I was beaten for stammering, says Wilcox

By Jessica Callan
Entertainment Reporter

DESMOND WILCOX, the broadcaster, has revealed how stammering wrecked his childhood because his Jesuit headmaster thought he could beat it out of him.

The husband of Esther Rantzen was at the launch of the world’s first stammering helpline yesterday and said he was caned so often by his headmaster at Cheltenham Grammar School that he was the most beaten boy there. He said: “Stammering was the first disabling condition in my life. I stammered so badly until the age of 13 that I was almost locked into silence. It was wartime and very little sympathy was available.

“The only teachers who were left behind were women who had not volunteered and men who were drunk and a Jesuit priest who was the headmaster. I can’t remember his name but I have his face in my mind. I don’t know why I’m protecting him or the others as it is more than they ever offered me. I don’t dignify him with a name in my memory now. It was an uncomfortable milestone in my life and I’m sure it also caused a lot of misery for lots of other children.

“The school I was at thought stammering could be beaten out of people. I held the record for the number of times I was caned. The headmaster was the beater but it was not unusual in those days to be caned. As a stammerer you were thought of as a malingerer and a faker. Even my parents would say to me, ‘You don’t have to do that’, when I would stammer, which of course would make it worse.

“Even until they died quite recently, my father would say to me, ‘Come on, what are you doing that for?’ if I would stammer, even though I was a man in my fifties. They reflected a generation who thought if you couldn’t see the disability then they wouldn’t believe it if you had a stammer. Very few people understand the excruciating difficulty, loneliness and very real pain that stammerers go through.”

It is estimated that more than 750,000 people in Britain have a stammer. Other well-known stammerers include Rowan Atkinson, the American singer Carly Simon, the actor Sam Neill, Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill and Isaac Newton.

At the launch of the new helpline in Westminster, Mr Wilcox said: “My stammer comes back under certain circumstances: when I’m in the presence of other stammerers, if I’m extremely tired, if I’m angry or if I have had too much to drink. It also comes back when I am emotionally excited.”

Mr Wilcox welcomed the launch of the nationwide helpline, which is funded by National Lottery money and is manned by trained counsellors. He said: “This will reach those who may feel they are alone. It will give help and advice. Stammering should be no handicap to success and personal happiness.”

Mr Wilcox added: “I have volunteered to be outed and I hope everyone out there understands that I can still earn my living as a journalist and broadcaster. When a stammerer is performing his voice is perfect as he is putting on a performance.”


© Copyright Telegraph Group Limited 1998.



Daily Telegraph, London, 18 November 1998

Wilcox claim is rubbish, says fellow stammerer

By Jessica Callan
Entertainment Reporter

A STAMMERER who was at school with Desmond Wilcox yesterday described as “utter rubbish” the broadcaster’s claims to have been brutalised by a Jesuit headmaster for stammering.

Mike Abasalon, a pupil at Cheltenham Grammar School from 1942 to 1949, said: “I overlapped with him. I also stammered but I had nothing but encouragement, understanding and help and I got over it.

“The headmaster was Geoffrey Heywood and Mr Wilcox’s claims that he tried to beat it out of him seem to me to be entirely false. Mr Heywood wasn’t even a Jesuit. He was an Anglican lay reader and a delightful man. He was a very good teacher and was nothing like the man Mr Wilcox described.

“I agree with him that in those days there was corporal punishment but it wasn’t widely used and was always a threat. In my time at the school it was known as ‘getting the tan’. There was only one boy at the school when I was there who was caned and that was for messing up a classroom.”

Mr Wilcox, 67, claimed last week that his childhood was made a misery by the headmaster. “The school I was at thought stammering could be beaten out of people,” he said. “It was wartime and very little sympathy was available. As a stammerer you were thought of as a malingerer and a faker.”

He claimed that he held the record for the number of times he was beaten.

However Mr Abasalon said: “No one was caned for stammering. It was not a beatable offence. I got nothing but help, understanding and encouragement for my stammer. The headmaster said to me, ‘Don’t worry about it. Do your best and it will come right’, which it did.

“I was a shy boy who stammered at school but I really enjoyed my time at Cheltenham Grammar and I had a wonderful education and got a scholarship to Cambridge University.

“I retired as an eye surgeon and am now a non-stipendiary minister in the Church of England.”

Mr Abasalon said he had fond memories of his headmaster. “When I was a prefect we took turns to take morning assembly. After I had my go at reading the lesson and leading the prayers, Mr Heywood said, ‘That was very well done. I didn’t want to tell you at the time as I thought it would make you embarrassed’.

“He would have been delighted to know I was ordained two years ago.”

Mr Wilcox said yesterday, “I am glad people have fond memories of the school and I am sorry they now feel offended 50 years after the event. My memory is that the headmaster told me he was a Jesuit priest. I have no written records of that time. I do not lie and there is no reason for me inventing this.”