Gatrell, V.A.C. 1941- (Vic Gatrell)

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Gatrell, V.A.C. 1941- (Vic Gatrell)


Born 1941, in South Africa. Education: Rhodes University, B.A.; Cambridge University, B.A., Ph.D.


Home—Cambridge, England. Office—University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester CO4 3SQ, England. E-mail—[email protected].


Writer, educator. Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, fellow, life fellow, 1967—; lecturer, reader, Cambridge Faculty; University of Essex, professor, 2003—. Visiting fellow, Yale University and Australian National University.


Whitfield Prize, Royal Historical Society, 1994, for The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868; Wolfson Prize and PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize, both 2006, both for City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-century London.


(Editor and author of introduction) Robert Owen: A New View of Society and Report to the County of Lanark, Penguin (London, England), 1971

(Editor, with Bruce Lenman, and Geoffrey Parker) Crime and the Law: The Social History of Crime in Western Europe since 1500, Europa Publications (London, England), 1980.

The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1994.

(As Vic Gatrell) City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-century London, Atlantic (London, England), 2006.

Contributor of articles to numerous professional journals. Contributor of chapters to numerous scholarly books.


A professor of history in England, V.A.C. Gatrell has written books dealing with the history of crime and punishment, sexual politics, and changing social and cultural manners. With The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868, he provides a cultural study of the experiences, meanings of, and attitudes toward public execution. With his 2006 work, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London, he offers a panoramic history of late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century manners and cultural change through a critical study of satirical prints of the age.

Writing in History Today, Clive Emsley noted that The Hanging Tree "takes the reader on a journey through the mentalities of the judges who sentenced, the politicians who decided on penal reform and the appeals for those sentenced to die, and the different social groups who gathered, sometimes in their thousands, to watch executions." Such executions were public until 1868 and afforded occasions of public entertainment as well as warning. Gatrell was inspired to write his study by the case of one falsely accused man, sentenced to hanging for the supposed rape of his neighbor. Gatrell demonstrates in his book that finally the fearsome example of public execution was no longer necessary as new methods of social control were instituted. Through a wide variety of examples, the author demonstrates the cruelty of public hangings. Writing in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Roger Lane observed that the work was "important, often maddening, but always compelling." Allen Horstman, writing in the Historian, felt that "readers, especially undergraduates, will be frustrated by the lack of clear themes." Horstman further complained that the author's "strong feelings about hanging and death itself certainly raise suspicions that the historian's objectivity has been compromised." However, other reviewers had a higher assessment of The Hanging Tree. I.G. Doolittle, writing in the English Historical Review, found it a "tour de force," and Peter Roy, reviewing the work in the New Statesman & Society, termed it "a mammoth study, penetrating and poignant." Carolyn A. Conley, writing in the Journal of Social History, thought it was a "remarkable book, brimming with the enthusiasm of the newly converted."

In City of Laughter, Gatrell, as a Kirkus Reviews critic noted, "explores exhaustively, albeit most pleasantly, the golden age of graphic satire that flourished in licentious London from 1770 to 1830." In doing so, he also examines the society and culture of the time. Gatrell used for this investigation a wealth of bawdy and satirical prints stored in the British Library, focusing on the prints and professional lives of James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank. The resulting work demonstrates that what was considered humorous in the day was very distant from urbane, subtly witty, and sophisticated humor. On the contrary, it was rather a blend of what could be termed toilet humor along with political satire of the broadest variety. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that Gatrell's book "vividly demonstrates the maliciousness and ribaldry of Georgian London." Similarly, New Statesman reviewer John Mullan noted: "Certainly the caricatures show us a disconcerting version of a refined culture's self-images. The London of literary and intellectual clubs was also a city where male sociability was founded on huge alcohol consumption." Further, Gatrell goes on to show that such humor was supplanted by more tasteful (and perhaps less funny) forms as the growing middle classes searched for respectability. A reviewer for Internet Bookwatch felt the book was a "key to any in-depth, college-level understanding of 18th century London." Similarly, Gilbert Taylor, writing in Booklist, concluded, "Capitalizing marvelously on an era's body of illustrations, Gatrell will captivate students of social history." The Kirkus Reviews critic also praised the work as "a lively, erudite study." For Mullan, City of Laughter was a "fact-filled, anecdote-rich book," and for Claire Tomalin of the Spectator the same work was "valuable and entertaining."



Booklist, January 1, 2007, Gilbert Taylor, review of City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London, p. 30.

English Historical Review, November 1, 1995, I.G. Doolittle, review of The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868, p. 1221.

Historian, January 1, 1996, Allen Horstman, review of The Hanging Tree, p. 430.

History Today, January 1, 1997, Clive Emsley, review of The Hanging Tree, p. 57; June 1, 1997, Barry Godrey, review of The Hanging Tree, p. 58; November 1, 2006, Steven Parissien, review of City of Laughter, p. 65.

Internet Bookwatch, March 1, 2007, review of City of Laughter.

Journal of Interdisciplinary History, fall, 1996, Roger Lane, review of The Hanging Tree.

Journal of Social History, spring, 1996, Carolyn A. Conley, review of The Hanging Tree.

Journal of Urban History, November 1, 1997, Simon Renton, review of The Hanging Tree, p. 130.

Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2006, review of City of Laughter, p. 1054.

Library Journal, February 15, 2007, Scott H. Silverman, review of City of Laughter, p. 131.

Michigan Law Review, May 1, 1996, Sara Sun Beale, review of The Hanging Tree, p. 1622.

New Statesman, November 6, 2006, John Mullan, "Life Drawing: Our National Obsession with Political Sleaze and Celebrity Misbehaviour Is Nothing New. John Mullan on the Scurrilous Ancestors of Scarfe, Steadman and Spitting Image," p. 54.

New Statesman & Society, September 16, 1994, Roy Porter, review of The Hanging Tree, p. 36.

Publishers Weekly, October 23, 2006, review of City of Laughter, p. 44.

Spectator, December 16, 2006, Claire Tomalin, "Before We Became Respectable."

Victorian Studies, January 1, 1996, J.S. Cockburn, review of The Hanging Tree, p. 286.


Breaking the Seal, (May 7, 2007), "Dr. Vic Gatrell."

University of Essex, Department of History Web site, (May 7, 2007), "Vic (V.A.C.) Gatrell."