction, when handled properly,
Midnight is a Place is a 1974 children's book about young (twelve?) Lucas Bell and younger (eight) Anna-Marie Eulalie Murgatroyd. It's the sixth book in the series that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
Lucas is an orphan living at Midnight Court with his unpleasant guardian Sir Randolph Grimbsy. He basically hangs around the dark, gloomy mansion with nothing to do but study French, geometry, and whatever else his tutor Julian Oakapple feels like teaching him. Lucas' father had been Sir Randolph's partner in operation of The Mill, but had died two years prior.
Then Anna-Marie comes to stay at the manner as well. She speaks only French (luckily, Lucas discovers that Mr. Oakapple has actually been quite an effective French teacher after all) and acts fairly haughty and spoilt. Lucas and her hang out some, but an arrogant eight-year-old girl was not the playmate Lucas had been hoping for.
Spoilers follow! Avert thine eyes!
However, Sir Randolf has some money problems. He inadvertently won Midnight Court, the rug factory, and everything else from Anna-Marie's father who was--for a few short moments--the richest man in England due to a large inheritance. Sadly, he's blown most of it with less-successful wagers and has twenty years of back taxes to pay. Without the funds, he's informed he'll be forced to auction off his house or the mill. He chooses to burn down the house, with him in it. (Everyone else was in it as well, but most got out safely.)
This plunges our hero and heroine into an unpleasant situation: their home is burnt down, they have little money, Mr. Oakapple is in the hospital severely burned, and no one is left to care for them. Oh, and everybody in town despised Sir Randolph and anyone associated with him.
They find a place to rent, and begin the highly-enjoyable task of earning enough money to live in the mill town of Blastbury.
Anna-Marie proves a fairly practical person when she needs be, and collects tobacco from old cigarettes. Lucas has the fun job of hunting for stuff in the sewers, where his assigned toshing partner may be homicidal, wild bores charge up and down the tunnels, and terrier-sized rats traverse.
In addition to paying rent, the children are covering Mr. Oakapple's hospital expenses (he has no family of his own), and paying off the Friendly Boys for 'protection'. (You know the sort: if you give us money we'll protect you from us killing you.)
Eventually, Mr. Oakapple is slightly better and must leave the hospital. Anna-Marie realises that they could move to the old ice house in the park near where Midnight Court had been, and there they discover Anna-Marie's grandmother Eulalia Murgatroyd, the widow of the former owner.
Due to ruffians in the town doing their best to stop Anna-Marie's tobacco collecting, she instead goes to work at Midnight Mill, which her grandfather had founded many years ago, and had been previously owned by Sir Randolph. There, she works the various unpleasant and somewhat dangerous jobs they assigned to kids. Eventually, Lucas ends up there as well, but on his first day, the Friendly Boys attempt to have Anna-Marie killed in an 'accident', and Luc breaks the press in his foiling of the plan.
So...the secret union leader duels with the Friendly Boys leader and they both die. Lucas' father's will is found gaining Lucas' an inherited income of twenty pounds per year (oh, wow). It's learned that Lady Murgatroyd's cousin is the new owner of the mill, and Lucas is asked to advise him on getting it up to spec.
A happy ending. Whodathunkit.
Well, the rest of the series of course exists. As I said, this is the sixth book in the series that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (at least, I'm told is the same series. I haven't read most of those books for so long that I don't know the connection. But the world is similar.) The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman reminds me of it somewhat, but that's partly because of the big rats in the sewer connection.