Out Of Work By John Law

In August 1888, a new book titled “Out of Work”, written by John Law, was published. The book included a vivid description of what happened at the Trafalgar Square “Bloody Sunday” riots, on Sunday, 13th November, 1887.

John Law was, in fact, a pseudonym adopted by Margaret Harkness (1854 – 1923), a major figure in the Socialist movement and also very influential in the East End politics of the era.

A portrait of Margaret Harkness.
Margaret Harkness (1854 – 1923)


The book was reviewed by The Pall Mall Gazette on Tuesday, 7th August, 1888:-

“The lady who writes under the pseudonym of John Law is specially well qualified – through prolonged personal investigations – to speak of life in the East End of London. She is able to tell us in very truth how the poor live, and it is this undeniable stamp of reality in her descriptions which furnishes the chief attraction of her books.

“Out of Work” is a story of today, and tells its own tale in its title.

Joseph Coney, the hero, is one of that large class of misguided young men who yearly come up to London in search of work. He is a carpenter by trade; soon he sinks to the rank of a dock labourer, and finally becomes a hopeless loafer, living on the earnings of a friendly flower girl.


The dismal story of slow starvation, the scenes in the doss-house, at the dock gates, in the workhouse casual ward, are all told without a shred of sensationalism, but they are none the less tragic.

The hero is, in truth, a very unheroic person; such as he is, however, he has been made by the irresistible force of circumstances, and he may be taken as a type of thousands.

Few people realize the utterly demoralizing effect which a futile and ceaseless search for work has on all but the most sturdy natures.


More pathetic still is the study of the little flower-girl, nicknamed the “Squirrel,” an English edition of one of Bret Harte’s little heroines, with all the precocious cuteness of the street waif, utterly untrained and untaught, and yet loving the worthless “joy” with a quite heroic devotion.

Both lives end in misery, no other ending being possible for either in the present condition of the working classes.


John Law paints things as they are, and does not always spare even those who are accustomed to be regarded as public benefactors.

The Toynbeeites may be trusted not to advertise the book by their praise, and Methodism, smug, self-complacent, and exclusive, in the midst of starvation and vice, is represented under its least edifying aspect, a representation not wholly undeserved.


Perhaps the chapter on the Trafalgar Square riots is the least graphic in the book – it would require a Carlyle to do justice to such a scene – and the slight tone of irony which pervades it is surely undeserved by the Socialists who were present.

Nevertheless, “Out of Work” can be thoroughly recommended, and those who like to imbibe information in pleasant doses will find the book an eminently satisfactory medium.”


Incidentally, Margaret Harkness features in Bradley’s Harper’s excellent book A Knife In The Fog, which has her joining forces with Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, to hunt Jack the Ripper through the streets of the East End of London.

You can see my conversation with Bradley on the following video.