The Policeman Whose Sense of Smell Once Saved Many Lives

The story of the hero policeman who sniffed out trouble to save the lives of his neighbours

When the nose knows you’d better take notice; that was certainly the case for Police Constable Nick Shaw in the wee hours of the 9th of January, 1987. It was because of this policeman’s sense of smell and quick thinking that the worst ever disaster to befall a locale of Gloucestershire, UK, was narrowly avoided.

It had just gone 3 am and along Wickwar village’s long, wide thoroughfare, with its fine houses which line it, all was still save the prowling of a cat or two among the shadows cast by the street lighting.

And it was almost silent, as one would expect… save for an unusual hissing noise.

Another noise chimed in; the low growl of an engine as a car was driven up the street then around to the rear of one of the homes.

Having finished a late night game of backgammon Nick Shaw arrived back home and could feel the weight of his eyelids. He was now more than ready to slip into his warm bed.

Once through the back door he began to remove his coat yet something made him pause, ears pricked.

Shaw could detect a queer, muffled popping noise which he described later as the sound of “neighbours falling out of bed.”

Then a more alarming sensation hit him; the strong, unmistakable whiff of gas filled his nostrils. This was most strange, especially as his house was all-electric. Now wide awake the policeman went to investigate.

Opening his front door the stench of gas and a sound of hissing emanating from the road surface confirmed his worst fears. A gas mains ran under the length of Wickwar’s broad, main roadway and it had ruptured.

Now, gas was filling the street and could explode at any moment. Shaw stayed cool but the enormity of the situation hit him. He knew he had to act bloody fast.

He first rang 999 (911 in America) then raced up his stairs to rouse his young wife out of bed. Throwing a blanket over her shoulders he briskly sent her down the street to safety. Shaw knew he was in a desperate race against time to get his neighbours out of their homes before half the street went up in flames.

So, dashing from door to door Shaw woke his neighbours and they responded awfully well, with the kind of good humoured ‘keep calm and carry on’ spirit which has always served the British in times of emergency. Almost 40 villagers, without even time to change out of their night-clothes, were evacuated into the social club.

At 5.52am, just 30 minutes after everyone nearby was evacuated, came a massive blast which shook the village and was heard three miles away. It blew a crater in the road and great tongues of fire spewed upwards to the height of the bedroom windows.

PC Shaw’s very own home took the full brunt of the explosion, destroying it and everything he and his wife owned. 13 surrounding homes were also wrecked. Yet there were no serious casualties and, for that, PC Nick Shaw was hailed a hero by his grateful community.

In the aftermath the fracturing of the cast iron gas pipe was blamed on too many heavy goods vehicles passing over it.

Shaw is still revered in Wickwar, even today. He retired from the Police Force in 2013.

Compilation of news reports on the incident (

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