It was lunchtime on a winter's day when one of New Zealand's worst tornados descended on the west of Hamilton and made an S-shaped path through the Waikato city, killing three people.

Houses were lifted and smashed, trees were uprooted and a trailer was seen flying.

The Hamilton twister of Wednesday, August 25, 1948, was New Zealand's the deadliest on record. Its death toll hasn't been surpassed, but was matched on December 6, 2012 by the tornado that killed three people in Hobsonville, West Auckland.

The Hamilton tornado came a day after one of the worst gales of the winter of 1948 had raged over a large area of the Tasman Sea.

Advertisement
Finance Minister Walter Nash (in black suit) visited Hamilton in the wake of the 1948 tornado. Photo / Joe Terry, Hamilton City Libraries
Finance Minister Walter Nash (in black suit) visited Hamilton in the wake of the 1948 tornado. Photo / Joe Terry, Hamilton City Libraries

It landed in Frankton at midday, ripping through houses and businesses, swung by Hamilton Lake and rose as it reached the CBD, before touching down again in Hamilton East and swinging south to dissipate on its way to Tamahere.

It tore up a path of destruction that at points was 180m wide, through both built-up areas and farmland.

In addition to the three fatalities, around 80 were injured, including a 5-month-old baby who suffered head injuries. More than 170 houses were damaged, including 78 seriously. Nineteen were wrecked beyond repair. Around 50 business premises were seriously affected.

Herald report on the tornado clean-up and repairs. Source: Herald archives
Herald report on the tornado clean-up and repairs. Source: Herald archives

"Everything was flying; bricks, roofing iron, fences, wire, tiles and great baulks of wood," a police sergeant told the Herald.

"I saw telegraph poles snapped off cleanly like carrots. The air was full of rubbish of all kinds. A light trailer, newly built by a man living 100 yards away from the police station was whirled past."

There is a report that one house was picked up by the ferocious, spiral storm, spun and dumped on the opposite site of its street. A mother and her two children who were in the house escaped injury.

Hamilton tornado casualty list, August 27, 1948. Source: Herald archives
Hamilton tornado casualty list, August 27, 1948. Source: Herald archives

The main area affected was on Kent St and part of Norton Rd, Frankton, according to Niwa, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

"Lake Road was seriously affected and every home on the Frankton station side of Keddell Street was totally destroyed."

Beatrice Kitchen, aged 67, of 78 Lake Rd, died in hospital of her injuries and her husband, Julius, who was 76, suffered lacerations to his wrist and abrasions on his face.

Their neighbour Mary Dillicar, aged 76, of 80A Lake Rd, was also killed by the twister, according to a Herald list of deaths and hospital admissions.

Today, Simon Lawrence lives on Lake Rd about 300m from number 80 and, until told by the Herald, was unaware of the area's fatal tornado.

"It's total news to me," he said. "I have never heard of it and I have lived here for 18 years."

The cost of the damage inflicted by the tornado was estimated to be more than one million pounds (around $74.5 million today).

Fatal tornadoes recorded in New Zealand
• Hamilton, August 25, 1948 - three dead
• Albany, Auckland, mid 1991 - one dead
• Waitara, August 15, 2004 - two dead
• Albany, May 3, 2011 - one dead
• Hobsonville, Auckland, December 6, 2012 - three dead.