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Allan Hickling and the Organs of Dormston House Sedgley 25 February 2010

In the period of the late 1950s through to the end of the ‘70s the small town of Sedgley in the Black Country area of South Staffordshire was a Mecca for enthusiasts of the Theatre Organ. Why was this so? Well, because in Sedgley lived a gentleman who was a theatre organ enthusiast ‘par excellance’, his name was Allan Hickling.

Allan was born in Nottingham but when he was very young his father obtained a job in Stourbridge in South Staffordshire and so the Hickling Family moved to the Black Country. The young Allan grew up and made his living initially as a manufacturing chemist. Among the enterprises which he owned were Mennex Snuff and Newball and Mason Food Flavourings. Eventually he expanded his interests to embrace the Property World becoming involved in shops and factories and specifically an industrial estate. In addition to his professional interests this very busy man was also involved in local politics being, at various times, on Sedgley, Dudley and Staffordshire Councils.

By the 1950s Allan was in a position to pursue with greater energy an interest he had always had, namely the Organ. He had, by now, purchased Dormston House a large Georgian property near the centre of Sedgley between Wolverhampton and Dudley. One of his friends was Eldon B. Firmstone who had in his home, Wordsley Manor near Stourbridge, a three manual Christie theatre organ which Hill Norman and Beard had installed in the mid 1930s. This gave Allan the idea, now that he had a home large enough, to install an organ of his own. Initially he purchased a three manual classical organ from the Marquis of Lansdown which had been installed in Bowood House in Wiltshire. This was the first organ to grace the Music Room of Dormston House.

Allan’s great love, however, was the Theatre Organ and particularly the Wurlitzer which he regarded as tonally and in build quality the best. So, in 1955 he purchased what was Britain’s first Wurlitzer organ a 2 manual 6 rank model D from the Gaumont (originally New Picture House) Walsall. This was stripped down and completely overhauled before it replaced the Lansdown Organ in his music room where it was complete in time for Christmas 1955. The first ‘name’ organist to play it very soon afterwards being George Blackmore.

The success of the Walsall Wurlitzer made Allan long for a larger instrument and in April 1957 he sold the Model D to Beer Congregational Church in Devon where it remains to this day. To replace it he installed the 2 manual 9 rank Wurlitzer from the City Cinema Leicester. This organ received the same stripping down and overhaul in the hands of Ronald Guy Cleese, Allan’s Organ Builder. Very soon the organ became a centre of great interest from the Press, Television, and the BBC. The list of organists who played it was a ‘Who’s Who’ of theatre organ in that period including Reginald Dixon, Robin Richmond, Gerald Shaw, Hubert Selby, John Howlett, Trevor Willetts, Vic Hammett, Clifford Birchall, Robinson Cleaver, Arnold Loxam, and two local youngsters Trevor Bolshaw and Brian Sharp. Indeed Trevor and Brian became the virtual ‘Resident Organists’ at Dormston House playing the Organ for the very many functions which were held in the Music Room. The writer recalls playing for a Conservative Party fund raising dance after which a reporter from the Local Paper came up and said ‘Cor, that organ must have fantastic speakers!’ I then had to explain to him that it was, in fact, a pipe organ.

Of the Organists listed above the instrument was broadcast by Reginald Dixon, Robin Richmond, Gerald Shaw, Hubert Selby, Vic Hammett, Robinson Cleaver, Trevor Bolshaw and Brian Sharp. Trevor also featured it on an ATV Midlands television programme called ‘The Cinema Organ at Home’.

In the 1980s a third manual was added to the organ to control some classical ranks along with a string bass on the pedals. In this form it was featured and recorded by Brian Sharp. By this time I had moved from the Midlands to the South West and gradually lost touch with Allan and ‘goings on’ at Dormston House. As Allan got older he eventually decided to dispose of his beloved Wurlitzer and it was sold to the Isle of Man Government. The rest of the Story you all know.

I am delighted not only that the Organ has now got a new home in the Villa Marina Arcade but also that it has been restored by Len Rawle to its original two manual format. It has a great place in my affections as Allan gave me many of my early opportunities at Dormston House, including my first LP record (Contrasts in Theatre Organ) and I hope that at some time in the future I may be given an opportunity to renew acquaintance with it in its Arcade Venue.

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