The gallant police officer who lost his life in 'Canary Islands Explosion' which turned the sky red

On April 28, 1917, the sky above Church, in Accrington turned 'blood red', claiming the life of a heroic police constable.

PC James Hardacre was killed in a devastating explosion at the Cote Holme Chemical Company, a munitions factory that sat between the Leeds-Liverpool canal and Bridge Street. Four others were injured in the blast which saw humdreds of windows smashed at nearby properties.

PC Hardacre, a father-of-two, was later posthumously awarded the King's Police Medal for his gallantry on the night of the explosion, which came to be known as the Canary Islands Explosion. During the First World War strategic locations including munitions factories were guarded by the police.


Constables Hardacre and Herbert Bradbury were the night guards at the works on the fateful night. PC Bradbury later told an official inquiry into the blast that around 4.20am he was talking to fireman James heyes near the gate when they heard a fizzing sound, which sounded like a fire. On finding the drying rooms on fire, they instructed colleague John Barnes to raise the alarm while they went to get a hose.

As members of the Curch Fire Brigade gathered to tackle the blaze, the fire spread to other buildings within the factory. PC Hardacre ran into the burning building and removed one magazine of explosives, before returning for another. But as he bravely tried to contain the blaze, a second magazine blew up, casting yellow sulphur into the air.

PC Hardacre was later found under a collapsed wall inside the building. A third magazine of explosives had never detonated, as the officer had managed to close a store room door to prevent the blaze reaching it.

The force of the blast caused considerable damage to homes in nearby Canal Street and Bradley Street and Church Kirk was closed until the following August. Local people were evacuated to surrounding districts until the danger was over.

The blast also caused damage to four boats which were pulled by a tug along the nearby Leeds-Liverpool Canal. Cases of machinery belonging to Howard and Bullough's were also set on fire. In addition, the explosion was reported to have shattered the window of the Co-operative drapery store in Abbey Street, Accrington.

The heroic officer was killed by the blast and four others were injured. PC Bradbury was unable to return to work till July 2017, due to the injuries he sustained. A number of people in the town suffered injuries from flying glass but due to wartime secrecy, details of the explosion were not made public.

At an inquest into PC Hardacre's death, held on April 30, 1917, the jury praised the conduct of the two officers and concluded the officer died as a result of the explosion, while trying to put the fire out. They said the factory should not be rebuilt on the site, where two large craters remained.

The courage of the members of the Church Fire Brigade, who were called to deal with the incident, was also recognised when Superintendent Ware and firemen were awarded the OBE. The award was "for conspicuous courage and devotion to duty on the occasion of a fire at a chemical works". PC Herbert Bradbury, who was injured in the explosion, also received the King's Police Medal.

St John Ambulance, based in Rishton, produced a card with a poem written in tribute to PC Hardacre entitled 'The Noble Deed'. Written by Kate Leeming, the proceeds of its sale went to PC Hardacre's family.

PC Hardacre was born in Penwortham and was 34 at the time he died. He had joined Lancashire Constabulary in 1910, serving in Ulverston before his transfer to Church when he married. At the time of the tragedy, he lived with his wife and two young children at Talbot Street, Rishton.

His body was returned to Ulverston where his funeral took place on May 2, 1917. Had it not been for the officer's brave actions in removing explosives and securing the store room, it is likely there would have been other blasts and more loss of life.

Several members of the Accrington, Church and Oswaldtwistle Fire Brigades were awarded the OBE for their bravery and service on the night of the 'Canary Islands Explosion'. Both officers were commended with the King's Medal for gallantry.

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