Malton's Wesley Centre gifted organ that Hull's blind virtuoso Alfred Hollins learned on

It is an instrument that was essential to developing the extraordinary musical ear of a Yorkshireman who, although born blind, is said to have been “the Elton John of his day”.

Paul Emberley at the Wesley Centre in Malton. Picture: Simon Hulme.
Paul Emberley at the Wesley Centre in Malton. Picture: Simon Hulme.

Alfred Hollins, born in Hull in 1865, learned to play on the Forster & Andrews pipe organ during his time at what was then called the Royal Normal College for the Blind in south London.

Created in 1877 and last restored in the early 1920s, a rebuild of the organ is now under way at Henry Willis & Sons in Liverpool to ensure it is saved for the nation for another 100 years – before being placed at the Wesley Centre in Malton.

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The move has now been backed by David Liddle, one of Britain’s most celebrated concert organists and composers, and Selina Scott, the broadcaster who lives nearby and has local ancestral connections.

Alfred Hollins. Picture submitted by the Wesley Centre.

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Restoring the organ is costing more than £226,000 in addition to the wider £1.9m refurbishment of the Grade II* listed Wesley Centre itself.

Paul Emberley, a trustee and development lead for the centre, who is also the Mayor of Malton, said: “It was the instrument on which the famed blind-from-birth Yorkshire man, organist and composer, Alfred Hollins first learned to play the organ, and on which he went on to teach other students – before becoming the global organ ‘superstar’ of his era, dubbed Alfred the Great.”

What made virtuoso Hollins so special was that he had to commit vast amounts of music to memory, said Mr Emberley.

An artist's impression of how the organ will look at the Wesley Centre. Picture: Wesley Centre.

He added: “Alfred Hollins was the Elton John of his day; he was a global superstar. We want this fine organ to be the centrepiece of the transformed Wesley Centre in Malton.

“As well as being the heart beat of a vibrant community in Malton, we’re partly re-purposing the Wesley Centre as a fine classical concert venue, and a place for the whole community to use; we expect that the reinstatement of such a magnificent instrument with such an outstanding provenance will also inspire young people to take up the organ.”

Mr Liddle, who is also blind, said: “One is keenly aware of the distinction and importance of this Forster & Andrews organ. It had pride of place in the concert hall at Royal Normal College, Norwood, and was played by many great musicians.

“Hollins was perhaps the most distinguished of the blind musicians who played it, but visiting guest performers included the Frenchman Alexandre Guilmant. It is marvellous to know that this historic instrument will be heard again and will have a new lease of life at the Wesley Centre in Malton.”

The Wesley Centre in Saville Street, Malton. Picture: Simon Hulme.

The organ was moved into safe storage during the Second World War and was eventually installed at Hailsham Parish Church, East Sussex, in 1955.

Mr Emberley, 68, said that by 2017 the church had no further use for the instrument, and gifted it to the Wesley Centre.

Its thousands of pipes and windchest are being fully restored for the first time since 1921, believes the Town Councillor, and it is due to be in place at Malton by early 2021.

He added: “In effect, this historic organ will be ‘coming home’ to Yorkshire.”

The Methodist church building will not only home the organ - hoping to become a ‘go-to’ classical music venue - but will be used by the community and for commercial events such as wedding receptions, conferences and exhibitions.

Mr Emberley said that the population of Malton is expanding and the centre could provide people with its facilities.

Ms Scott's grandfather was once a preacher at the building.

Although around 60 per cent of funding for the organ restoration is accounted for, the centre is appealing for donations to help it meet the full amount needed.

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