The Devils in the Walls


The Journey begins

Turners Arts and Crafts 2008
Turners 2008

In the fifties, my family lived in the Railway Inn in Stockport town centre. A couple of years ago, my brother, John Nicholson, decided to pay a visit to 91 Wellington Road South to see what remained of the building. He discovered that the pub that we used to live in was now Turners, an arts and crafts shop.

John decided to go into the shop to have a word with the proprietor, Trisha. It turned out that as well as being passionate about art, Trisha was something of an expert in the field of industrial archaeology. My brother, being a rich source of first hand knowledge of the doings of the pub trade half a century ago, it was inevitable that they would get on like a house on fire. Trisha, with characteristic generosity, immediately offered to show him around the building.

John phoned me with news of his discovery, and to let me know that Trisha had offered to give us both a guided tour. Of course, I was keen as mustard to go and so the trip was arranged.

The first visit

The sepia photographs of the smoke filled bar were miles away from the Aladdin's cave that was present day Turners. Trisha was kind enough to give us complete freedom to explore, and number one on my list was our old living room. There was more to this interest than nostalgia. There was the small matter of the “Devils in the walls” to reckon with. But, more of that, later.

John and I went up the stairs to the first floor turning right into a room filled with arts materials... “Well, this is it!” said John. "Our upstairs lounge!" How could this space have been our living room?It seemed impossible that it could have held a sofa, a piano, a television, and a radiogram! “This is the room where the Devils were painted!”

Trisha was intrigued by John's memories and decided to do a little investigating. Careful removal of the wallpaper and blue distemper, revealed something completely unexpected. Not the “Devils” that John remembered, but a set of enigmatic and beautiful murals, and you can read more about the murals by clicking this link. No trace of the “Devils” has been found so far. We think that they have probably been destroyed by some nervous householder. It's worth remembering that the murals would probably never have been discovered had it not been for John's memories.

All that remains of the “Devils” is an account that was written several years ago before that visit to Turners by John. Here, in John's own words, is the story of the “Devils in the walls”.

Click Next Page below to read John's account.


In December 1954 my cosy post-Coronation world of childhood idylls was interrupted when we moved from my Grandmother’s homely council house in the coal mining and cotton-spinning town of Leigh. Situated on the flat Lancashire plain some twelve miles from Manchester, Leigh has few claims to fame, but one of its famous sons is the author James Hilton, who wrote the book “Lost Horizon” about the quest for the wondrous, mythical land of “Shangri- La”.  My father hailed our odyssey as a journey to a promised land, and our quest for this fabled new world occurred when I was aged eight and my sister Janet was a mere eight months. Our destination had assumed the mantle of Hilton’s novel, but in reality metamorphosed into the grim Victorian environs of the “Railway Inn” and its hinterland of slums in the grimy, industrial borough of Stockport.

It soon became clear that my new life in a public house would be in stark contrast to those early Leigh days which to me had symbolised  an era of quaint post-war ideals and romantic notions of family values. In their place was a world dominated by the demands of public life which undermined the earlier social side of our family unit and replaced lost relatives and friends with the Runyonesque characters who populated the pub environs.

The story opens on a dark winter evening three months into our public house tenure as I found myself alone in our darkened upstairs living room. I was now resigned to being on my own in the evenings and during other opening times, but on this night I was frightened and the stripped walls with their bizarre images filled my young and highly imaginative mind.

Britain then was an aeon away from the world of today and the “Railway Inn” an aeon from my previous world...

The Devils in the Walls

I sat alone in a half-light that radiated in flickering tongues of reddish shadow from the fireplace. The wall behind me had a dreadful fascination and I felt a constant nagging, but fearful, temptation to turn my head and look once more at the images that lay, half concealed, on the plaster face.

The coal fire was the main source of illumination, augmented by the feeble pinpoints of several lit candles, strategically positioned in various holders and ad hoc saucers on the mantelpiece and hearth. The rest of the room, our upstairs lounge, was dark. Because I had allowed the fire to dwindle and had then thrown on too much coal, the friendly flames had failed and the damp coals now smoked, crackled and hissed. Time passed in a gloomy twilight and the television, which would have produced light, images and human voices, lay silent, the blank, blackened screen sitting mute in the corner.

The failure in the electricity supply had occurred unexpectedly, in the mid-evening, over an hour before. The stark plunge into darkness and silence, as the lights and television abruptly died had alarmed me. I had felt a need for reassurance and above all contact with friendly faces. The shock of the descending darkness gave me an excuse to race downstairs to enter the normally forbidden (during opening time) smoky domain of the pub, the other half of our home. Being re-united with my parents, and away from the brooding solitary gloom of the lounge, and the frightful occupants of the walls, induced a feeling of euphoria. It was also novel to be close to the miscellany of mysterious (in my eyes) diverse characters who inhabited “The Railway Inn” during opening hours. Initially, I sensed that the novelty of the situation had induced something of a holiday mood and the power cut was being treated by the customers with stoic and resigned good humour, the pumps were, after all, hand operated and power failures were a common irritant in the fifties.

My illicit presence was notionally “legalized” by the anonymity of the darkness and I stood, ignored, behind the bar content to soak in the warm and friendly atmosphere of the vault room. Secretly I hoped that I would be permitted to remain, but I feared that my sojourn would be brief and inevitably a return upstairs to the lounge would soon be ordered. As normality and order began to be restored, I witnessed the actions that heralded this moment: I saw that candles were already being placed in ash trays and along the bar. Cigarette ends glowed and matches flared in the gloom.

The coal fire cast a ruddy hue underneath the dartboard as players continued a now artificially nocturnal game. I absorbed the detached voices that floated in the darkness and there was a boisterous flickering of conversation, guffaws of laughter and shouts of mock disasters. Shadowy shapes, moving to and fro, in the dark, were thrown into warm relief as a torch flashed over the walls and floor. There were the inevitable comedians, who are forever trying to elevate themselves into a position of prominence by playing to the crowd.

Inspired by the discreet anonymity of the dark, a shadowy image at the bar wailed dolefully to my mother Olive, “Get the lights on - I can’t see my pint!” To which his companion retorted, “Pull us a bitter too, I need a drink to steady my nerves!”

And so the banter, hubbub and jollity went on...

Somebody else was singing the old Vera Lynn stalwart “When The Lights Go On All Over The World.” Each little mundane sound gradually eased  the surge of disquiet that had jolted me when the darkness had fallen.
How jolly it had seemed. How I wished I could have remained, tucked quietly, in some corner, surrounded by warmth and noise and people. Many years later, the comments by those anonymous customers and the immense feeling of camaraderie, that pervaded the atmosphere, are among the most vivid recollections of my life.

Once the candlelight illumination was in operation and my presence was sure to be noticed, I had asked my parents could I please stay downstairs in the pub and had been told that I already knew the answer - children were forbidden in pubs! I had hoped that the emergency might have allowed for a dispensation to this rule. Abruptly, my earlier feeling of joy evaporated as I began to anticipate a return to the dark, isolated upstairs regions.

Soon, with me as a reluctant companion, my mother Olive had taken me back upstairs, down the black corridor, with its threatening attic door, and then entered into the funereal gloom of the living room. The fire was nearly out. It was down to a low, dull, ash base. Mother had first checked that my eight month old sister Janet was asleep in her room and had then tried to build up the nearly dead fire, but it would be some time before it could revive itself. She lit some candles, explained to me that the electric lights would soon return, had told me not to mess with the candles and had promised to return to see me in the near future. Mum was agitated; whereas the customers were treating the whole affair as a joke – it was clear to me that she had not enjoyed the experience of having to carry on as normal when the lights died. We had only been in the pub for around three weeks and this was her first experience of a cut in electricity. Eventually, after a final reassuring word she had retreated downstairs. It was Saturday and the pub was packed to capacity.

The radio in the far corner, next to the piano, was also mute, so I tried to look at an annual or a comic as a means of filling the time, but the light was too dim. I fretted for the light to explode and to drive out the shadows. Mostly, however, I longed for the company of other people - even the ones who populated the television - for the sound of voices, for human sounds to erase the silence that surrounded me and which filled the space between my back and the things that were on the walls. I knew that if I turned and looked at the wall, I would see them: The Devils.

It was disconcerting to contemplate turning to look, but worse to sit looking forward at the pages and the fire. No matter how many times I tried not to: my imagination still managed to conjure an image of them somehow detaching from that wall and moving up behind me. It was rather like lying in bed, safe under the blankets, but occasionally risking a quick peek into the darkness, just to make sure that nothing was there. Unfortunately, there were no covers to act as a safe haven and the space at my back could not be shielded.

The seconds dragged on and I for the umpteenth time I summoned up the courage to stand, turn and casually bring my eyes up to look at the walls: of course the demons were still there and naturally there was no discernible change in shape or position. They were after all only paintings. The firelight’s feeble glow softened their contours and diffused their harsh red and black colour. The walls, stripped of their wallpaper, acted as a contrast to the evil, grinning, skull-like faces with the horns of various sizes.

Even to my uninitiated eyes, it was clear that the dozen or so devils had been painted by an artist of some considerable skill. I sat down, poked the fire, inspected the candles, and thought of yesterday and the appearance of the demons. This seemed an awful long time ago...

The Attic

Just prior to my return from school on Friday evening, the decorator had made the removal of the old wallpaper his last job for the day. Gradually the devils painted underneath, on the bare walls, were revealed and my mother had been summoned. As I entered the lounge they were exchanging speculative reasons as to the raison d’être behind the bizarre figures. I had turned to look at the objects of their discussions and had gawped in amazement at the red and black painted demons that incredibly covered the side wall. Initially I experienced no sensation of fear – rather it was a feeling more akin to curiosity - but one must remember that at this time it was mid-afternoon and bright light was streaming in from two large windows. With me as an onlooker, various reasons were advanced for their existence by my Mother, who in a jocular manner, expostulated views ranging from secret devil worshippers to a deranged artist and so on. There was also talk of whether the local newspaper would be interested?

Whilst these musings and other discussions continued, I scanned the devils: there were perhaps a dozen horned heads, all painted in red. Most were human sized, but a few were larger, perhaps as big as a cow’s head.  Some had shoulders attached, the majority were heads that floated without torsos. All, except two, faced outward with both eyes centred on objects in the room. They had no hair on their skulls and whilst a few had beards, the majority had no facial hair. One was a profile with a black goatee beard. One faced into the wall with a back covered in black fur.

Such was the skill of the artist that the shading and texture of the paint made them look three dimensional. The eyes were contrasts of black and white. Some had eyes that appeared to pierce your own gaze. Some were cross eyed and one had no eyes. The eye sockets varied: some oval, others slits, the eyeless one like a pair of round holes.

As I continued to gaze at these macabre visions, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck begin to rise and it began to dawn on me that later that evening when my sister went to bed and my parents retired downstairs to tend the pub, I would be left alone with the devils for company. I didn’t relish this at all and a feeling of general misgiving started to surface. I asked if the devils would be painted over before the decorator left? The answer was “no” as this would affect the application of a new range of wallpaper. I also learned to my dismay that as tomorrow was Saturday, the contractor would not be returning until Monday! Would the paintings be covered up in the interim? “No”. This meant three nights alone with the devils.

As the decorator would not be working over the weekend, the furniture, stripped of protective sheets, was pushed back into place. The decorator left and life resumed a normal pattern for the day; but I anticipated my usual solitary evening with some apprehension.

Prior to my father opening for customers, he had viewed the demons with disdain and voiced his opinion that the artist was a bloody idiot, which perhaps had a fair ring of truth. His departure downstairs to the pub was usually my last sight of him for the day. Before Mother also joined him, we always shared some time together, as she got Jan ready for bed. Usually we would watch some mundane TV programme for half an hour or so and I would then receive my “rations”. These were necessary as the route to the kitchen, which was the only part of the “house” that was downstairs, would have been through a locked door, reached only via one of the pub rooms, with its complement of customers.

Armed therefore with a bottle of lemonade and a Wagon Wheel I settled down for the evening on my own. Whilst not exactly overjoyed at having the unwanted guests leering down from the wall, I nevertheless passed a normal night and was able to ignore the paintings. I studiously avoided looking at them, watched television, looked at some comics, played with my Plasticine modelling clay and went to bed extra early. Even though they looked scary, I remembered the dismissive manner in which they had been discussed. The general consensus was that they were silly paintings by a silly person.

I had no idea how the events of the next day were to shatter this relative peace of mind. 

Saturday started uneventfully with a special treat: a morning visit with Dad, to Stockport Indoor Market to buy second-hand comics, following a trip to the bank.

Then, in the afternoon, my father’s oldest brother George paid us a visit and naturally was told about, and went to look at, the paintings. I liked Uncle George: he had a marvellous sense of humour, told wonderful stories, often of a macabre nature, which appealed to a boy with my vivid imagination. In 1954 George would have been in his early forties and was a senior prison officer, stationed at Strangeways Gaol in Manchester. He had the physique of a bear, with fists like the proverbial hams. At just under 6 foot and weighing around 18 stone, he was the kind of adversary that villains took care not to cross. He was even tempered, highly intelligent, intellectually literate, kind and generous. He did however possess the aforementioned “black” streak of humour and I received a graphic example of it in operation that day.

As a corollary to the painting episode he and my father decided to go into the attic to see, presumably, if there was any more evidence of a bizarre nature. Dad had produced a torch and glad to be involved and share any activity with him, I asked and was allowed to accompany them. I had not been up in the attic previously; it had no lights of any sort, no windows and no skylight and was consequently (as ordered by mother) off limits. Apart from a somewhat hasty glance up the black stairs I had never been tempted to disobey the edict and to venture up on my own. I was, of course, naturally curious, excited and overjoyed to be sharing such an “adventure” with adults and I therefore had no particular feelings of apprehension as we prepared to venture into this new territory. From here everything started to go badly wrong.

The door to the attic was in the short, gloomy, ill lit corridor that led from the main “devil” infested living room, to the stairs that descended down to the pub. From the corridor, the bottom of the stairs (the pub entrance hall)  was not visible, as the stairs completed a dog’s leg, just prior to the corridor entering the upstairs house (i.e. non-pub) toilet. As the corridor had no windows and was lit by one feeble (bare) bulb  it had a permanently gloomy aspect. 

That corridor was thus the route I had to take to visit the toilet and to reach my own bedroom, which was to the left of the stairs. Each time I had to enter or leave the living room, I therefore had to pass the attic door. I had never considered opening the door and would have been happier if it had been locked, or boarded up or better still if it had not existed. Until then I had no reason to fear the attic, or anything that might be in it. I just felt that it was best to remain ignorant of it and tried to forget that the door was actually there.

The two adults unlatched the door - there was no key or lock- and as the stout wooded planks swung outward, they revealed bare, ascending stairs that steeply wound upward into the blackness. There was no electric light and the only illumination was the narrow beam cast by the torch and the feeble light that entered from the corridor. The walls that contained the stairs were narrow and filthy.

As the door reached full extension, a little more light entered the dark interior and George poked his head through the doorway, peered to the right and shone the torch upwards.

“It’s totally black, there’s no light at all up the stairs” said Uncle George in a soft voice, “let me go up first with the torch”. Then with a chuckle and a glance back at me he added mischievously, “after all we don’t want to disturb anybody do we?”

Immediately I felt a momentary stirring of excitement. “Do you think there might be somebody there?” I innocently replied, standing behind the two adults. “Let’s go and find out” said George.

He started to climb the stairs. I remember Dad saying, “There’s nothing of interest up there for you, you know, you’d be better staying down here” Nothing would have persuaded me to remain behind however: after all I was with the adults, and felt under divine protection. As Dad followed his brother, I brought up the rear and, after climbing the very steep stairs, I eventually reached the top. The torch was casting a spasmodic illumination as it was flashed around the interior.

The attic ran the length of the house and it was so black that the light from the downstairs door now looked comforting and bright. The low roof (I could stand, the adults had to stoop) apexed over walls with no windows. The roof had no skylight. The floor was strewn with old newspapers and small items of junk furniture and other detritus. A sooty, black residue made the floor filthy; indeed this thick dust covered everything.

George and my father started to poke around the sundry items that littered the attic and as I held the torch they directed the movement of the beam. When some empty packing cases were moved from the left end-wall there were exclamations of surprise at the discovery that this wall, which connected to the adjacent property (owned by Margolis - Furriers), had a tiny, closed wooden door about two foot high, which appeared to be just wide enough for someone to crawl through.

A similar search revealed that the door to the right (New Inn wall) also had a similar (just discernible) door, although this was blocked off by some heavy items of furniture, which were in turn adjacent to some full packing cases. These presented quite an obstacle.

The Margolis door was quickly cleared of  the empty packing cases and was soon  accessible. Squatting before this door Dad ventured, “It looks as if somebody could get in through these doors. I reckon that you could go along the whole length of all the attics.” He continued, “I wouldn’t fancy someone being able to sneak into the pub from up here!” He glanced significantly up at George.

George replied, “You are absolutely right John”, and then with a look at me, he continued to speak to my father in the dim light, “look, I’ll tell you what we’ll do: you open this one and young John and I’ll start to clear the other lot away and check it”.

Dad responded,  “Good idea, but as we’ve only got one torch, before you do that, let’s try to open this first one and see if there is any connection to next door, or whether it’s just a wall cavity on the other side. I’ve tried, but I can’t seem to budge it. Let’s see what we both can do.”

In seconds they were both in front of  the first door, which I illuminated. A closer examination revealed that there was no lock, handle or latch and the little, plain door obviously opened towards us. It was impossible, even with the combined efforts of Dad and Uncle George to elicit any movement as there was no feature upon which any form of grip could be made.

That door will definitely not open from this side, the handle must have been removed” said George. “Come on let’s try the other one”.

We all moved to the other obstructed door, which was just visible behind the wall of junk. It was clear that furniture and packing case had been arranged in such a way as to block entry to our attic, should the second door be opened and it took some time before the obstruction was shifted. This time it was clear that the door opened away from us. Although the door was featureless, closer examination showed the scarred area where there had once been a handle.

Dad put both palms to the door and started to push. Almost immediately there was a creak and the door slowly started to open. He said, “Feels like there’s something behind it”. He continued to exert full pressure and gradually was able to move the door so that it stood half ajar. It would move no further as the door bottom was now securely jammed against the floor. Absolute blackness showed from the cavity revealed.

“Pass me the torch, John,” he commanded. I obeyed and he put his head into the gap, holding the torch in one hand. Immediately he said, “can’t see a damn thing, just a bit of the side wall, I just can’t get my head around the door.” As he retracted his head he said, “John, get down here and see if you can get a look inside”. He proffered the torch.

I regarded the hole with suspicion and considerable apprehension. All sorts of thoughts scurried through my consciousness and I hesitated, before reluctantly placing myself in front of the black void. I swept away the worst of the floor deposits with a piece of card and holding the torch, in one hand, lay on my side and inched my face into the gap, followed by the rest of my arched body. As the torch flickered over the pitch black interior, I saw a confused mass of shapes, feebly lit by the weak rays from the torch. I recoiled and hurriedly backed out, still facing the hole on all fours. I turned my face to look at the two adults and shone the diffused and spreading beam upwards, towards them.

“ What’s there?” asked Dad. “Nothing”, I replied hastily – a little too hastily, I now realize.

It was then that George said,” We think he’s a bit scared.” This was said with a soft smile. I hurriedly retorted, “No I’m not, there’s nothing there.” It was then that George said it. It was only meant as a harmless jest, but the impact upon me was devastating. Still smiling he said softly, “Move away then, before the devils in the walls get you…”

Remembering the paintings on the downstairs wall, I turned to face the cavity and my mind conjured a sudden image of a red demonic face appearing in the void inches from my face, and a clawed hand, with scales, reaching out to grab me and pull me in.

I was so frightened that I hurled myself backwards and as the torch light constricted, the whole area became dark, except for a tiny bright circle where the beam projected a short distance to the floor.

It was then that George let out (in my mind) a horrible chuckle and scraped his fingernails down the wall!

I nearly screamed in sheer terror.

That was why, later that night, when the power cut left me in the darkness with the devils, my thoughts turned to the attic door and the hole in the wall. Though we had blocked both doors, I could still imagine a slowly widening crack appearing as a fiend entered the attic, to descend the stairs and join the legion, already in the room.

Eventually, the power cuts came to an end and the painter papered over the images, but all the time we were at “The Railway”, I never liked the living room, or the attic door, and I never went into the attic again. 

How did I come to be in such an intimidating environment?

My brother, John, has many more stories about life in our old pub. You can read some of them on this website. Please come back and read them in the future, and do please let us know if you have enjoyed them. We are considering compiling them into a book. Would you be interested in buying a copy?

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Copyright © Janet A Nicholson 2011 © John A Nicholson 2011